Open Source software, once the scorn of Microsoft and profit-seeking software developers, is playing an active role in efforts to combat COVID-19’s spread. Several open source projects are assisting health providers and helping people mitigate some of the hardships associated with the pandemic.

Often, open source accomplishments in the public health and government services fields go unreported. This time, however, in response to COVID-19’s worldwide assault, open source technologies are ramping up to pursue potentially world-saving results.

“Open Source software is the platform that virtually all mitigation efforts are built on top of. These current efforts use the foundational software that we use every day,” said Thomas Hatch, CTO of SaltStack.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN’s World Health Organization run open source wares. The great gift that open source developers have given the world is a foundational technological advancement that almost certainly has been critical in saving lives, explained Hatch.

“We easily get caught up in the ideas around needing specific technology to combat the specific problems, but open source is the tide that raises all ships,” he said. “I for one, am proud to be a contributor to the advancement of humanity, which has and continues to deliver tools that can be used to fight even the most dire crises.”

Following is a rundown of some of the most prominent open source initiatives battling the coronavirus onslaught.

CHIME Aids Capacity Planning

CHIME , or COVID-19 Hospital Impact Model for Epidemics, is a software application developed by the Predictive Healthcare team at Penn Medicine. This tool leverages SIR modeling to assist hospitals with capacity planning around COVID-19.

A SIR model is an epidemiological model that computes the theoretical number of people infected with a contagious illness in a closed population over time. Its name comes from the coupled equations relating the number of susceptible people S(t), the number of infected people I(t) and the number of recovered people R(t).

Private Kit Discreetly Tracks Exposure

Private Kit: Safe Paths, an app available for iOS and Android, shares information about your movements in a privacy-preserving way. It could help health officials tackle coronavirus hot spots, according to its developers.

Private Kit lets you know if you have crossed paths with someone who is infected. The app then shares this data with other users in a manner that preserves the user privacy.

Developed by MIT Media Lab and Harvard University, it could help curb the spread of COVID-19, according to Ramesh Raskar, who heads the research team behind the app. Software engineers at Facebook and Uber helped develop the free app.

The process of identifying and isolating infected individuals and those in contact with them requires aggressive measures that are impeded by mobile phone restrictions in some countries. Private Kit: Safe Paths helps solve problems associated with finding infected persons so medical services can test them and disinfect locations.

The app shares encrypted location data without the participation of a central authority. Users can see if they were near others carrying the coronavirus without learning their identities. An infected person using the app can choose to share location data with health officials.

Nextstrain Tracks Pathogen Evolution

The Nextstrain project harnesses the scientific and public health potential of pathogen genome data. It is a software tool for tracking pathogen evolution in real time.

Nextstrain provides a continually updated view of publicly available data with analytic and visualization tools for community use. The project’s goal is to aid epidemiological understanding and improve outbreak response.

Nextstrain has been in use for three years. It uses reproducible bioinformatics tooling and an innovative interactive visualization platform to provide continually updated views into the phylogenomics of various pathogens, all available on the website.

Project Openair Targets Respiratory Distress

ProjectOpenAir researchers seek solutions for medical respirator shortages on a global scale. Some 4,000 people participate in the project.

A lot of community interest is forming around respirators and ventilators. There are two major categories of need: respirators for healthcare providers; and ventilators for patients.

“These are two very different issues,” said Sherry Lassiter, director of Fab Lab Program and the Center for Bits and Atoms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“There are large interest groups formed around these needs,” she told LinuxInsider. “Project OpenAir is getting a lot of traction.”

Project volunteers are working on making medical devices that can be reproduced and assembled locally anywhere in the world.

Zocal Messenger Alleviates Lockdown Limitations

The Zocal Messenger app addresses the hardships associated with lockdowns and shelter-in-place voluntary quarantines.

Zocal Messenger is a location-based messenger app that makes it easy to share live locations and message loved ones based on where they are. With the Coronavirus pandemic triggering emergency lockdowns, Zocal can help users keep track of loved ones when they venture out of the house for essential errands, for example.

The service is completely free to download and use. The app is available at the App Store and Google Play.

“Usage has spiked 600 percent since the pandemic,” said Anish Godha, founder of the Zocal app.

Location sharing on other apps is usually just a feature within chats. Zocal is designed specifically for location, so there is a whole ecosystem of features and privacy settings built around location-based messaging, he told LinuxInsider.

As soon as you open the app, you do not see your chats. Instead, you see a map of your contacts distributed around the world by city, along with anyone who is sharing live location with you.

You then can click on specific people and chat with them based on where they are, or even mass message your contacts based on their city. It is easier to use a service specifically designed for that purpose, according to Godha.

Open Source Contagion Pattern Research Under Way

The U.S. Consumer Healthcare Advocacy Group, or USCHAG, employs deep learning algorithms to advocate on behalf of consumers within the health and wellness space.

USCHAG last week announced that it has started to study the contagion pattern of COVID-19.

By collecting and releasing collated data related to the path COVID-19 has taken, researchers discovered how to track and predict the spread of the virus in real time using an open source platform. The process could be instrumental in containment and future outbreak control, according to USCHAG.

While epidemiologists already have identified the genome responsible for the virus, the patterns by which it spreads are still wholly unknown. This is where open source data collection and release can step in and contribute to research and development of solutions, faster than ever before.

“Lack of information is often the catalyst for mass panic when it comes to fast-spreading disease. We see some very applicable ways to help contain and educate through data that can be collated on the quantum level, that when released, has the ability to definitively slow or even stop the spread of these super bugs and viruses before they reach pandemic proportions,” said Scott George, USCHAG CEO.

The USCHAG platform relies on artificial intelligence accelerated by quantum computing to solve a myriad of healthcare issues. By using open source data via sources like Nextstrain, the process can guide and expedite research techniques prior to epidemic growth.

Open source data is the key to quick assessment of epidemic solutions and other health issues. Prompt assessment allows doctors and scientists to create plans and procedures before a crisis gets out of control. Eventually, the USCHAG application may be able to stop a virus such as COVID-19 before it becomes an epidemic.

Applying open source data to eradicate complex public health issues quickly, using massive amounts of data shared in real time, will be a huge achievement — especially when compared to how data is collected and correlated now, marveled George.

“Moving to an open source platform of data sharing flies in the face of conventional scientific findings, which currently include peer review and curation of data in a more analog system,” he said.

Fab Lab Facilitates Humanitarian Aid

The Fab Lab network started in 2001 as a project of the Center for Bits & Atoms at MIT. The first 12 to 15 fab labs were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the community outreach component of an IT Center grant.

Since those first labs were established, Fab Lab has doubled in size every 18 to 24 months. The network now comprises approximately 2,000 labs in 125-plus countries, according to Fab Lab’s Lassiter, who directs the network. The Fab Foundation spun off from MIT in 2009 to support its growth and help provide the resources to make a better impact.

“There is a growing community both in fab labs and the maker movement around humanitarian aid,” Lassiter said.

Humanitarian aid is not as simple as just wanting to help and raising your hand. What is really needed, what is safe, what materials to use, how to manufacture and quality control the product, how to get the product to the population in crisis, how to distribute are all an involved part of the open source process, she explained.

One of the key projects the Fab Labs are undertaking is contributing to the development of medical respirators. Air pressure, in and outflow, are going to be important, as well as materials for masks, appropriate filters, simplicity of design and use, and portability.

If there is a product design that is approved for humanitarian use and is approved for the open source community to reproduce, and is safe, then the process of helping is easier. Making these newer products open source is really important so that we do not have to jump over IP hurdles in addition to all of the others, said Lassiter.

“I think innovating in the context of COVID-19 demonstrates the power of a globally networked, open source, unified community with the tools for technology innovation,” she remarked. “I think what’s most important to this network is making good, important, concrete impact in the world.”

Global teams of Fablabbers can share knowledge and can design equipment at more then 1,500 places around the globe, noted Ohadino Meyuhas, architect at Fab Labs.

“If the design of these products will be open. We will be able to fabricate it everywhere, and at the same time fabbers can redesign and modify it to local needs and share the improvements with others,” he told LinuxInsider.

A good example of this process can be found here. Every lab can 3D-print the shield body and the face safety shield can be laser cut.

However, the medical community asked for it to cover more than the face, so teams have modified the design and shared the files in order to help others, Meyuhas explained. “This is the power of an amazing global network like the Fab Lab network driven by an open source state of mind.”


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.