As coronavirus ravages communities, grassroots innovators step up to help

Our leaders must understand their limitations and look for ways to empower grassroots innovators.

As coronavirus ravages communities, grassroots innovators step up to help

Even in normal times, when the economy is robust and the threat of a pandemic is distant, more than 14 million American households experience food security at least once a year.

With the spread of the coronavirus, the number of Americans struggling to feed their families has skyrocketed. A report by Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, estimates that COVID-19 could throw an additional 17.1 million people into food insecurity.

Government agencies and nonprofit organizations have scrambled to help. But the need — and the gap in services — remains enormous. Ultimately, to get through this unprecedented crisis, it's crucial that ordinary Americans step up to help their neighbors.

And, with assistance from new technology, many already are.

Take, for example, Nile Dixon, a 22-year-old African American in Houston. Dixon developed a chat bot to help neighbors in need find food pantries that are open during the pandemic.

Dixon's “Food Pantry Bot” responds with pantries' addresses and hours of operations when users text “FOOD.” Dixon developed the app to respond in six languages, and more than half of the initial 10,000 inquiries were in Spanish.

People wait in line as members of the US Army National Guard hand out food and other essentials for people in need at a food pantry in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on May 13, 2020.

In the first month the app was available, more than 6,200 users relied on it to find food.

Demand for food aid has surged

The Houston Food Bank, America’s largest, has helped to promote the bot as it prepares for an estimated 130 to 150 percent increase in demand for assistance this year because of the pandemic.

It's not the first time Dixon has used his coding skills to help his community. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey ravaged his city, Dixon built a chat bot that more than 4,500 people used to find shelter from the storm and its aftermath.

Nile Dixon developed a chat bot to help people in Houston find food pantries during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID 19 crisis didn’t cause (food insecurity) as much as reveal pre-existing problems of unequal access to resources,” Dixon said.

And food insecurity is only one challenge. The pandemic has aggravated problems such as unequal access to health care, education and technology in the United States and other nations, often with deadly consequences.

Small solutions can make a difference

Big, structural changes in our economy and society are needed, but in the interim, grassroots innovators like Dixon are finding smaller-scale solutions on their own.

In Missouri, former Secretary of State Robin Carnahan turned to volunteer coders to assist state and local governments coordinate pandemic response. More than 3,500 people stepped up to help.

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In Massachusetts, Kevin Rutherford used his time in quarantine to administer the Coronavirus Tech Handbook Facebook group. The group, organized by London-based Newspeak House college, consists of 6,000 people across the world who share what their communities are doing to fight the virus and brainstorm new responses.

"Civic tech,” as Foreign Affairs recently reported, is credited with the world’s greatest success story in the war on COVID-19: Taiwan.

It was the cumulative effect of dozens of community-created apps that supported the Taiwanese government’s response to the virus and helped the nation avoid the blunders and draconian responses witnessed in the United States and China.

Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America" that in the United States, “When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it. When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes . . . the mother science; everyone studies it and applies.”

Our leaders must understand their limitations and look for ways to empower grassroots innovators. This crisis presents complex challenges that no person, agency or policy can manage alone.

It is the cumulative effect of individual efforts — by Dixon and others like him — that will ensure we prevail in the fight against COVID-19.

Alexandra Hudson is a 2019 Novak Fellow and a Young Voices contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @LexiOHudson


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