In early 2021, as New York State government leaders continued to fight the spread of COVID-19, they began to turn their attention to safely reopening the economy. The state’s Division of the Budget (DOB), which advises the governor on matters that affect the financial health of the state, collaborated with the Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) to explore how digital technologies could help accelerate reopening the economy without compromising public health.
In less than two months, ITS developed a blockchain-based digital vaccine credential—the first of its kind in the United States—which has, as of this writing, issued more than 11 million credentials.1 Known as Excelsior Pass, the credentialing app helped jumpstart the economy by enabling citizens to safely get back to doing the things they loved, such as accessing theaters, stadiums, wedding venues, and other public spaces. It works like a mobile airline boarding pass, allowing New Yorkers to securely share and verify negative COVID-19 test results and vaccination records without sharing other personal health data. Users can store it on a mobile phone in the native Excelsior Pass Wallet app or print a paper copy. The pass contains a secure QR code that businesses and venues can scan using a companion mobile app.
Developing such a complex project so quickly requires a close relationship between IT and the budget office. Fortunately, the DOB and ITS teams had worked together on high-stakes crunch projects in the past, such as an emergency asset application tracker that they developed and deployed over a single weekend. Sandra Beattie, the state’s first deputy budget director, and Rajiv Rao, the New York ITS chief technology officer and executive deputy chief information officer, worked quickly to marshal resources and tap into expertise from internal agencies such as the US Department of Health. “Working with health data added another layer of challenge,” Rao says. “We had to protect sensitive health information in compliance with HIPAA2 privacy standards.”3
The teams also worked with a wide variety of external stakeholders, from major entertainment and sports venues and large real estate operators to schools and businesses. To ensure interoperability with other potential identification systems, they sought input from airlines and other government entities that were developing or evaluating similar credentials. “Up to that point, most of the work in this area had been done by airlines and other countries to make travel easier,” Beattie explains. “We were developing our use cases on the fly based on what segments of the economy were going to open first. For example, how would it work for going to a Yankees game compared to a wedding or a restaurant?”4
The pandemic put New Yorkers in the same crisis mentality that they experienced during 9/11, where everyone was aligned to the same mission. “We had to collectively figure out how to remove any roadblocks that might keep us from meeting the business need,” says Rao. “We didn’t know exactly what we were building, but we knew we all had the same goal of opening the economy back up as soon as possible.”
Trust was critical, not only between DOB and ITS but also between the state and its citizens. “We centered on the belief that the citizens owned their data and transactions, and that our responsibility was to maintain the privacy and security of that data,” Beattie explains. “Citizens had such a positive response to the app because we built something that was for New Yorkers by New Yorkers.”
Excelsior Pass and the New York State digital wallet in which it sits have made a lasting impact on how the state is thinking about technology, innovation, and digital government. DOB and ITS are now exploring how it might be used to verify other types of citizen records and credentials. “We intentionally didn’t brand it as a health pass because we didn’t want to limit its use,” Rao explains. “Instead, we created a platform that could potentially help with digitisation of multiple state services and evolve into a one-stop shop for citizens.”
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