A Hackathon To Battle The Coronavirus Pandemic

Public-private partnerships are common when responding to national or international crises and the current coronavirus pandemic that is expanding around the globe is no different. The tech industry is in the middle of it, with vendors donating millions of dollars to various private and non-profit organizations and governmental agencies, as well as masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals. They are also leveraging advanced technologies to help in the fight against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

HP is working with its 3D digital manufacturers to leverage 3D printing technology and production capacity to make desperately needed parts for hospitals such as masks, face shields, mask adjusters, nasal swabs, respirator parts of hands-free door openers.

Kinsa is a health technology company in Silicon Valley that over the past several years has sold more than 1 million smart thermometers, primarily through Amazon. When people take their temperature, the data – after being stripped of personally identifiable information – is uploaded to Kinsa’s database via a smartphone app, giving the company a crowdsourced heat map of real-time temperature readings around the country and giving cities and states a way of tracking the spread of the virus, which is increasingly important at a time when the federal testing response has been slow. St Augustine, Florida recently bought 600 of the thermometers to distribute among it residents, according to an ABC News report.

More recently, as we reported here in The Next Platform, IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon Web Services were part of a consortium formed with such federal agencies as White House’s Office of Science and Technology, the Department of Energy (and the national laboratories it runs) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to put the aggregated 330 petaflops of power of 16 supercomputers to use to enable scientists and medical researchers to more quickly gain a better understanding of the coronavirus, treatments that can be used and possible vaccines. Included in the list of supercomputers is Summit, an IBM-built system at the Oak Ridge National Lab that sits atop of the Top500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Research teams can submit applications outlining their projects and gain access to that compute power as well as the cloud infrastructures of Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google Cloud.

Taking A Software Approach

With the hardware side being addressed, the latest such effort focuses on the software side of things. Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and several other tech companies are partnering with the World Health Organization (WHO) to create a software competition designed to accelerate the development of software that an address a broad array of challenges around pandemic, from health initiatives and vulnerable populations to economics and education at a time when students are attending school online. Through the #BuildforCOVID19 Global Online Hackathon, developers can submit their project proposals. Experts from WHO and other organizations from the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub will determine which projects would be most valuable to the effort. Then engineers from Facebook, Microsoft, Slack, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, WeChat, Giphy (a search engine and database used to search and share short, looping videos that have no sound) and Slow Ventures will build tools leveraging the project proposals and ideas.

In a Facebook message, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he has heard from engineers not only within the company but also at other organizations and universities looking for ways they can get involved in the fight against COVID-19.

“Hackathons have always been an important part of how we come up with new ideas and projects at Facebook – features like Blood Donations and Crisis Response were first built during hackathons and are now used by millions of people worldwide,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I’m hopeful that some useful prototypes and ideas will come out of this one as well.”

Organizers said they wanted to take advantage of the huge global population of developers who are sitting at home.

“With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic, governments have issued guidance for members of the community to practice social distancing, while companies have enforced work from home policies in an effort to flatten the curve of viral infections across the population,” they said on the hackathon site. “Given the isolation currently being experienced within communities right now, we want to create an online space where developers can ideate, experiment and build software solutions to help address this crisis.”

Covid-19 Spread

The hackathon comes as the coronavirus continues to spread globally and the United States takes over from China as the country with the most confirmed cases. According to John Hopkins University, as of Friday at noon Eastern, there were 558,502 Covid-19 cases around the world, with 25,250 deaths. The university said that 126,678 people have recovered after contracting the virus. The United States now has 86,012 confirmed cases, surpassing China and its 81,897 cases, according to John Hopkins’ interactive map. In the United States, 1,301 people have died.

There is a tight turnaround for developers who want to get their projects before the organizers. Registration for the hackathon open March 24 on Devpost, a platform for such software competitions. Project submissions opened two days later, also on Devpost, and the deadline for submitting projects is noon Eastern on March 30. The proposals need to include a two-minute video walk-through. The highlighted projects will be announced April 3.

The key challenges that WHO has identified as ones that technology and innovation can address include the need for accurate disease prevention information in multiple languages and formats that can resonate with local populations, regional expertise needs, resources and supplies and financial support from donors.

Hackathon also have offered several themes that developers can rely on when coming up with and submitting their proposals. The health themes includes a broad range of areas, including preventative and hygiene behaviors – particularly for at-risk countries and populations – support for frontline health workers, ramping telemedicine, virus contract tracing and containment strategies, and treatment and diagnosis.

Developers also are encouraged to address problems faced by vulnerable populations that are more at risk to health, economic and social issues, such as those with underlying health conditions or are served by a thin social safety net. Helping to keep businesses afloat – collaborating and moving parts of their operations online – addressing community issues from connecting to family, friends and neighbors to social isolation and putting local government services online, and creating online learning environments and tools for students, teachers and school systems also are issues to address.

Another area to consider is “alternatives to traditional forms of entertainment that can keep the talents and audiences safe and healthy,” they said.

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