COVID-19 Series, Part III: Health Technology: How Engineers, Developers, & Designers Are Coming Together to Solve Big Problems

COVID-19 Series, Part III: Health Technology: How Engineers, Developers, & Designers Are Coming Together to Solve Big Problems
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There’s been no shortage of people attempting to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our first article in this series, we discuss a lot of the positive ways folks are helping one another get through these hard times (check it out here). Mission Data is first and foremost a tech company, so it’s interesting to us to see all sorts of ways people are leveraging health technology to help solve problems resulting from this crisis. We want to share some of those remarkable stories with you.

WHO Chatbot

With so many articles sprouting daily regarding COVID-19 it can be overwhelming and difficult to find the information you truly need. In answer to that problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently launched a WhatsApp chatbot, with the hope of easing anxiety, answering critical questions, and providing necessary and legitimate resources to individuals worldwide regarding the virus. 

Nextstrain Opensource Pathogen Genome Data Project

In the wake of COVID-19, the Nextstrain project was launched. It involves combining what we know about pathogen genome data into an open-source platform to be leveraged by scientists, analysts, and healthcare professionals the world over. Their goal is to aid  ‘…epidemiological understanding and improve outbreak response.’ In addition to providing reports and data, they offer a bioinformatics and data visual toolkit that allows users to share their findings in a visual manner. 


A major concern during the quarantine was maintaining the physical, mental, and emotional health of citizens when going to the doctor is no longer an option. Countries around the globe are partnering with engineers to solve this problem with telemedicine. Here are but a few examples from China, Spain, and the US.

Rapid Pandemic Response Platform Research

Anytime we encounter a problem as a society, our hope is to learn from our mistakes in solving that problem so we can make better decisions the next time around. That’s exactly what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hopes to accomplish in their partnerships with AbCellera Biologics. This program includes a $30 million budget, with the end goal being to establish an end-to-end platform for rapid pandemic response. According to globalbiodefense.com, the “program seeks to develop a robust technology platform for pandemic response capable of developing field-ready medical countermeasures within 60 days of isolation of a viral pathogen.”

COVID-19 Student Response Team

On March 17th, the Association of American Medical Colleges announced their decision to pull student doctors from their clinical rotations, in an effort to conserve scarce protective equipment for essential medical personnel. For Harvard MD-PhD student Deborah Plana the news hit hard.  

“I know so many people at the front lines that are very likely going to get sick, and I’m just a couple of years away from [being] in that spot. In a weird way, I’m protected from it, yet so emotionally close to people who are not,” she says.  “It’s really frustrating to be told not to participate.” 

Deborah wasn’t alone, and so instead of spending her free time preparing her dissertation – She partnered with fellow Harvard medical students to form the Covid-19 Student Response Team. These students realized that clinicians had little time to keep up-to-date on medical literature so they divided up the most urgent questions and found answers. Within four days the team had produced a publicly available curriculum on the virus that exceeded 100 pages and was vetted by medical faculty. Since then the materials have been translated to other languages and shared worldwide. 

Covid-19 Scholarly Articles Database

On a similar vein, at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Library of Medicine (NLM) has provided access to existing scientific publications. Microsoft took this information to curate algorithms that found relevant articles to the pandemic. Finally, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) converted the articles from HTML and PDF into a database which is now available on AI2’s Semantic Scholar website. It was a joint effort amongst these three organizations that led to a vital solution for a better understanding of the virus.

Global Hackathon

The WHO has partnered with Facebook, Microsoft, and several other tech companies for a hackathon to promote the development of software to take on challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic. Tech companies Twitter, WeChat, TikTok, Pinterest, Slack, and Giphy are also participating. You can view the fruits of this labor on the Covid Global Hackathon project page. Over 18,000 people participated from 175 countries, leading to the creation of 1,560 projects. #BuildForCOVID19

Covid Near Your – Crowdsourced Data Platform

We’ve tackled some big issues so far in this article, but what if you have COVID-19, or think you might? It can be hard for citizens to know the latest symptoms or for governments and health professionals to track the spread. To solve this problem volunteers from Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, and other large companies worked nightly for a week to create a website called, outbreaksnearme.org. According to their website, “Covid Near You uses crowdsourced data to visualize maps to help citizens and public health agencies identify current and potential hotspots for the recent pandemic coronavirus, COVID-19.” The site relies on voluntary participation from the general public, and as of May 5th, over 575,000 people have shared their health information.

Fix the Mask Initiative

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that we’re facing a shortage of N95 masks across the world, and manufacturing new ones is difficult and time-consuming. Surgical masks are plentiful in most hospitals, but unfortunately without a good seal, they’re less effective in protecting against particles from COVID-19. So what can be done? Well, ex-Apple mechanical engineers designed the surgical mask brace to improve the sealing of surgical masks. 

We’ve barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful ways technology is helping mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Tweet us your favorite example of technology solutions amidst the virus!

← View previous articles in this series:
• Part I: Looking at the Glass Half Full Amidst a CrisisPART II: Free Content Available While You’re in Quarantine