Residents had COVID questions; his websites gave simple answers

May 12, 2021

Name: Ben Matheson

Title: Data Analyst

City: Anchorage, Alaska

Ben Matheson’s first job in Alaska was news reporting for public radio—work that had him flying to remote corners of the state to cover everything from city council meetings to Alaska’s famous sled dog race. Matheson now works for city government in the Anchorage innovation team, but his instinct to get people the information they need remains strong.

During the pandemic, Matheson built a few simple but user-friendly websites that each answered one burning question on many residents’ minds. When residents wanted to know How can I find a free COVID-19 test in Anchorage today? the i-team responded with Anchoragecovidtest.org. Similarly the question of How can I find a food pantry open in Anchorage today? resulted in Anchoragefood.org.

Matheson’s biggest hit was a vaccine appointment finder (Anchoragecovidvaccine.org) that essentially became the state of Alaska’s go-to hub for finding a shot. As with his other sites, Matheson built this one with inclusivity in mind: It works just fine on a 5-year-old smartphone running on the low-bandwidth networks common in outlying areas. “I love creating things that people use,” Matheson said. “Sometimes it has super powers of empowering people, and doing that at scale.”

Matheson’s latest project is related to helping Anchorage meet its climate goals. He’s working with 50 big city facilities—from office buildings to garages to swimming pools—to gain a near real-time understanding of their energy use and find opportunities to use less electricity. An insight in the i-team’s research is that facility managers are the critical players who make key decisions related to energy use. The goal is to “help facility managers use data to make fast, low-cost operational changes to buildings to save money and reduce emissions,” Matheson said. “The facility managers control the systems. They’re the ones who can deliver.”

Pro tip: “In my journalism career, I had high standards for government. I bring that mindset into public service. Always remember that you’re here to serve the public.”