The City of Rotterdam Digitizes Citizen Experiences to Deliver Relief

Much of the globe, the Netherlands included, is under lockdown to combat the COVID-19 crisis. More than 600,000 citizens of the City of Rotterdam are adjusting to a new normal. The City’s low code development team is hard at work delivering technology that helps people find urgent assistance and provides health authorities clean, actionable data to flatten the curve of viral transmission.

Erik van der Steen, RAD (Rapid App Development) Coordinator in the Software Development department, leads a team of implementation partners and development experts who create custom applications for the City’s services and constituents. Over two years, the team has delivered over 40 applications, collaborating with internal parties like social services and public safety. With the onset of the COVID crisis, however, the team’s expertise has quickly pivoted toward two urgent priorities.

Supporting the Self-employed

For months, the team and a local implementation partner, Intermediad, had been hard at work digitizing a complicated, manual process used by entrepreneurs and the self-employed. The Regional Bureau for Self-employed People (abbreviated RBZ in Dutch), a part of the City’s Work and Income department, exists to support local entrepreneurship, providing funding and advice to ensure a thriving local business community. Van der Steen explained how frustrating the process of applying for benefits used to be: “The self-employed would have to download a form, fill it out, then scan it, delivering proof of income and need, and then mail or email these forms to the team.”

The COVID pandemic has hit small business owners and the self-employed hard. RBZ was suddenly saddled with the critical task of supporting Rotterdam’s entrepreneurs with cash payments to weather the crisis, and turned to van der Steen’s team to quickly update and bring to market the new digitized application process, “as soon as we heard there might be a special benefit, we started working on what we already had in house.”

The application, named RBZ Portal, digitizes the end-to-end process of applying for financial assistance. Integrated with the Netherlands’ national identification program, the application verifies the applicant’s identity and autofills the application with existing data, like where they live and work. The applicant then applies for relevant services, including documents like tax forms and commercial leases to prove their eligibility. Upon completion, the request is verified by the RBZ team and ultimately, benefits are disbursed to the applicant.

The RAD team worked at impressive speed, van der Steen said, “we decided not to wait until everything was clear, and just started building. When it became clear what functionality and data would be needed, we just implemented them. We were ahead [of the central government] in making this process into an app.” Working at unprecedented and urgency, the team released the first version of the application to the public in just under two weeks.

The team has been iterating and deploying new versions of RBZ Portal in as few as three days as new guidance arrives, and the significant uptick in requests for financial assistance are being handled deftly. “Before the app got live, we already received about 5,000 requests by paper and e-mail. We’ve already gotten 20,000 requests by now and the app has been live for a week,” said van der Steen. “Because we already knew their process, because they knew Intermediad could deliver fast, and because they had trust we could do this for them, we were their natural ally to come to. They knew who we were and what we could do.”

Supporting the Municipal Health Service

Key to combatting the spread of the virus is the challenging work of recording and tracking patients, the results of their tests, and their path through the healthcare system. The Infectious Diseases team at Rotterdam’s Municipal Health Service (abbreviated GGD in Dutch) was tasked with this process.

In the case of its normal work, GGD uses off-the-shelf software to register symptoms, positive or negative tests results, and the course of treatment. The team quickly found that with new characteristics of COVID being discovered daily, their software did not provide enough data fields to capture new information, nor was it flexible enough to add these fields in an acceptable timeline. GGD began using an Excel spreadsheet that they could customize to register patients, symptoms, tests, and the destination of patients, whether hospitalized or sent home to quarantine.

Required to report their results regularly, GGD sent this Excel spreadsheet to the City of Rotterdam’s Business Intelligence team to determine the number of infected and mortality rates. They quickly found, however, that with missing and inconsistent data, and myriad errors in the report, it would be extraordinarily difficult to produce an accurate report. With the shortcomings of using Excel clear, Business Intelligence approached van der Steen’s team.

Armando Jacobus — an experienced developer from one of the City’s implementation partners, JAM-IT — got to work together with Edgar Kooren, an internal developer. The two had the data entry screen built and ready for review the very same evening they received the spreadsheet. After 120 hours of total work between Jacobus and Kooren, and with the Business Intelligence team serving as an intermediary with GGD, 80% of the functionality was completed and the application was released. van der Steen said, “When people started to be sent home from work, we knew an app would be needed.” He continued, “Nine days later, the first version was released, and we do sometimes more than once-a-day iterations and deployments to add more fields and more reports.”

The results are visible and impactful. “The mayor sees these figures and gave his compliments on the fact that we made this so fast,” said van der Steen.

The GGD, busy as they are, have expressed their satisfaction with the accuracy of the data, and ultimately, the central government counts on municipalities providing reliable data to support the Netherland’s strategy to defeat the virus, a fact not lost on the team. Van der Steen reflects on the impact of this new application: “The numbers are more trustworthy now. They are faster. They are more consistent. They are graphically presented. It enhances the confidence of the people who are dealing with this crisis in what they are doing and recording. The doctors responsible for all these patients [initially] didn’t know how many were infected or where they were, so having this makes them more confident and makes it easier for them to do their work.”

With success in-hand, Rotterdam, having cracked the code on effective symptom, patient, and treatment tracking, has begun educating other municipal health services on how they got it done.

Being Part of the Solution

While their work is far from over, van der Steen and his team are glad their work is having a positive impact on their city and its citizens. “This agile/SCRUM work fits two purposes. I can help my colleagues with digitizing their processes, which is usually very rewarding, but as a result of it – we help the people of Rotterdam, we make their life a little bit easier.”

Building applications is what this team would be doing at any job, it’s what they know how to do and a skill at which they excel. But their work is going beyond building good software quickly – what they’re doing now is having a significant, real-time impact on their community. The City is the perfect place for each of them to work. “For a lot of my colleagues and me, this is why we work for the government. In this crisis, we’re doing extra effort that means something to people.”