Coronovirus COVID-19 vs. Hackathons

Thousands of technology enthusiasts and others are flocking to a new wave of hackathons created to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The low-sleep, high-octane sessions have attracted participants world-wide to team up online and suggest solutions to problems such as the equipment shortage for health providers or a better way to track the spread of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.
“Everyone is looking at the urgency of the situation,” said Youseph Yazdi, executive director at Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, which organized a five-day hackathon in the last week of March that attracted 513 teams with 2.331 applicants from 34 countries.
That hackathon was around thematic areas including how to communicate effectively about Covid-19, prevention of transmission within communities and health-care equipment shortages.
Among the ideas that emerged were a location-based mobile application to track traffic in grocery stores for effective social-distancing practices, and a tool for messaging platforms to tag misinformation by analyzing keywords and redirecting users to trusted news sources.
It was the first hackathon for Helen Xun, a medical student on leave from Johns Hopkins, whose team reviewed and refined design files of 3-D printed parts such as filters and splitters so ventilators could be shared among multiple patients. The team had already prototyped parts ahead of the hackathon, but got fresh ideas on designs and materials.
“The hackathon opened this international forum for us to talk to people globally to assess the actual needs,” Ms. Xun said.
Hackathons were made popular decades ago by the software community as communal, all-night sessions, often powered by pizza and various caffeinated beverages. Social distancing means today’s hackathons are conducted online, with interactions among team members happening over videoconferencing and chat tools from Zoom Video Communications and Slack Technologies Inc.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus, which caught many officials flat-footed, has paved the way for community-sourced solutions, ranging from hackathons to 3-D printing.
“Doctors are leading the fight, but a lot of people would love to find ways to engage and help,” said Sam Lessin, a general partner at venture-capital firm Slow Ventures, which helped organize a hackathon last month, with about 19,000 participants from across 175 countries, working on themes suggested by partners such as the World Health Organization.
Hackathon participants are expected to experiment to find solutions, making such events better equipped to tackle aspects of complex problems, said Estonia’s Minister of Trade’s Kaimar Karu.
More than 1,000 people from around 20 countries participated in a remote hackathon that the Estonia government and local companies organized last month
“There’s no known way out of this,” he said. “You can only try, experiment at a small scale and based on the results you can amplify this. If it doesn’t work at all, you essentially kill [the idea],” he said.
Last weekend, Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a 48-hour Beat the Pandemic hackathon in which 1,500 participants worked in 238 teams.

MIT’s Covid-19 hackathon participants had access to multiple data sets.

Rebecca Sereda, a researcher in the stem-cell and regenerative-biology department at Harvard University, was part of a team that in 40 hours created a mobile app that used machine learning to score individuals on immunity to Covid-19, similar to a credit score, based on data such as location, age, interactions, and health history. The team is refining the app and preparing to launch it.
“It was extremely chaotic because people are constantly messaging, there’s a million notifications going at once from all these different Slack channels,” Ms. Sereda said about the experience.
MIT provided access to open data sets including JHU’s epidemiological data repository and Covid-19 information compiled by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We had many partners from the health-care space and clinical partners involved. It is up to them to work with the teams to take the solutions developed and work toward putting those in market,” said Paul Cheek, a hacker-in-residence at Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, which organized the hackathon.