The open source response to Covid-19

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The open source response to Covid-19 by Richard Red, Research and Strategy at, a decentralized cryptocurrency project.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed shortcomings and fragility in many of our largest and most important institutions. Some leaders have been slow to grasp the nature and severity of the threat, citizens in many countries feel that some aspects of their government’s response or preparedness have been lacking. Faced with untracked spread in the population, generalized lockdowns aiming to suppress the spread of the virus are exacting heavy economic tolls. Companies in many sectors are warning of imminent bankruptcy, seeking bailouts, and many have already embarked on large scale layoffs, resulting in a rise in unemployment unprecedented in its sharpness. Central banks are warming up the printing presses, stepping in with all manner of bailouts, designed to avert specific outcomes that they see as being particularly damaging and therefore worth the cost of avoiding.

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While much of the trajectory of human progress over the last decades (e.g. increased mobility, more complex and globalized supply chains) has left us more exposed to this threat, advances in our use of communications technology and leveraging the digital commons are the bright lights in an otherwise bleak outlook.

Open Source Response

The aspect of open source response which has attracted the most attention is people making much needed equipment, primarily PPE (e.g. masks, face shields), using open source designs which can be freely shared, used and tailored.

Some examples:

  • Italian effort to print replacement valves for respirators - Forbes
  • Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies - NY Times
  • Engineers Made a DIY Face Shield. Now It's Helping Doctors - Wired

The Internet is the key to humanity's response to this crisis, this robust communications network has so far proven resilient even under heavy stress, and open global sharing of vital information at low cost is one of the tools we still have at our disposal  - not to mention the Internet's role in keeping a locked down population sane.

Any open source solution, and every iterative improvement or local customization to that solution, can be instantly shared with everyone who can benefit from it. People with fabrication equipment and/or materials can be provided with the design files to produce useful products or components.

While people in positions of authority have resources and discretion to help, as individuals and teams they will always have only partial insight into the needs that must be met and the resources which could potentially be made available.

Open Communication, Data And Research

More subtly, but perhaps more importantly, open channels of communication have been fundamental to raising awareness of the threat and mobilizing the will to act, and pivotal in how we are converging on a shared understanding of what needs to be done now and in the near future. Social media has played a positive role here (although see this insightful article about how the balance of quality to dubious information shifted when Covid-19 became a hot topic), from specific individuals in the fields of virology and epidemiology, to those in unrelated disciplines who recognized the gravity of the situation and sought to raise awareness in their own networks.

The role that open publication of draft and pre-publication research has played in facilitating a faster response to this crisis cannot be understated. This article considers the remarkable degree to which open publication of pre-prints was embraced by researchers with relevant findings to report. Enabling this is the slowly unfolding shift towards open access publications that has been occurring over the last decades in many scientific disciplines. We should all be grateful that the capacity and norms for scientists to rapidly share their findings publicly already existed. The way that in depth cutting edge information about Covid-19 has been made available to the general public has allowed for a relatively informed set of "concerned onlookers" to form from an early stage, and these people can take some credit for speeding up the process of raising awareness of the problem.

The communications of state apparatus, and in turn outlets that rely on re-packaging their communications, have turned out to be unreliable in some regards. This is I believe due to a confusing mix of aims and incentives for those who occupy these offices. There is a desire to project strength and competence, both to avert panic but also as the perceived performance of governments will surely affect the results of the next election. There is also an objective of changing the population's behavior which is clearly stamped on every broadcast, from hand washing to staying at home to not panic buying and not trying to obtain, make or wear masks.

The "emergent decentralized solution" which is many people taking an interest and some lending a hand where they can is more robust because it is open and decentralized. Where people share their ideas and plans openly and attract knowledgeable reviews and advice, learning and progress can be rapid. The number and independence of groups that emerge gives this way of doing things resilience. If there are 10, 50 or 100 groups working towards these ends independently, the problems that can be caused by a specific person or group reaching a faulty conclusion, or deciding to pursue their own agenda, are less severe.

Top-Down Control Or Emergent Coordination

And so to the next arena where it seems we will see open source decentralized responses developed alongside those which are top-down state-directed: the use of location data for contact tracing. Several Asian states  have made use of phone tracking data to trace contacts or assign users risk ratings and determine when they should be isolated or quarantined. This has seemingly allowed more of the usual economic activity in those places to continue, while maintaining low transmission rates, although it is confounded with other factors (like mask wearing).

It seems logical enough that, with enough knowledge of who has the virus and who they have been in contact with recently, we could avoid a scenario where almost everyone is locked down in their homes because they are just as likely as anyone else to be carrying the virus. There are well founded concerns about granting states powers to restrict liberty or increase surveillance in times of crisis. Furthermore, looking at the "centralized" response to Covid-19 so far doesn't give a lot of assurance that it would even be done well if the state steps in and makes something proprietary with special access to the communications grid.

And so it is with optimism that I see Trevor Bedford, one of the scientists who has been putting out reliable information about Sars-Cov2, announcing NextTrace, an effort to develop "digital participatory contact tracing" which could leverage mobile positioning data on an opt-in basis. Even more encouraging is that the tweets reference several other projects which have already been established and are working towards the same aim of a contact tracing solution that is designed to protect privacy of participants as much as possible.

Resilient Commons Based Networks And Institutions

I believe one of the lessons we will take from Covid-19 is about the resilience of commons-based networks and institutions, and I hope we use this as a jumping off point to pursuing their use and development more aggressively.

Although the prices of cryptocurrencies declined along with all of the other "risk on" assets amid Covid-19 panic, the strong projects are more or less unfazed at a fundamental level. The blocks and transactions keep on coming, developers are still coding, miners are still mining. In the fiat economy there is chaos as market participants scramble to respond to the dictates of the private entities that pull the levers, how much more money will be printed, who's going to get it and how does that affect stock prices.

As a holder of Bitcoin or Decred there is no concern about how monetary policy might be changed by the elites to protect their interests or prop up the economy. As someone who works on the Decred project, the steady accumulation of Treasury block rewards there is no concern about people are still going to be getting paid.

Open Source Responses: Conclusion

The assurance that things will continue as normal work-wise has allowed me to remain relatively calm and put some of my own time into trying to be an amplifier of useful public information about Covid-19. With @CoronaCoverage and I have got together with a few other Decred contributors to try and distil some of the more useful or promising resources being produced on the commons to combat Covid-19. The plan is to follow these open projects and see how they do, helping out wherever we see an opportunity. The openness of these projects is what gives them their strength, an informed and engaged "audience" that can offer detailed input and at any point join or leave the effort.

If we could coordinate our movements to halt the spread of an invisible and pervasive threat like Covid-19 in this open decentralized manner, without the need to centralize surveillance power, that would be a significant achievement for "the crowd".