Colorado paid more than $630,000 to a group of personal and business partners of Gov. Jared Polis who had apparently volunteered to help the state navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic by tracking people’s movements, data shows.
When that group’s work was completed in late 2020, the state began paying another $1 million in a deal that gave it to a startup company founded by two people associated with the first group’s work.
Neither contract was offered publicly, but rather was the result of an executive order issued by Polis in April 2020 declaring a state of emergency suspending state laws requiring bids on purchases related to the pandemic, regardless of contract size. The state normally requires public bids for any contract over $150,000.
State health officials defended the deals as valuable to their work in the fight against the raging pandemic, but none offered an explanation for how they moved from a public service to a public expense.
The office of Gov. Polis said it had “no insider knowledge or involvement in this purchase decision and therefore has no comment.”
When Citizen Software Engineers’ mobile tracking work went public — it used the information largely to verify that Coloradans were keeping social distancing at the start of the pandemic — the nonprofit group was clear on its mission: to help the crisis at little or no cost. for the taxpayer.
The idea was that the company would help Polis “combat COVID-19 threats in Colorado,” according to the founding documents filed by the controlling entity, Innovation Response Volunteers Inc.
“It’s a volunteer organization that does free work,” IRV board member Brad Feld told The Denver Post in April 2020. Polis had appointed Feld, a former business partner, to his Innovation Response Team and Economic Stabilization and Growth Council. to deal with the crisis when it exploded in March last year.
IRV was purposely set up as a nonprofit, Feld had said, so it could raise “its own philanthropic funding” to cover its costs.
Those expenses — more than $632,000 including salaries — were instead covered by the state, according to payment records obtained by The Denver Gazette through pending requests.
Although CSE had no official agreement with the state when the pandemic began, an $811,000 purchase order appeared with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in July 2020 with guaranteed payments dating back to March, the data shows.
The records don’t indicate how the deal was approved or who approved it.
The purchase order and payments were made to Citizen Engineers for COVID-19, but the scope of the group’s work came from Citizen Software Engineers, data shows.
“These engineers were part of IRV, a private non-profit organization that set up volunteers to help the Innovation Response Team respond quickly to technical needs in light of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” CDPHE spokesperson said. Gabi Johnston to The Gazette in an email. “CDPHE officials have authorized this tender.”
Johnston did not name those officials.
State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy, with whom the group worked most closely and Colorado’s leading authority on the pandemic, told The Gazette on Thursday that her work has been invaluable in tackling the crisis, but she didn’t know how to make the deal. a free one-to-one cost taxpayers more than $1.6 million.
“I was focused on the work they were doing,” Herlihy said. “I’m not the one handling contracts. From my team’s perspective, the service they provided to us was incredibly valuable and I’m not sure it was reasonable to think that they would offer their services for two years in a pandemic. ”
The items that the state paid CSE for contain aggregated data from a handful of companies that extract information from cell phones. The data comes from various mobile phone applications that often ask a user to track their location. Marketing companies buy the information and bundle it for resale.
CSE initially used the data to track Coloradans to see if they were complying with state orders to shelter in place or maintain social distancing. The information can track someone up to 10 feet from their position. How it was used differently has not been revealed and the company’s creators have declined to talk about it.
Its founder, Tim Miller of Boulder, a longtime tech entrepreneur and financier with close ties to Polis, said the policy was not to talk to the press. He has not responded to attempts by The Gazette to reach him.
CSE’s website has been taken down, but details from internet archives show Miller recruited more than 120 volunteers to help with the project in its first week. Feld recruited Miller, who in turn recruited the others. Polis named Miller to the IRT group just a week after the pandemic broke out in mid-March 2020.
Feld and Polis co-founded Techstars in 2006, a company that offered mentorship to entrepreneurs and sought to accelerate investment in startups. Feld and Miller are connected professionally and personally through their days at Avitek, which Miller founded.
Miller was the former CEO of Rally Software, a Boulder-based technology company that sold for $480 million in 2015. Miller helps run Barchetta Pizza, which he founded in Boulder.
State procurement rules require bids for any work over $150,000 unless a department official approves the bypass. Polis executive orders put an end to that and the government was free to attract anyone who wanted to help with the crisis and pay them what they asked.
Billing records show that CSE earned more than $200,000 in data charges from various sources in the months before Colorado ever agreed to pay them, according to receipts filed to the state.
And CSE has already paid two people — David Jacobson and Parker Jackson — more than $12,000 a month each to analyze the data, data shows.
That included tracking people’s visits to bars and liquor stores, as well as out-of-state visitors who visited Colorado, data shows.
Payments continued uninterrupted through December 2020, data shows, with salaries and data charges adding thousands of dollars in bills.
In the end, taxpayers transferred more than $632,000 to CSE, less than the $811,000 the state had initially agreed to pay the company.
But it didn’t stop there.
The two top data analysts for CSE, Jackson and Jacobson, started their own companies and continued the work at a significantly higher cost to taxpayers, data shows.
In late December 2020, CDPHE handed the one-month-old Ward, Colorado-based company – Vanadata – a no-bid contract for $361,000 to do essentially the same work the two had done at CSE.
Within four months, the cost of the purchase order contract exploded to nearly $1.1 million, data shows.
“We saw their value as data scientists,” Herlihy said. “We were very familiar with analyzing epidemiological data, but not data science, and theirs is analyzing and interpreting all data sets of all different types.”
That includes Facebook survey data on mask use, vaccine data, as well as weather and humidity data to discern observable patterns about virus transmission.
Vanadata’s spend includes $274,000 in software plans from five companies, $272,000 in data plans — as tracked by cell phone apps — from three companies, $120,000 in space to store everything in the Amazon cloud, and $442,000 in salaries, primarily for Jackson and Jacobson.
“Given the value of the information and the analytical expertise and tools provided, the work became an integral part of the response and CDPHE epidemiologists chose to continue the contract,” Johnston said. “As mobility patterns have returned to near-normal levels, the importance of mobility data is not as great as it was before in the pandemic, but it continues to help us answer questions.”
The company is doing so well now that its CEO, Parker Jackson, is advertising three full-time positions — “all 6-figure salaries and 100% remote,” according to the LinkedIn ad — and is working on “cutting-edge predictive modeling” for the State COVID response.
“We are among the state’s top experts on the pandemic,” Jackson’s ad states.
Gazette attempts to reach Jackson and Jacobson were unsuccessful.
David Migoya can be reached at [email protected]