LOWVILLE — A man passionate about technology and making a difference in the world was inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic to use his tech superpowers for the greater good both locally and beyond.
Tom Monks, born, raised and living in Lyons Falls with his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters Riley, 9, and Avery, 7, volunteered to be furloughed last month from his job as a computer programmer for the Lewis County Health System.
He said he took the unpaid leave to help protect two of his family members with health issues that could make them more susceptible to COVID-19. As it has played out, however, the furlough has had two big bonuses: spending more time with his family and having more time to dedicate to passion projects like the COVID Accelerator.
“When the whole pandemic hit, I started looking around for tech projects online that I could contribute to,” Mr. Monks said. “It’s just something I’m really interested in — using technology for good, working on projects that have a real social impact.”
Surfing around online eventually brought him to the COVID Accelerator website, with its “community of people building solutions to COVID-19... working on projects from front-line mental health to solving emerging food waste issues.”
He liked their approach as a start-up incubator for COVID-related projects and joined his first meeting in early April, about a month after the group began on March 5.
“It’s not necessarily about starting a new business, but to develop solutions,” Mr. Monks said. “The majority of the projects aren’t aiming to be profitable, they’re for a good cause.”
More than 1,000 members with a multitude of backgrounds and expertise from every curve of the earth — Australia to Zimbabwe, Canada to Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, across Europe and all over the United States — hatch ideas and collaborate on manifesting them into reality to help people manage or confront situations resulting from the pandemic.
While prospective members have to “apply” by filling out an online application, Mr. Monks said that’s more of a formality because every skill set is welcome and useful to the group.
“Anyone who is passionate and willing to jump in and commit to helping will find a place, find something to work on to make a difference,” he said.
When a member comes up with an idea, they can connect with other group members who have backgrounds needed to get the project off the ground or to take it to the next level. Meetings are held using chat rooms, or channels, for people with common specialities using the online platform, Slack.
“Anyone can go in and ask questions or get volunteers to help with the product,” said Mr. Monks. “It’s a good way to get to know people that you wouldn’t otherwise run into.”
In the first online meeting he attended at the Accelerator, one of the founding members asked for someone who could help automate processes like getting new members on board and new projects set up. Mr. Monks not only had the skills, but enjoys doing it, so he volunteered.
“After awhile I helped out enough that they asked me if I wanted to be recognized as part of the team and be added to the members on the website.”
He continues to work on the Accelerator itself to automate as much as possible and integrate various tools to give team members more time to work on projects, but in the past few weeks, Mr. Monks has also brought a local project to the Accelerator and put his skills to use setting up GoFundMe and Facebook pages to get it started.
The Farm to Community project, which connects farmers and producers who have lost their markets with people who can’t necessarily afford high-quality food, has now attracted five Accelerator members to help “take this idea that’s working pretty well here in Lewis County and make it much bigger and help spread it to other regions in the area.”
Outside of the Accelerator, Mr. Monks is also working with Erik Ries, author of “Lean Startup,” on a San Francisco-based project that uses donated money to pay restaurants to provide meals to people that text into their system. The project pairs the people with a restaurant that can provide their family a meal.
That project currently provides meals to 500 people a day, but it’s done manually. With his automation skills, Mr. Monks hopes to help them feed many more.
“I just love the idea of using the power of technology to scale solutions and helping more people than we ever could without it. That’s just really inspiring to me. It’s just really an amazing thing to be involved in,” he said.
While working at the hospital, Mr. Monks realized the projects he enjoyed the most involved using technology to solve little problems, making big impacts.
That led him to seek out the Syracuse Code for America Brigade, a network of 85 “brigades” nationwide that work with local governments and organizations to create tools addressing issues. Currently, the focus issues include creating tools for court notifications, rapid response, voting rights and pathways to record clearance.
He said there are also a number of people in Syracuse working on projects through the Accelerator on COVID-related projects.
Being part of the COVID Accelerator has been empowering for Mr. Monks in the midst of a situation that had been making him feel helpless.
“I feel like this has been a good outlet for a lot of people. I got involved in it pretty early on, so this has given me a positive outlet, a way I can help make a difference that’s bigger than me or even just my community,” Mr. Monks said.
He said a person doesn’t necessarily have to be extremely tech savvy or even have a ground-breaking idea of their own to contribute to the group and become part of a movement to confront COVID-19-related needs and issues one small project at a time.
“If anybody is stuck at home and feeling powerless and looking for a way to help and make a difference, I would really recommend something like COVID Accelerator. There’s room there for pretty much anybody from any background to get in and make a difference.”
For more information about the COVID Accelerator, go to https://www.covidaccelerator.com/.