Dennis Terez, EMBA ’17, MSM-FIN ’18, was one of the 800+ people from 62 countries, who spent a weekend with Hack from Home. See his story below. The views expressed here are solely his own.
Pandemics create questions, confusion, and concerns. If I need to engage in social distancing, how do I know if I’m staying far enough away from others? If we need more testing, why aren’t we just mass producing test kits in all the idle factories? And if we can’t do that, why don’t we find another way to test people? How can I stay mentally and physically fit when my doctor’s office is working on a limited schedule and my gym is closed? How do I even know the reports I’m getting on COVID-19 are not fake news? And, before I drive around needlessly, how do I know which grocery stores in my neighborhood are stocking the items people have been hoarding?
Don’t panic. There’s (likely to be) an app for all that!
Instead of just talking about the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, over 800 participants got together on April 3 for a weekend global hackathon called Hack from Home. The online gathering included individuals from Seoul to Cleveland, from the Middle East to Europe, from South America to Asia. In all, Hack from Home spanned 62 countries and 22 time zones, all in an effort to create data applications to combat COVID-19.
The vast network of talent gave birth to 28 different app projects. The projects range from apps that would identify drug therapies that could be repurposed to fight the pandemic to apps that would identify treatment and testing availability at local health centers to apps that would allow for self-diagnosis and then provide information on recommended next steps to allow for better tracking of the spread of COVID-19. They include apps to help those cooped up at home to survive this lockdown period, facilitate deliveries to the elderly, decipher fake news on the coronavirus, and provide private online mental and physical health guidance. Other projects are designed to educate all of us on this pandemic, including a flashcard app about the coronavirus in all its epidemiological complexity—but now simplified thanks to the creative minds at the hackathon.
This broad initiative was made possible through sponsorships and partnership organizations that similarly span the globe. The main sponsor was Dataswift Ltd, a tech company headquartered in London that enables businesses to deliver legal ownership and control of personal data to their customers through personal data accounts powered by a HAT (Hub-of-All-Things) microserver. Two of Dataswift’s hackathon veterans, Jonathan Holtby (Dataswift’s chief commercial officer) and Michael Brathwaite (Dataswift’s growth and marketing associate), provided the glue that kept the large numbers of individuals and countries together and moving towards the same goal. Organizers included Case Western Reserve University’s xLab, the Cleveland Clinic’s Hwang Lab, the Ethical Tech Alliance, and HAT-LAB. Other leading partners included the University of Warwick, the Yonsei University Health System, and the Samsung Medical Center.
Hack from Home dealt with another issue that is starting to capture more and more attention in the media: Must we sacrifice privacy interests in our personal data to counter pandemic fears? Tracking and testing are necessary ingredients for an effective response to any pandemic. In the digital age, however, those ingredients raise ethical, legal, and constitutional issues. Moreover, what governments gain in control over that data in the name of fighting a pandemic will not be easily surrendered after the pandemic is over. Consequently, an overriding challenge in the hackathon was how to design an app that accomplishes its mission but also protects personal data.
This was my first hackathon. It was a privilege to be a part of this global effort, and to be doing rather than talking about the pandemic. That the event organizers selected my project for possible development added to the excitement of the weekend.
The idea for my app project arose out of an editorial I saw two days earlier on Bloomberg.com by Michael Lewis of “The Big Short” fame. Broad, global testing can give us a clearer picture of the spread of SARS-Cov-2. Testing on a mass scale means a larger and perhaps more random sample. This type of data would give statisticians a more accurate basis from which to extrapolate the results of their models. It would also give policymakers a clearer roadmap for present and future decision-making on the virus.
For instance, despite being months into this pandemic, we still are essentially guessing the number of individuals who have been infected with the virus but have remained asymptomatic or have exhibited only mild symptoms––and thus have not yet been tested. Consequently, these infected individuals are not included in the “confirmed” cases that Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center is counting. Lewis recognized that it was impossible to expect to get testing kits into the hands of billions of people. His suggestion was simple: let your smartphone with an intelligently designed app take the place of the actual testing kit. Thus the title for my project: “Testing Without Tests.”
Late in the first day of the hackathon, I decided to combine my project with two other app projects that were also tackling the issue of remote testing with a smartphone. Over the course of the weekend, I learned that testing is an area of significant discussion for software and app developers because of privacy concerns. John M. Barry’s seminal work on the 1918 pandemic, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” recounts striking similarities with our current pandemic. Broad panic, a patchwork of social distancing, and packed hospitals all contributed to the problem. Should we need a glimmer of hope now, however, we can find it in the back story of the pandemic a century ago. Microscopes had just found broader use in medical schools, medical professionals were only starting to reverse a nationwide trend where standards for getting into an undergraduate college were more rigorous than standards for getting into medical school, and global collaboration to combat the virus was typically accomplished by crossing the Atlantic on a steam ocean liner, because France and Germany were viewed at the time as the best repositories for epidemiological expertise. The world was also at war then.
Hack from Home highlighted the vast differences in the tools we now have in our arsenal when compared to 1918. An internet connection gave us real-time communications around the globe. Sharing talent and ideas was almost automatic, and expertise over the course of the weekend was freely available. That’s just for starters. Many of the project teams developed their apps to make use of artificial intelligence either to enable the app to function at a higher, more useful level or to interpret data collected through the app. We are vastly better prepared than a century ago.
That doesn’t mean we can implement every tech solution without friction or conflict. For example, privacy concerns nixed, at least thus far, the app I proposed at the beginning of the hackathon. Fully designing, developing, and marketing an app requires capital and buy-in from generous, well-financed entities and ideally from governments. Some of the project team leaders pointed out that countries in Asia already have a large lead on testing because of the broad use there of payment apps. The governments of some countries such as China have modified payment apps so they can be used to track an individual’s health and location. Even though some policymakers in Washington are supporting this type of government-sanctioned tracking device especially as nonpharmaceutical interventions like social distancing are lifted, it is not hard to imagine some of the legal challenges this step would face in democracies like the United States.
Furthermore, technological tools used during a pandemic still require human judgment, which can be in short supply as panic takes hold. The discussions around the app projects illuminated both the strengths and weaknesses of trying to find solutions in technological advances. Hack from Home demonstrated, though, that the benefits of carefully designed tech tools far outweigh the costs. The hackathon also showed that the courage and talent we see in healthcare first responders saving the lives of our fellow citizens extends to computer programmers and data analysts who are similarly determined to put their expertise to work to tackle the pandemic. That’s something you might not find in a headline in one of our major news sources, but it is the one headline that should give all of us great reason for hope.