Many of us who aren’t healthcare workers or scientists may be feeling a bit useless right now in the face of over two million coronavirus cases worldwide. Of course, we can play our part by staying inside and preventing germs from spreading. But knowing others are putting their lives on the line, we may be wishing we could do a bit more.
Luckily technology once again provides an answer. Thanks to the internet, social media, and Big Data-driven analytics, there are a number of projects anyone can get involved with from home. And they could play an important part in limiting the loss of life caused by this pandemic.
Most of these initiatives are powered by data and demonstrate how using crowdsourcing to crunch through data can improve our chances of beating the disease. Crowdsourced data also acts as a honeypot for medical technology and pharmaceutical companies collecting data to create vaccines and cures through conventional research and development initiatives is hugely time-consuming and expensive.
These are initiatives that wouldn’t have been available during past endemics and pandemics when our ability to collaboratively collect and interpret data was less developed. On a personal level, they can also be useful for learning more about how crowdsourced data is being used to solve global problems today.
If you already have some knowledge and experience of data science, then you will find lots of things you can potentially help out with over at Kaggle, Google’s crowdsourced data science portal.
With live datasets from the World Health Organisation collated by Johns Hopkins University, as well as a library of 29,000 published articles, you can put your skills to work by taking on tasks including predicting the spread of the virus, how long it is likely to affect certain parts of the world, or what the impact of factors such as weather, economy, etc. will be on overall statistics.
While a great way to get involved and learn more about data science, if you’re familiar with the basics, other organisations are offering ways to help out if you don’t have that particular skill set or the time to develop it.
Folding@Home is a long-running crowdsourced project that uses donated computing power to simulate protein folding, as well as to help tackle other medical data problems. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, it has begun using the spare power of “idle” computers in people’s homes to crunch through data, in the hope of identifying proteins in the virus that could be targeted with medicine. All you need to do to get involved with this is to download the client and run it on your machine. The amount of computing power donated to the project since it began tackling COVID-19 has now exceeded one exaFLOP that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 computing operations per second!
Another site dedicated to crowdsourcing modelling of protein folding is fold.it, and here too you can take part in a number of puzzles that, while fun and educational, could also help with making important scientific advances. One current ongoing challenge involves designing a protein with anti-inflammatory properties, to assist in treating patients whose immune systems have triggered excess inflammation a side-effect of coronavirus infection that can be life-threatening.
If you don’t have spare computing power, another option is to donate your data. The C-19 Symptom Tracker app has been developed by researchers at King’s College London and collects anonymised information to help correlate symptoms and diagnosed cases of COVID-19. Establishing which symptoms are likely to mean you just have a cold, and which mean you should get tested, helps to ensure people can isolate at the right time to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. This project uses machine learning to do just that, and so far, over two million people have signed up. Their data has helped to establish that loss of smell and taste are among the most common indicators a fact not widely recognised in the early days of the outbreak.
For a crowdsourced collection of information designed to be parsed by humans rather than machines, look no further than the Coronavirus Tech Handbook project, led by crisis taxonomist Edward Saperia. This started as a collection of medical information aimed mainly at doctors and healthcare professionals, but it has quickly grown into a compendium of knowledge and advice on subjects from hygiene and staying safe, to coping with home working and schooling. If your own unique situation has led to you developing some specialist knowledge or strategies, this could be a place to share them.
And Innocentive is another crowdsourcing portal that has launched a number of initiatives aimed at gathering data on the best way to combat COVID-19. Currently, information is being collated in order to make freely-available databases of solutions and services that have emerged in response to coronavirus around the world, as well as to highlight areas where more investigation is required into the impact of the virus.
These are all great examples of projects and initiatives that just wouldn’t have been possible during previous pandemics and epidemics simply because the infrastructure to collect and process data at the necessary scale wasn’t available, and there weren’t as many ways such as social media – to encourage people to get involved. Of course, once this terrible epidemic is under control, the next challenge will be keeping the momentum going to develop new solutions that will hopefully stop future pandemics occurring in the first place.