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Crowdsourcing Solutions for COVID-19: What Engineers Can Expect

By Sreevas Sahasranamam, Ph.D.

COVID-19 is having a marked impact on all walks of life — social, economic, political, emotional, and obviously health perspective. Given the wide-ranging impact, a number of online platforms have come up, asking for ideas, technologies and solutions on all these fronts. For instance, governments have come up with portals such as COVID-19 solution challenge; technical associations like IEEE have opened funding calls for supporting COVID-19 projects; start-up incubators have launched campaigns like BreakCorona to offer support to innovations for COVID-19. The common underlying thread to all these portals is the reliance on the wisdom of online crowd to offer solutions, which is popularly called crowdsourcing. In this post, the focus is on crowdsourcing of technological innovations for combating COVID-19 challenges, with some pointers on what engineers should expect while developing solutions in such emergencies.

IEEE has had a pioneering role in employing crowdsourcing for tackling social challenges. IEEE Special Interest Group in Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) is an impactful model in this regard, which brings together engineering students to develop ideas for solving global humanitarian challenges. One of the initial crowdsourcing initiatives of IEEE SIGHT, which I was also lucky to have been a part of during my engineering days, was the IEEE Humanitarian Page Contest in 2011-2012. This was an initiative of IEEE Region 10 Humanitarian committee, to develop a web portal that would create awareness on the humanitarian challenges and to establish a discussion forum where engineering student volunteers from across the globe could participate to develop solutions. Our initial analysis on the response to this web-portal was very encouraging, both on the front of student engagement and idea quality, making a strong case for scaling up such an approach for meeting social challenges. Disaster and pandemic situations like COVID-19, however, pose an additional layer of complexity given the very short response time that is available to meet with the social challenges. In prior instances of earthquakes and floods, crowdsourced platforms — such as Digital Humanitarian Network, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and KeralaRescue —have proved to be quite valuable.

What do engineering innovators need to expect while being part of crowdsourced solutions to COVID-19?

  • Dealing with government – In disaster response situations like COVID-19, government would be your main stakeholder. This means that inputs to your crowdsourcing solutions would come from the government; you would need to coordinate with government personnel to test your idea; and rely on the government to scale up the idea. In most cases, government would also be the main customer and user of the crowdsourced solution. Government involves multiple layers of bureaucracy and its personnel have different levels of technical knowledge. This requires engineers to communicate their ideas in a non-technical manner and have the soft skills to navigate the bureaucracy.
  • Working in multi-disciplinary team – In the case of COVID-19, given the health dimension, doctors and health personnel would have key inputs to the crowdsourced solutions. Alongside government, as mentioned earlier, this necessitates engineers to work in multi-disciplinary teams, factoring in diverse inputs, which they need to catch-up on very quickly. From my first-hand experience leading on a course called Enterprise VIP at Strathclyde Business School, where I support students working in multi-disciplinary teams, I know that it is very difficult to get multi-disciplinary thinking going quickly. Nevertheless, responses to disaster situations like COVID-19 offer no other choice.
  • Dynamic ideation and iteration – As mentioned earlier, a characterizing feature of disasters like COVID-19 is the very short response time available. The team of engineers developing the crowdsourced solution would need to move from ideation to initial prototype very quickly. For example, in the case of KeralaRescue (a crowdsourced platform developed by IEEE Kerala Section volunteers with the support of state government during 2018 floods in Kerala), this happened over one day. Considering the dynamic and emergent nature of disaster situations, engineers also need to be ready and flexible for rapid iterations and modifications to the product.
  • Rapid scaling – Given the enormous scale of impact of COVID-19, the crowdsourced solution developed needs to match it in scale. Not just that, it needs to achieve the scale up very rapidly as well. For instance, in the case of KeralaRescue, the time between first prototype of the solution to the state government publicizing it on their social media channel was 4 days. This means that the technology architecture of crowdsourced solution developed by engineers needs to be envisioned right from the ideation stage to anticipate the rapid scaling up.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Sahil Sameer, a key volunteer who was part of the KeralaRescue team for his inputs on it.

Dr. Sreevas Sahasranamam is Chancellor’s Fellow (Lecturer/Assistant Professor) at Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow, United Kingdom. He may be contacted at sreevas.sahasranamam@strath.ac.uk, or connect with him on LinkedIn.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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