Many of us will take collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Trello for granted. They’ve become the de rigueur way for us to operate at work, avoiding endless meetings or offering a vehicle to swerve confusing, lengthy email chains.
Now, they’re forming the bedrock of a community response at scale, based on open source principles, to promote knowledge sharing among specialists in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
At first glance, The Coronavirus Tech Handbook looks just like a Google Doc. Actually, it is a Google Doc – but with ongoing technical work in the background to keep the contributions of its thousands of participants flowing, despite the high traffic. The project is a library for specialists, designed to pool information in technical fields, as well as providing a crowdsourced outlet for more general health and coping strategies, and it’s grown at an enormous rate in the few weeks it has existed.
The first iteration of the project focused on centralising the initial wave of available coronavirus data. Doctors quickly approached the founder of the project, Edward Saperia, to say that they had not themselves been receiving good advice, and that they were looking for a place to coordinate – eventually deciding to use the Handbook. At the same time, there was increased need for information on remote working, especially in professions such as teaching. Next, the mutual aid groups became involved.
Juggling the coordination of the page, Saperia now describes himself as a “crisis taxonomist”.
“When there’s a complex, fast-moving problem, which has many different effects, even just knowing what’s happening is very difficult,” Saperia tells Techworld by phone.
He’s studied crowdsourcing for seven years, including running the Wikipedia global conference in 2014, and is currently dean of the London College of Political Technologists – a group with a mission to drive inter-agency collaboration with members in central government, volunteer organisations, activists, and “everything in between”.
The Handbook covers everything from technological responses through to employment law, plus toolkits for coping at home, parenting, or frameworks for hosting remote events.
There’s a mutual aid section catering to the more than 1,000 community groups that sprung up in the weeks since the pandemic took hold of Britain, lists of institutional responses, tracking the behaviour of governments, bereavement support, and sections on epidemiology and engineering – covering models and forecasting, as well as open source 3D-printed designs.
It is, in short, comprehensive – especially for a library that has existed only weeks. And it is people-powered, driven by a grassroots desire to share data and gain much-needed clarity across fields.
Prior to setting up the Handbook in early March, one of Saperia’s students, who specialises in forecasting, said that he thought the coronavirus crisis was set to dramatically worsen. They agreed about the gravity of the situation, and set about designing a library to pool resources.
The Handbook itself notes that it’s not a place for the public to get advice, but is a space for “specialists to collaborate and make sure the best solutions are quickly shared and deployed”.
“The thing that struck me was: ‘Oh god, in a week’s time, a billion people are going to think how can I help? And if you don’t get in front of that, it’s going to be a mess,” Saperia says.
“There’s this thing called the public sector in civil society, this ecosystem to respond to things like this. When something comes along that requires rapid action, there’s a tendency for everyone to drop down to a low level of sophistication, like I’m going to stop doing my job and I’m going to start delivering things to my neighbour.
“But the whole point of that infrastructure is it’s sophisticated, and a complex ecosystem of the right components, which allows for specialisations of tasks which has evolved over a long time. The main thing you need to do is to try and preserve that structure as much as possible, so if you have a whole flood of volunteers, you need to send them to the whole of civil society, not just the front line.”
And bootstrapping a wiki such as The Coronavirus Handbook, in crowdsourcing parlance, is not without its hurdles.
“The reason why it’s hard is because if it is at all harder than what people would do normally, they won’t bother,” says Saperia. “But somehow magically, Google has trained everyone to use Google Docs … So [users] are like, okay, fine: I was going to make a Google Doc and share around my network anyway to talk about this – but I can just use this one.”
The site is experiencing a heavy technical load, and Google tends to stutter up until about 100 contributors are operating on a doc simultaneously. So the group has customised the page to boot people from idle sessions, with a button to push in case they wish to edit again. A queue page warns upon loading that it is experiencing huge technical demand, but pushes the user through when it can, to keep up with demand.
Small silver linings?
When we talk, Saperia tells me that he recently had his first cry about the situation, and, like many, is working non-stop. Despite this, while he is devastated by the outbreak, he hopes that a permanent, people-centred infrastructure may rise from the ashes of crisis.
“This is like a war, but in a way all the phones would be down – this is the opposite. All of the technology is there, you just can’t go outside.
“I think we’ll see big developments, and a resurgence in civil society and community resilience after this,” he says. “These mutual aid groups will be relationships people keep for the rest of their lives. At least, that could potentially have some positive effect.
“Let’s not forget the NHS was made because of the war – so we can look for silver linings.”
To help, Saperia urges specialists to understand that their “skills are very valuable and very useful, and lots of people need them”, but that it is precisely orchestrated individual and collective action that will be of most use.
“Mostly, that will be your knowledge of what can be done, and what can’t be done, and what infrastructure already exists,” he says.
“Trying to come up with a solution to crises on your own won’t be successful. But if you find the organisations that are struggling for response and need help, that will be successful. So if you can find an organisation that needs your help and offer your specialist advice, that is very valuable to them.
“Somehow, the less obvious an organisation is, the better. One with a name you’ve heard of probably doesn’t need help. One whose name you haven’t heard of, probably doesn’t have 100 volunteers showing up.”
In the meantime, he says that the library can and should serve as a locus for specialist response efforts. It can be a central landing page for leading efforts in the fight against coronavirus, and if users have something to contribute, then they should.
“This is an ecosystem, and it is the ecosystem working well, that allows for a sophisticated response to this crisis. The point of this library is, if you find something that someone’s made in response to this crisis – put it in the library. If you make something, put it in the library. If you’re thinking about doing something, check in the library first to see if someone else hasn’t already done it.
“Because if everyone is deciding what to do, and everyone does the most obvious thing, that’s not going to help. And you know, as a technologist, the point of technology, is that it scales and what that means in practice is every single person is a specialist.
“If you can do something which can serve the whole world, then only one of you needs to do it. So we have here 5000 people who want to help, we have to find 5000 difficult different things to do.
“And that’s difficult. That’s a coordination problem. So, you know, the best thing you can do is sit and wait and be responsive, in the sense of like, be actively looking for ways you can help and be patient in that. And when you find a way you can help, do it.”