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Meet the Groundswell of Open Source COVID-19 Efforts

As the global pandemic continues, the number of open source COVID-19 software and hardware projects – developed by diverse open source communities – continues to grow.

Open source communities around the world have been on the forefront of assisting medical researchers, health care professionals and government health agencies with research on the coronavirus responsible for the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world.

"Open" means the developers of a project – whether that be software, a physical device, or research papers – have agreed that the project's product can be freely distributed and redistributed without licensing fees. While open source is most often associated with the software development process the term was coined to define, the distribution approach is being applied in other intellectual property fields as diverse as hardware, research, writing and visual.

Openness has been particularly important to those dealing with the pandemic. Having research results made available under a Creative Commons license, for example, means the information can be freely copied and distributed to all researchers to whom it would be useful. Open source software allows teams of developers to design software to meet specialized needs cheaply for what are essentially small niche markets: software used specifically to administer COVID-19 cases, or software designed to help research labs do work with specialized proteins that might be useful for treating COVID-19.

Much of the COVID-19 help from the software-driven open source community has come in the form of hackathons, events in which software coders and developers get together (online instead of face-to-face during the pandemic) to develop software for the common good. According to the nonprofit health data standards-development organization Health Level 7 (HL7) International,  there have been at least 20 major COVID-19-focused open source hackathons, sponsored by a wide range of groups that includes MIT, Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft Research, and even the White House.

The organization leading the charge on the software front has been the Debian Project. The organization, which develops the foundational Debian Linux distribution, also develops a specialized distribution called Debian Med as part of its Debian Pure Blend line. (That line releases specialized operating systems designed to meet needs specific to certain industries or users.)

Debian Med is focused on medicine and health care, and is available with collections of free software packages that are sorted by categories, called tasks, with each category addressing a different area of medicine. There's a category for medical practice and patient management, for example, as well as separate categories for molecular biology, medical imaging, psychology and so on.

When Debian held a special open source COVID-19 Biohackathon in early April, much – but not all – of the work was to increase Debian Med's usefulness on the COVID-19 front, both for researchers seeking to develop treatments or vaccines, and for the health care workers on the front lines in hospitals and clinics around the world. The software packages were designed for everything from medical practice management to the sequencing of RNA.

The open source COVID-19 hackathon Debian held in March was so successful that the project is currently holding another COVID-19 Biohackathon, which began on June 15 and will run through June 21.

"We considered the outcome a great success in terms of the approached tasks, the new members we gained and the support of Debian infrastructure teams," Andreas Tille, the "initiator" of Debian Med, wrote in a post to the Debian email list. "COVID-19 is not over and the Debian Med team wants to do another week of hackathon to continue with this great success."

The hardware open source community, often referenced as the maker movement, has also been hard at work.

Makers have made multiple efforts to help supply hospitals and clinics with inexpensive and easy to make medical devices. Tom Soderstrom, the IT chief innovation officer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, designed three models of washable, reusable, comfortable respirator masks that can be printed on 3D printers at a cost of about $2 each. The designs, 3D printer files, detailed test results, as well as build and test instructions are all available online, and the whole project has been released as open source.

Ventilators, essential to treating the worst cases of COVID-19, have also been in short supply, and there are a number of open source projects underway to develop low cost ventilators that can be made from 3D printed parts. Included are some designs that could cost less than $100 to produce, a vital consideration for small clinics in third-world countries, such as the OpenLung Emergency Medical Ventilator that uses a bag valve mask.

These ventilators, respirators and hackathons are only a small part of the involvement of various open source communities in fighting COVID-19. In March, Mozilla, the organization behind the open source Firefox web browser, announced the open source COVID-19 Solutions Fund as part of its Open Source Support Program, which grants awards of up to $50,000 each to open source projects responding to COVID-19.

In addition, Mozilla is also openly supporting the Open COVID Pledge, an international coalition of scientists, technologists, and legal experts that is calling on companies, universities and other organizations to make their intellectual property temporarily available free of charge for use in ending the pandemic and minimizing its impact.

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