The Power of Open Source in the Fight Against COVID-19

Our panel of experts shares how Open Source technology is powering innovative solutions to fight COVID-19.

As someone who has spent his entire career in Open Source, I’ve been closely following how Open Source is being used to fight the COVID-19 global pandemic.

I recently moderated a panel discussion on how Open Source is being used in trenches with regards to the coronavirus crisis. Our panel included: Jim Webber (chief scientist at Neo4J), Ali Ghodsi (CEO, Databricks), Dan Eiref (senior director of product management at Markforged) and Debbie Theobold (CEO of Vecna Robotics). Below are some of the key takeaways from our discussion. They show how Open Source is a force for good in these uncertain times.

How does Open Source technology enable knowledge sharing?

Providing accurate information related to COVID-19 is an essential public service. Neo4J worked with data scientists and researchers to create COVID❋GRAPH. It is an Open Source graph database that brings together information on COVID-19 from different sources. 

Jim Webber from Neo4J explained, “The power of graph data [distributed via an open source management system] is that it can pull together disparate datasets from medical practitioners, public health officials and other scientific publications into one central view. People can then make connections between all facts. This is useful when looking for future long-term solutions.” COVID❋GRAPH helped institutions like the Canadian government to integrate data from multiple departments and facilities. 

Databricks CEO Ali Ghodsi also spoke to his company’s efforts to democratize data and artificial intelligence. Their mission is to “help data teams solve the world’s toughest problems.” Databricks created Glow, an Open Source toolkit built on Apache Spark that enables large-scale genomic analysis. Glow helps scientists understand the development and spread of the COVID-19 virus. Databricks made their datasets available for free. Using Glow's machine learning tools, scientists are creating predictive models that track the spread of COVID-19. 

Amid the positive progress we’re seeing from this open approach to data, some considerations were raised about governments’ responsibilities with the data they collect. Maintaining public trust is always a huge concern. Still, as Ali said, “The need for data is paramount. This isn’t a matter of using data to sell ads; it’s a matter of using data to data to save lives.”

How can Open Source projects make resources accessible on a global scale?

It’s been amazing to watch how Open Source propels innovation in times of great need. Dan Eiref from 3D printer company Markforged spoke to how his company responded to the call to assist in the pandemic. Markforged Open Sourced the design for face masks and nasal swabs. They also partnered with doctors to create a protective face shield and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to more than 500 hospitals. 

“Almost immediately we got demand from more than 10,000 users to replicate this design in their own communities, as well as requests to duplicate the mask on non-Markforged printers. We decided to Open Source the print files so anyone could have access to these protections,” said Eiref.

The advantage of Open Source is that it can quickly produce and distribute solutions to people who need it the most. Debbie Theobold, CEO of Vecna Robotics shared how her company helped tackle the shortage of ventilators. Since COVID-19 began, medical manufacturers have struggled to provide enough ventilators, which can cost upwards of $40,000, to hospitals. Venca Robotics partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop an Open Source ventilator design called Ventiv, a low-cost alternative for emergency ventilation.  “The rapid response from people to come together and offer solutions demonstrates the altruistic pull of the Open Source model to make a difference,” said Debbie. 

Of course, there are still challenges for Open Source in the medical field: all equipment requires FDA certification. Fortunately, the FDA has adjusted its process to help make these designs available more quickly. 

Organizations are accelerating their digital transformation

A major question on everyone’s mind was how technology will affect our society post-pandemic. Many organizations will need to innovate in order to survive. Long-term trends like e-commerce, video conferencing, streaming services, cloud adoption and even Open Source are all being accelerated as a result of COVID-19. Responding to long-term trends by slowly adjusting traditional offerings is no longer possible. 

Companies are accelerating their digital transformation as a response to COVID-19.

For example, Debbie Theobold of Vecna Robotics brought up how healthcare organizations can see greater success by embracing websites and mobile applications. “These efforts for better, patient-managed experiences that were going to happen eventually are happening right now. We’ve launched our mobile app and embraced things like online pre-registration. Companies that were relying on in-person interactions are now struggling to catch up. We’ve seen that technology-driven interactions are a necessity to keeping patient relationships,” she said. 

We’ve known for a while now that offering great digital experiences is a requirement for organizations looking to stay ahead. Organizations are forced to redefine the traditional methods of doing things and explore new solutions like website personalization, telework and automation that allow them to directly serve people without physical barriers.

In every crisis, Open Source has empowered organizations to do more with less. It's great to see this play out again. Open Source teams have rallied to help and come up with some pretty incredible solutions when times are tough.

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