As someone who has spent his entire career in open source, I’ve been closely following how open source is being used to fight the COVID-19 global pandemic.

I recently moderated a panel discussion on how open source is being used with regards to the coronavirus crisis. Our panel included Jim Webber (chief scientist at Neo4j), Ali Ghodsi (CEO at Databricks), Dan Eiref (senior director of product management at Markforged) and Debbie Theobold (CEO at Vecna Robotics). Below are some of the key takeaways from our discussion. They show how open source is a force for good in these uncertain times.

[ Also on InfoWorld: How data analysis, AI, and IoT will shape the post-pandemic ‘new normal’ ]

Open source enables knowledge sharing

Providing accurate information related to COVID-19 is an essential public service. Neo4J worked with data scientists and researchers to create CovidGraph. It is an open source graph database that brings together information on COVID-19 from different sources.

Jim Webber from Neo4j explained, “The power of graph data [distributed via an open source management system] is that it can pull together disparate datasets from medical practitioners, public health officials and other scientific publications into one central view. People can then make connections between all facts. This is useful when looking for future long-term solutions.” CovidGraph helped institutions like the Canadian government integrate data from multiple departments and facilities.

Databricks CEO Ali Ghodsi also spoke to his company’s efforts to democratize data and artificial intelligence. Their mission is to help data teams solve the world’s toughest problems. Databricks created Glow, an open source toolkit built on Apache Spark that enables large-scale genomic analysis. Glow helps scientists understand the development and spread of the COVID-19 virus. Databricks made their datasets available for free. Using Glow’s machine learning tools, scientists are creating predictive models that track the spread of COVID-19.

Amid the positive progress we’re seeing from this open approach to data, some considerations were raised about governments’ responsibilities with the data they collect. Maintaining public trust is always a huge concern. Still, as Ghodsi said, “The need for data is paramount. This isn’t a matter of using data to sell ads; it’s a matter of using data to save lives.”

Open source makes resources accessible on a global scale

It’s been amazing to watch how open source propels innovation in times of great need. Dan Eiref from 3D printer company Markforged spoke to how his company responded to the call to assist in the pandemic. Markforged open sourced the design for face masks and nasal swabs. They also partnered with doctors to create a protective face shield and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to more than 500 hospitals.

“Almost immediately we got demand from more than 10,000 users to replicate this design in their own communities, as well as requests to duplicate the mask on non-Markforged printers,” said Eiref. “We decided to open source the print files so anyone could have access to these protections.”

The advantage of open source is that it can quickly produce and distribute solutions to people who need it the most. Debbie Theobold, CEO of Vecna Robotics, shared how her company helped tackle the shortage of ventilators. Since COVID-19 began, medical manufacturers have struggled to provide enough ventilators, which can cost upwards of $40,000. Venca Robotics partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop an open source ventilator design called Ventiv, a low-cost alternative for emergency ventilation. “The rapid response from people to come together and offer solutions demonstrates the altruistic pull of the open source model to make a difference,” said Theobald.

Of course, there are still challenges for open source in the medical field. In the United States, all equipment requires FDA certification. The FDA isn’t used to open source, and open source isn’t used to dealing with FDA certification either. Fortunately, the FDA has adjusted its process to help make these designs available more quickly.

Open source accelerates digital transformations

A major question on everyone’s mind was how technology will affect our society post-pandemic. It’s already clear that long-term trends like online commerce, video conferencing, streaming services, cloud adoption, and even open source are all being accelerated as a result of COVID-19. Many organizations need to innovate faster in order to survive. Responding to long-term trends by slowly adjusting traditional offerings is often “too little, too late.”

[ Don’t miss the IDG Special Report: Navigating the pandemic ]

For example, Debbie Theobold of Vecna Robotics brought up how healthcare organizations can see greater success by embracing websites and mobile applications. “These efforts for better, patient-managed experiences that were going to happen eventually are happening right now,” Theobold said. “We’ve launched our mobile app and embraced things like online pre-registration. Companies that were relying on in-person interactions are now struggling to catch up. We’ve seen that technology-driven interactions are a necessity to keeping patient relationships.”

At Acquia, we’ve known for years that offering great digital experiences is a requirement for organizations looking to stay ahead.

In every crisis, open source software has empowered organizations to do more with less. It’s great to see this play out again. Open source teams have rallied to help and come up with some pretty incredible solutions when times are tough.

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