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The Role of Open Source Hardware in COVID-19 Digital Response

By Guest Writer on August 19, 2020

open source hardware

There has been a long history – both successful and less positive – of open source in international development. This has been driven by the creativity, unique challenges, and the low-resource reality of many settings. However, overwhelmingly, open source efforts have focused on digital and software solutions.

In the context of the wide-ranging, and unprecedented, challenge posed by COVID-19 digital response, hardware innovations have proven particularly important. Everything from PPE, to ventilators, thermometers, and tools to support policies such as social distancing. Digital innovations – particularly solutions such as contact-tracing initiatives, and other data-driven tools – have been important; but hardware has been a strong aspect of COVID-19 response and, likely, recovery.

Recognising this, UNDP – in partnership with Hackster and numerous tech partners – launched the global COVID-19 Detect and Protect challenge. We called on innovators, makers, inventors, and designers to develop open source hardware solutions to tackle COVID-19. We’ve learned a lot, and are still figuring things out. In particular, we’re working to shape an approach to move from global crowdsourcing through to local implementation of open source hardware.

Why open source is important for COVID-19

A global challenge requires a global response, and the worldwide open source community has been playing a major role in fighting COVID-19. The speed and spread of the disease, and the similar issues it poses in each country, highlights the usefulness of building on – or replicating – open source solutions.

Similarly, in countries where COVID-19 may yet hit hardest – particularly lower-income settings, where public health systems are most stretched – the low-resource focus of open source can have particular value.

However, open source has its limitations. It is not a panacea. In addition, closed-source (or proprietary, or commercial) solutions have much to offer in tackling COVID-19 – and in international development more widely. An open-closed-source dichotomy is not helpful, and we need to select the most appropriate tools to prevent further deaths and suffering.

That said, open source hardware solutions have particular value in the COVID-19 context. They can accelerate the response of countries, particularly where essential physical assets are limited – and localise response where regional or international supply-chains have been disrupted. They can also lower the barriers to developing useful tools and assets in the fight against COVID-19. As noted below, open source may also play an important role in COVID-19 recovery.

Building an open source hardware focus

The relevance of open source was the starting point for our COVID-19 Detect and Protect challenge. We saw that the open source community was focusing on a wide-range of initiatives – from ventilators, to PPE – but sometimes in the context of higher-income countries. With this in mind, we focused on lower-income settings – and saw the value of using open source to protect these communities and detect incidences, or other aspects, of the disease.

We also required that all innovations had to be accompanied by the documentation and resources to enable quick replicability – such as the underlying code, design files, schematics of circuit boards, and detailed instructions.

Recognising that COVID-19 was such a fast-moving, and evolving, challenge, we couldn’t run a programme like this that waited for weeks or months until announcing innovations. They would be outdated or no longer relevant. We therefore focused on making this a rolling challenge, with weekly winners selected by a panel from the tech, open source, public health, and international development communities.

This rolling aspect was interesting to watch, as it mirrored the shifting burden of COVID-19. When we launched the challenge earlier this year, submitted innovations had a diagnostic focus – for example open source pulse oximeters, 3D-printed face-shields, and disinfection devices. Over successive weeks, innovations shifted in response to policies being implemented by governments around the world – such as social distancing. This led to solutions such as touchless water and soap dispensers being submitted – particularly useful in more rural contexts where water and hygience resources can be limited.

This rolling element was so successful that we extended the deadline to allow others to submit solutions. As countries are moving to tentative reopening or recovery phases, the innovations being submitted by global innovators are evolving too. Recent weeks have included solutions to support elderly friends and family with video calling, and new approaches to healthcare service delivery.

We’ve been impressed, and humbled, by the sheer commitment and dedication of the open source community – and the ingenuity and innovation displayed. We’ve had thousands of participants, with nearly half of these coming from low- or lower-middle income countries – and extensive engagement on social media. This has been the most successful challenge ever run in the Hackster community.

From global to local solutions

covid 19 open hardware

Building on the successes of other open source challenges, we wanted to play a role in informing, supporting, or contributing to meaningful responses to COVID-19 on-the-ground – and in countries particularly affected by the disease. To do this, we worked with the UNDP Accelerator Labs: a global network of innovators, focused on exploration and experimentation.

We identified an initial cohort of Accelerator Labs across Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Asia-Pacific, as this was where the disease burden was growing – and where we had strong connections. We also connected our Accelerator Labs colleagues with local tech ambassadors from the Hackster community.

This component is very much still ongoing, but is focused on two elements.

First, each of the teams – Accelerator Labs, and other partners – in our target countries reviewed the weekly challenge winners as they were announced. They then engaged with key individuals and institutions in-country, from Ministries of Health downward, to identify which solutions could be most relevant in their context.

As with all open source solutions, the ideas submitted – including the ones highlighted above – are not immediately applicable. They will need adapting, customising, and refining – as well as piloting, and adhering to all regulatory or other standards in a country. In order to do this, our Accelerator Labs are building local innovation response teams, partnering with maker spaces, universities, and others.

Second, we’re building an open source hardware toolkit – allowing Accelerator Labs, maker spaces, and all of the above partners in the community to start building or developing the global solutions locally (with the tools that they’ve identified as being required). These toolkits include 3D-printers, filaments, sensors and other useful components. Our partners have been fantastic here in providing materials, and logistical support – navigating customs and similar processes to get this kit into the hands of innovators.

Open source hardware next steps

We believe that open source has an important role to play in COVID-19 recovery. On the hardware side, this includes the acceleration, revitalisation, and catalysing of local innovation communities – including building skills for the future.

Our ongoing work around the open source hardware toolkit demonstrates this. It’s about building local capacity, targeted supply chains, and supporting small-scale enterprise on-the-ground. These innovation ecosystems are particularly important in many lower-income countries.

As the Accelerator Labs start to implement and test these solutions, they and their local partners will be best placed to decide which one(s) have the greatest potential for scale. We don’t have a set roadmap for what scaling will look like, but we will support, together with our tech partners, in any way that we can.

There is no IP hold at all for any of the solutions, so local communities are free to use, re-use, adapt and reinvent as they see fit. Hopefully we’ll see some of these solutions appear in village, town, and city markets around the world. They could build economic opportunities for local businesses and entrepreneurs – suppporting the crucial informal sector, which is likely to be particularly badly-hit by COVID-19.

This has been an interesting journey, and we’ve learned an enormous amount. We really had to be responsive, to the shifting burden of COVID-19, but also as we learned more about working on hardware innovation – and working with a global community. Iteration was important here – from deadline extensions, to shipping materials to countries, and working as part of a consortium of local, national, and international partners.

We also needed to think holistically. The online component of the challenge could not sit in isolation. Everything before, during – and crucially, after – is important. We could have run a short challenge, shared the winners on social media, and then moved on. But, we’re trying to translate this work into local – and meaningful – impact.

This aspect is something that we think is especially exciting.  Going from global crowdsourcing across the more-than-100 countries where challenge participants hail from, through to applying innovation – and building collaboration – locally, and at pace. We’re still refining this approach, and COVID-19 continues to cause suffering around the world. We’re hoping our work – and this blog post – provides insights that others can learn from, build on, and apply – reflecting the important elements of open source that inspired us in the first place.

By Calum Handforth, UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development

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3 Comments to “The Role of Open Source Hardware in COVID-19 Digital Response”


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