Open source in the time of COVID-19

Open source in the time of COVID-19

People open source their work in different ways: some put their code repositories on Github; others may make a Google Sheets link publicly accessible, or share the full content on their website. The aim is to reduce barriers to accessing, modifying, and often using the information, which means different things for different industries, people, and types of information being shared. For example, at Amazee Labs, our work and lives are deeply connected to the open source Drupal community and project, and increasingly with Gatsby and React web development. In 2017, our sister company amazee.io open sourced their hosting solution called Lagoon.

In industries such as education, healthcare and certain manufacturing and tooling processes, making a piece of information, a system, or a process openly available to the public and to competitors at no cost is generally an ethical, and sadly rare, move. 

Sometimes making information open source is vital. During the current period of COVID-19 modelling, which has people from all walks of life taking a stab at their interpretation of the data made available by various health agencies and countries, being able to assess their methodologies, code, and data is critical to evaluating its legitimacy. Failure to open up the information could encourage the spread of disinformation, and even steer public policy in the wrong direction. 

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There are certain industries, however, where making previously patented or protected information open source may have the opposite effect. In telecommunications and aerospace, for instance, protections may be in place to prevent concepts and creations from being misused. Blueprints for communication and transport networks or security protocols, for example, may be used for evil just as easily as for good, and once this information is out in the world it is very hard, if not impossible, to make the move from open source back to closed. Unfortunately, this makes it hard for external entities and the public to evaluate whether the company holding the information is in fact using it ethically in the first place. Closely scrutinising business practices, investment interests, and its leaders may be the only way of getting a glimpse at the company’s ethical stance.

Recently, biomedical engineering company Medtronic announced it would be making design specifications and source code for its portable ventilator hardware publicly available. This will potentially make a more rapid rollout of this much-needed technology possible, as manufacturers outside of the biomedical industry have the option to retool and rekit in order to meet public needs during the COVID-19 outbreak. It makes it possible for independent innovators, technologists, and academic institutions to investigate improvements, cost effective production and cost-cutting measures, and ways of increasing the speed of production. It may also encourage the collection and analysis of data on the rate of ventilator distribution and the effect it has on the pandemic; data that may be crucial in the months to come.

If the subsequent improvements, data, and assessments stemming from this initial open source offering by Medtronic are also made publicly available, then Medtronic and similar companies will be able to integrate these improvements into their own business development plans. A positive feedback loop like this could expedite manufacturing procedures, increase transparency between key operators, increase public confidence in health systems and health providers, and save lives. 

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is having harsh economic and health impacts globally, the innovation and sharing we’re seeing is inspiring. OxyGEN, a Barcelona-based collaborative hardware project, has released an open source, low-cost and low-tech respirator they’ve developed for mass production by manufacturers. 

In Switzerland, an online hackathon has been organised with millions of participants specifically focused on addressing COVID-19 issues of fake news, data collection and storage, protecting vulnerable groups, mental health, medical care, economic impacts, and more. This aptly named Versus Virus hackathon exists alongside other hackathons taking place globally, showing the interest, strength, and care of the open source community.  

There are already dozens of tools, platforms, and services developed specifically for the public to stay connected and involved in relevant news and data.

At this point, there are no doubt millions of people worth acknowledging and thanking for their contributions to fighting the good fight during the current crisis, whether financial, personal, or professional. For this post, however, I'd like to spotlight a specific person who has captured my attention for the amazing work they do. 

I arrived in Switzerland at the end of February, during the initial days of the pandemic crisis emerging in Europe. I started searching Twitter for experts commenting on the emerging pandemic and came across Dr Emma Hodcroft, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Basel Center for Molecular Life Sciences in Switzerland.

Her work focuses on tracking virus development and progression. She is a co-developer of nextstrain.org, where you can see beautiful maps and charts of the virus movement, phylogeny, mutations, and genomic epidemiology. I’ve been following Dr. Hodcroft (@firefoxx66) on Twitter since the onset of the pandemic and it’s been both informative and somehow comforting reading her opinions on testing. It has been encouraging seeing the information sharing happening through nextstrain.org

Dr Emma Hoodcroft Tweet

They recently added new COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 sequences to the tools, giving a shout-out to the importance of open data in the process.

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This collection of open source tools is made available to aid our understanding of pathogen spread and evolution. The tools are regularly updated, and the data models and live datasets are made available to the scientific community to conduct their own analysis and create their own tools. Nextstrain.org has well-written documentation on how to get started and the data used. It is an open source jewel.

While business continues (almost) as usual here at Amazee Labs, we’re more passionate than ever about championing open source to empower the community. Are you a contributor, engineer, scientist, health-care professional, or someone else leaning on and supporting open source? Share your story with us on Twitter or LinkedIn! Or contact us about your next open source web project.