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How developers can volunteer during the COVID-19 pandemic

What resources can developers offer to go against COVID-19? Explore some promising developer volunteer and open source project opportunities to see how you can help.

The global developer and open source communities can help the world face the COVID-19 pandemic. A multitude of companies have released tools, data sets, cloud services and other programs so that developers can create, test and deploy new applications.

Open source developer groups focused on the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease that it causes have sprouted up on GitHub and dedicated volunteer organization Helpful Engineering. These groups already boast thousands of members, and more developers want to join the volunteer effort.

Let's explore ways the developer community can get involved, and how organizations from every corner of the globe help try to stem the pandemic and its dangers.

Chatbot templates and video communication

Public health hotlines and patient communication systems are overwhelmed. In turn, organizations have looked to automation technologies to handle the massive influx of questions and concerns.

Twilio, a cloud communication PaaS company based in San Francisco, has created a chatbot template based on the World Health Organization's COVID-19 FAQ to help developers build bots to distribute timely information accurately, without a lot of work.

"Technology such as this lets health organizations automate as many responses to these inquiries as possible to free up human capacity to deal with the more complex and serious problems in their fight against this outbreak," said Benjamin Stein, general manager of developer experience at Twilio.

In addition, the company has open sourced video collaboration apps: one for iOS, one for Android and one for ReactJS on the web. Developers can implement a video app into their application and deploy to the cloud.

Get innovative

IBM has turned its annual developer challenge into a call to arms against COVID-19. Initially, the 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge was to focus on climate change. Now, it will also ask the developer community to equip colleagues with tools and resources to address three main areas:  

  • Crisis communication during an emergency;
  • Ways to improve remote learning, and;
  • How to inspire cooperative local communities.

IBM has promised $25 million in funding to help deploy and scale the most promising results from the challenge. Last year's winner created a wearable device that helped improve firefighter safety in dangerous circumstances.

Act locally

Many developers already have the freedom and luxury to work remotely. In a crisis such as COVID-19, that has become especially important. Unlike many other types of volunteer work that require someone to show up in person, developer volunteers can contribute from afar, maintaining social distance.

"There's a lot of need for developer volunteers, especially right now," said Chris Mills, data marketing strategist at hatch IT in Washington D.C.

His team surveyed web developers and software engineers in the D.C. area and found that nearly all of them are interested in volunteering, mentoring students or contributing to open source projects. Mills' team also helped create a guide to help developers find local developer volunteer opportunities.

Focus your efforts

There's no shortage of enthusiasm in the open source community to try to make a difference in the fight against COVID-19. Andrew Eye, CEO of ClosedLoop.ai, a healthcare data science company, recommends developers prioritize their efforts based on the following questions:

  • Where is the project being used? Has it gone from an interesting idea and good intentions to real-world application?
  • Can it make a difference by either reducing the spread of the virus or reducing the death toll that results from the virus's impact on the most vulnerable people?
  • Does it have momentum? With so much COVID-19 information on the web and in email inboxes, only a handful of projects will achieve the velocity required to have an effect in a short time. Pick a project with momentum -- it has a better chance to matter.

Eye's team open sourced the COVID-19 Vulnerability Index. It's already deployed in their home city of Chicago and uses an AI-based model to predict individuals who are likely to have the most severe complications related to the disease. The team hopes this index can preemptively prioritize resources before a person gets sick. The project already has 6,000 views on GitHub and 73 clones.

The tool is in use or being tested out in Chicago, New York and Boston, as well as the state of Florida and elsewhere. In Chicago, Medical Home Network, a local care organization, is using the COVID-19 Vulnerability Index to find high-risk patients and help them coordinate supply deliveries so they can shelter in place.

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