Texas State Researcher joins Austin’s Smart City Team & Governor’s Innovation Task Force during COVID-19
A lecturer in computer science at Texas State University, Ted Lehr is also a Data Architect for The City of Austin. As a member of Austin’s Smart City Team, he has been advising on technology, business partnerships, and the use of data for better services; suggesting data-driven strategies to ease traffic congestion; helping disadvantaged residents find affordable housing, and making Austin’s city government more open and inclusive.
But the COVID-19 crisis forced Lehr and his Smart City Team colleagues to make a sharp pivot to find ways technology could help with mitigating the contagion.
“I was recruited to be part of the Governor's Innovation Task Force, which was asked to explore innovative ways to plug the shortfalls the State of Texas expected in securing PPE (personal protection equipment),” Lehr said. “For the City of Austin, I evaluated third party solutions for COVID-19 testing and tracing. I connected the third parties with resources that could use their solutions.”
For example, he reached out to Texas State to see if the university could use its 3D-printing equipment to produce parts for protective gear. Per his request, the university’s 3D printers are making medical-grade swabs to be used for COVID-19 testing.
“Two weeks earlier, I was going about my work as I had for months, and then I was asked to assist on the task force,” Lehr said. “The task force consists of mostly military and or state health professionals but includes a few private sector and municipal members. It was valuable in getting many ideas collected in one place -- a sort of marketplace of diverse ideas -- and then the most immediately relevant were prioritized and acted on. The task force was very congenial and team-oriented.”
With a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon-University, Lehr facilitates or participates in several university-industry-city research collaborations.
“I have very good connections with university researchers around the nation,” Lehr said. “These connections allowed me to bring their expertise to the attention of health, finance, and other professionals in the City of Austin. Much of my work focuses on connecting people as much as technology.”
As part of the governor’s task force, Lehr said his primary challenge has been figuring out ways to leverage third party, non-City of Austin technology efforts to address the community’s response to COVID-19.
“The problems were solved in simple ways: cold calling possible third parties and exploring whether and how they were responding to COVID-19, and then evaluating whether their work or our work, as well as the value to the community, could be improved if we collaborated,” Lehr said.
With the state re-opening, Lehr said his focus has returned to longer-term research collaborations, but with an awareness of how COVID-19 has changed the business, work, education, and social landscape.
“My role in the governor’s task force is less time-critical at this moment, mostly because communities are re-opening in the hope that we have the capacity to test and treat new victims,” Lehr said. “If that turns out to have been optimistic, I suspect I will be asked to assist in other technology-related ways, including bringing in other forms of contact tracing than what Austin is currently using.”
Unlike China and South Korea, where governments have broad control, contact tracing is likely to be controversial in the United States with its emphasis on individual freedoms over centralized authority. For example, people probably will be asked to “opt-in” by installing apps on their phones that can track their contacts with others, Lehr said, but it’s unlikely the government will make it mandatory.
“Part of the COVID-19 response is a 'get back to normal' mission as well as an economic restart,” Lehr said. “I am returning to work that has both long-term community impacts for health and welfare as well as the potential to drive large investments into Austin for economic re-growth.”