Preparing Austin for the threat of COVID-19

Last week, Austin Tech Alliance hosted a “town hall” ideation gathering to discuss the threat of coronavirus during the upcoming SXSW Conference and Festivals and beyond. Members of the innovation community from healthcare, technology, and public policy came together to share their expertise and identify best practices and proactive measures that the Austin community can take to protect and prepare the city from the threat of COVID-19.

After hearing from professionals about the state of the virus and what processes and procedures public officials were planning to implement to control it, members of the community voiced their concerns and participated in a Voltage Control led session to workshop their fears. Note: during the session the group stopped to watch the live broadcast of Mayor Steve Adler announcing the cancellation of SXSW. Although SXSW was cancelled, the Hack Coronavirus event was used to address the threat of the virus in every day life as well as preparing for future events in Austin.

We’ve recapped the event below:

State of the Virus Address

The event was moderated by Evan Smith, CEO and Co-founder of the Texas Tribune. First, Rep. and Health Educator Donna Howard of the House Appropriations Committee spoke about the importance of establishing turnaround efforts so that the city can respond more promptly and effectively when the community is in need.

Then, Courtney Toretto delivered a statement for Congressman Lloyd Doggett, stating, “Community spread may be extensive, and disruption of everyday life may be severe.” He went on to explain that administration failures in Washington to properly handle the outbreak of coronavirus does not mean that we can isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. He advocated for initiatives to be made to allow people to get tested without cost and shared a few preventative measures for citizens to protect themselves, including adequately washing their hands and preparing for potential isolation.

Mayor Steve Adler then assured all attendees that administration is assessing daily risks of mass events, like SXSW, University of Texas’ new student orientation, the rodeo, etc., and how they will affect the Austin community. While the possible cancelling or altering of mass events such as SXSW will have significant economic impacts, he said, the only voice present at the table in the public health conversation is that of medical professionals.

“The only question is: what do we need to do in order to keep the people that live here the safest?” -Mayor Adler

He also iterated that the Public Health Officer and the Public Health Director carefully chose a panel of the top infectious disease specialists to answer this central question, and it was decided that what they say and recommend is what the city is going to do.

Panel: State of the Virus

Shakeel Rashed, Director, Accelerator of Capital Factory, moderated a panel discussion of three health professionals who explained the nature of the virus and its symptoms (debunking fake news), preventative measures for people to take to protect themselves, as well as the processes and procedures the medical community is taking to contain the situation. The panel included: Dr. Elizabeth Douglass, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Dell Medical Center, Dr. Spencer Fox, a Data Scientist at Yonder, and Nicholas Yagoda, Associate Chief Medical Officer at CommUnityCare.

The panel informed the room that it is important for the public and administration not to panic, and instead plan with Austin Public Health to create protocols and processes to best protect the city. Coronavirus, they said, isn’t new to us, but its rapid spread is. Therefore, it is imperative that we act with common sense and caution by educating human behavior–informing people with accurate information about the virus and how to properly avoid and deal with it instead of acting from fear.

Voltage Control Session

Douglas Ferguson leads attendees through a session to address and workshop their fears.
Douglas Ferguson leads attendees through a session to address and workshop their fears.

Voltage Control’s President Douglas Ferguson and Chief Product Officer John Fitch led a workshop that addressed and investigated the group’s worries about coronavirus. They felt it was critical to confront the emotional- and fear-based boundaries that influence or stifle behaviors during this time.

“The thought of using our tools to help the community mitigate a serious threat to our wellbeing and happiness spoke to me deeply.” -Douglas Ferguson

They invited the community to explore what frightened them the most about coronavirus to expose their fears and surface their deepest concerns. They used improv prototyping to improve various risky or critical encounters as it relates to public events.

Through several rounds of possible real-life scenario prompts–like what to do if someone sneezes on you in public or how to effectively communicate with someone who appears to have symptoms and wants to attend an event–participants were able to test and observe behaviors that served them well and others that did not serve them well.

This method allowed participants to move past the audible instructions to see and feel, enabling them to internalize the behaviors they need to mimic in daily life in order to combat their fears. Douglas and John felt it was critical for the group to consider and practice potential behavior changes if they expect to change them for a more positive, fear-free outcome.

After exploring these feelings and encounters, the session closed with everyone promising their biggest and boldest ideas and concepts for solutions. These ideas were given to the Hackathon for consideration.


For two days after the Ideation event, Experience Director at Mutual Mobile, Jessica Lowry, led a free Hackathon, bringing the tech community together with Mutual Mobile and Capital Factory to develop an intelligent way to detect the risk of exposure to coronavirus. Although SXSW was cancelled, the Hackathon was used as an opportunity to solve the wicked problem of how to help ensure Austinites and out-of-town visitors stay safe and informed about COVID-19.

A team of ten people of diverse backgrounds and skillsets focused on how to help inform the homeless about the virus through more accessible and contextual information tailored to their needs. According to Jessica, the best idea was to create toolkits that could be distributed at public libraries and public bus stations. The process would operate like Meals on Wheels, but with the addition of partner locations, like libraries. A user would go to the responsive webpage or physical location and either access instructions to build a kit or pick up a donated kit depending on their needs.

“I’m very proud of our small, but mighty, Hackathon team.” -Jessica Lowry

Hackathon group team leader Merida Elizondo shared her experience of the event:

“Even with SXSW canceled, chances are COVID-19 will touch our community. Jess at Mutual Mobile helped facilitate our early design thinking session and pointed out that since we were not working within the confines of solving for SXSW, we could shift our focus. Narrowing our scope was a big part of the challenge. With two days and a prompt that fed into the broader issues we face as a community, we hoped to create a resource hub that would be scalable… It was a whirlwind weekend filled with purpose and design that I hope will have an impact on how our community faces COVID-19.”

The Coronavirus Ideation event successfully informed attendees about the state of coronavirus and the efforts city and public health officials are taking to protect and prepare Austin for it. Community members’ concerns were also heard and workshopped with the help of Voltage Control, and the session encouraged effective behavior to navigate the virus’ threat, now and in the future. The Hackathon then produced innovation solutions to address the concerns of coronavirus in the Austin homeless population, further creating opportunities to help the community.

Executive Director of Austin Tech Alliance, Sarah Ortiz Fields, expressed the imperative value of hosting the event and bringing the public together:

“It’s important for us to invite the community, health care professionals, technologists and government officials to participate and create solutions that can inform and educate the public. Austin can be a best-in-class city by stepping up to help other conferences and cities around the world learn from our experience.”