How Programmers Can Lend a Hand To Help Fight COVID-19
Right now, the world is in the grips of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. At the time of this writing, there were almost a million confirmed cases around the world, with an untold number still yet to be discovered. The scale of the crisis has forced wholesale changes in the global economy, including mass closures and layoffs—and the majority of those still employed have been forced to work from home.
At a time like this, it’s easy to feel powerless. Still, the daily heroics of the front-line medical workers and support staff all around the world serve as an inspiration to us all.
As a community, we programmers don’t have much of a direct role to play in fighting back against the coronavirus pandemic. By and large, we’re continuing to work on our projects as normal (or what passes for normal nowadays), trying to keep from stressing out over the constant stream of troubling news we’re surrounded by every day.
The fact is, however, that we don’t have to be taking such a passive approach to dealing with this situation. There’s more for us to be doing than sitting at home catching up on as much of Netflix’s catalog as we can.
As you’re reading this, there are programmers, developers, and coders all around the world pitching in to a variety of efforts aimed at helping stop the coronavirus for good. Here’s a look at how the community is rising to the occasion and where you might be able to help.
Tracking the Spread of Coronavirus
As any epidemiologist can tell you, one of the keys to stopping a disease outbreak of this size lies in tracking the complex web of transmission as it spreads through a population. Within that data lies the means to end the chain of infection, hopefully bringing its progression to a halt. The problem with tracking something on this scale, however, is the sheer volume and variety of data needed to create an accurate picture of what’s going on.
It is into that void that armies of programmers and developers have stepped, building the computing and visualization infrastructure needed for the task. In fact, the numbers of confirmed cases and casualties are only publicly available thanks to just such efforts. Better still, any programmer out there can access the datasets related to the coronavirus’s spread and may use it to build whatever modeling tools they wish. Data sources include:
- Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Cases provided by Johns Hopkins University CSSE
- The COVID Tracking Project
- COVID-19 Data Italy, Open source data provided by the Italian state
Programmers interested in using the available data have had a real impact by helping the public better understand what’s happening in their area concerning the coronavirus, which is almost certainly saving lives.
This open-source iOS coronavirus tracking app is a perfect example of that in action. It brings real-time data aggregation and visualization to the iOS platform, which is useful both for medical professionals and the general public.
Interpreting and Using the Data
Making easy-to-use visualization tools is not all that programmers could do with the data, though. Those with experience in programming related to statistical analysis could pitch in by creating models that seek to predict how the virus might spread within their community. That could be critical when you consider that the speed with which the virus has spread is making it difficult for the medical community to shift resources to where they’re needed most.
For that reason, software maker Neo4j is making its commercial data graphing software free to programmers interested in using it to map the spread of coronavirus. They’re also hosting a hack-a-thon on the subject, which has already spawned a variety of GitHub projects that programmers around the world can lend their talents to.
For those with limited knowledge of the field of data graphing, it’s an excellent opportunity to learn, as well. A good place to start is with O’Reilly’s Graph Databases: New Opportunities for Connected Data, which provides enough of a primer on the subject to get started on a project.
Helping Communities Adapt and Survive
Although there are plenty of avenues related to the coronavirus itself for programmers to explore if they want to help, that’s not the only way they can. That’s because the global spread of the pandemic has upended the daily lives of millions around the world—leaving innumerable logistical, humanitarian, and other problems in its wake.
That seems to be the impetus behind IBM’s recent decision to add the COVID-19 pandemic to the slate of the 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge. The annual event, which aims to tackle big problems with elegant programmatic solutions, is now soliciting programmers and developers to come up with solutions to some of the nonhealth-related challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Interested programmers are free to build whatever kind of software solution they wish to address a coronavirus-related need and submit it for consideration by the April, 27 initial submission deadline. To help get the ball rolling, IBM has also provided starter kits that contain the broad outlines of the types of projects they’re hoping to see. So far, the available starter kits are focused on the topics of:
The aim is to build digital tools to help affected communities carry on with daily life and adapt to the disruptions that coronavirus-related measures have created. It’s an excellent way for programmers and developers to lend their talents to help those affected by the coronavirus crisis.
And if that’s not enough motivation, there’s also a $200,000 prize at stake for the project judged to be most useful. In this case, though, winning isn’t everything—or even anything at all—and every contribution will help.
Contributing to a Cure
There’s one more thing that the world’s programmers could and should be doing to assist in ending the coronavirus threat. They should be lending their spare computing power to assist in the ongoing analysis of the COVID-19 virus in the hopes of finding a cure.
As a group, programmers tend to have more computers at their disposal than the average person, and they can put all of that hardware to use by installing the Folding@Home client on every one of them. The software, for those not familiar with it, creates a massive global supercomputer out of users’ spare computational cycles.
Right now, that computational power is busy going all-out to create simulations of the way that the protein structure of the COVID-19 virus moves and changes, to find a target for a wide range of experimental drugs that may be able to fight it.
They liken the process of hitting upon the right simulation to winning the lottery, meaning the more tickets they have, the better the odds they’ll end up with the winning combination. Unlike a lottery, however, this is a project where everyone would win.
The best part of this option is that it’s one that requires absolutely no effort by participants. That means we could all do our part to help and still have plenty of time left over to read through the mountain of excellent programming books we’re usually too busy to pick up.
And for those who are studious enough to have run out of those, I suggest picking up a copy of Algorithms to Live By, written by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. It’s a fascinating study of the not-always-obvious connection between the logic of computer algorithms and the way we solve everyday, real-life problems. While not specifically about programming, per se, it’s an interesting read nonetheless.
Keep Calm and Code On
With programmers everywhere doing their best to help, there’s no telling how many of the projects mentioned here (and the countless others in progress) will bear fruit and do some real good.
The one thing that’s clear is that if even one of them succeeds, it would be well worth all of our collective efforts. After all, we’re facing a situation that’s quite unlike anything most of us have ever seen, and it’s up to all of us to do anything we can to lend a hand.
There’s plenty of ways to do it, and every one of them is as valid and useful as the next. So for the duration of this crisis, let’s all throw our collective ingenuity and energy behind this one big goal—and let’s help add the coronavirus to the long list of challenges that humanity has faced and overcome. Now let’s get to work.