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This little-known program has played a central role in the U.S. government's coronavirus response

U.S. Digital Service works to combat COVID-19
Inside the little-known program at the center of the U.S. coronavirus response 04:28

A little-known federal program started under President Obama has played a central role in the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Digital Service has embedded technology experts throughout federal agencies, and they have been responsible for some of the country's most valuable data. 

Throughout the pandemic, the USDS has been aiding the White House coronavirus task force in providing crucial statistics to top officials setting policy. 

"Often times, that data is derived from or ever prepared by the U.S. Digital Service," USDS Administrator Matt Cutts told CBS News' Major Garrett. "We've got folks slotted in at all kinds of places from the VA to CMS, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services."

Cutts leads a team of software and data specialists who track everything from infection rates to face masks. 

"It might be everything from figuring out how we can enable remote work… to trying to help with procurement," he said, adding that one USDS worker who was at the CDC during the Ebola crisis was currently working on data to help understand hospital bed capacity before the pandemic's peak. 

The agency was founded as a solution to the Obamacare website's repeat system crashes. Though President Trump has taken issue with many things his predecessor put into action, his administration has been leaning heavily on the program. 

"I view us as nonpartisan," Cutts said. "And our mission is pretty simple: try to do the most good for the most people who need it the most — and we're bringing technology to bear to help that happen."

Cutts had been one of Google's first 100 employees before joining USDS for a three-to-six month stint, and wound up staying for four years. He now recruits fellow engineers and data scientists from the digital world's best companies. 

"We all need to make the federal government work well," he said. 

The USDS is working on modernizing medicare systems that are running on a mainframe that was 40 years old, and are currently being stressed by a surge of users amid the pandemic.

"There's something like 14 million lines of COBOL involved in that," Cutts said, referring to the programming language. "We have an issue where COBOL programmers aren't just retiring, some of them are dying."

Antiquated computing systems are not uncommon in the federal government — according to Cutts, "there are systems that are 20, 30, 40 years old." 

With much of the USDS working remotely, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need to modernize the government and the program is needed now more than ever. 

"There is a lot for technologists to do in government right now," Cutts said. 

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