Are you baffled or overwhelmed by the wide range of government programs and supports that have been rolled out to support people, businesses, and organizations impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
If so, you aren’t alone, but an initiative sparked by a Thompson Rivers University (TRU) law student aims to make the situation easier to navigate. COVAID — a blog and group of apps — is now available to help people easily identify what assistance is available related to COVID-19 in a wide variety of areas, and find out whether or not they qualify. The apps are topic specific, and are written in simple, easy to understand language.
The inspiration for the initiative came from a TRU law student who had a family member laid off due to COVID-19. The experience inspired the student to create a spreadsheet of government programs that were available, and he shared it on Facebook, where Katie Sykes, associate professor in the TRU Faculty of Law, saw it.
The first step in creating an app is drafting a spreadsheet, and Sykes — who teaches an app-making class — saw that it could be the basis for a digital resource that could simplify information and provide answers for people who might otherwise slip through the cracks.
Brian Lamb from TRU Learning Technology helped with some of the logistics, and a team of 15 students and alumni jumped in with enthusiasm. They collaborated with the legal technology company Neota Logic, a company Sykes has worked with on a course that trains students to build law apps.
The result was COVAID, a blog and app that uses simple language and asks for no private information, and directs users to the services that best suit their needs. Specific topics are being broken down, such as eligibility for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit and mortgage deferral, with more topics in the works.
COVAID can be found at https://c19help.trubox.ca/, works on any digital device, and is updated as more topics are researched and completed. Anyone who can access the site can also email the team for help at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s exciting and meaningful,” says Sykes, who notes that it’s been estimated that three per cent of people who are eligible for CERB won’t apply because they don’t think they’ll qualify. “It’s been a bit of a lifeline. We feel like we’re doing something constructive.”
For TRU Law student Sarah Ewart, working on COVAID gave her a sense of purpose at a challenging time.
“In the first two weeks when school was closed down, I was having a really hard time concentrating on anything,” she says. COVAID changed that.
“I felt motivated. It was something to put time and energy into that had a purpose to it. It helped me to concentrate more on my other school stuff. It was something positive to do in this really negative scary time.”
Ewart contributed to researching resources, as well as social media and web design. She says there are plans to translate COVAID into other languages and add more detailed topics, such as the rental assistance program and Employment Insurance.
“We’re going to take on as much as we can, and we’re not going to stop just because school ends,” she says. “I’m going to continue working on it as long as people need help.”
Ewart’s partner, TRU Law alumnus Dave Barroqueiro, had worked on legal apps during his studies at TRU. He stepped in along with another TRU graduate, Cameron Johnson, to get the app up as quickly as possible.
“This is a difficult and confusing time for so many people,” says Barroqueiro. “I had the benefit of experience in legal expert systems, both during my time at TRU Law and afterwards, so when I became aware of the project, I didn’t hesitate to jump in to lend a hand.
“TRU Law’s students have always been a collegial bunch; you can leave the school, but it doesn’t really ever leave you.”
The look and feel of the app, and its user-friendly language, were mainly designed by law student Marina Landry, who became involved because she was familiar with the software and wanted to get clear information to people about programs and benefits that could help them.
“This was an incredible access to justice initiative by TRU Faculty of Law that I wanted to participate in before I graduated this year,” she says.
“It’s important to note that we do not provide any legal advice or collect any personal information from the users. What we do is research all the information relevant to a particular government program or a benefit, then guide the user to finding out whether they qualify for that money by asking them relevant questions about their situation.”
Sykes has been impressed by the tenacity and commitment shown by the whole team, particularly the students.
“It really is a testament to the community spirit of the TRU students,” she says.
“They have initiative, they care about the community, they’ll pick something up and run with it and build things that help the community, and it’s really impressive to see that.”