Technology in a year of pandemic foment has been a forcing function driving closer connectiveness and problem solving. The power of COTS solutions coupled to human wherewithal can help quickly create social transformation..
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- Technology can enable social transformation.
- People are intrinsic to finding solutions
- Common, off-the-shelf technology can be leveraged quickly to solve social problems
- New technologies can allow us to rapidly iterate solutions
About David Graham
Dave Graham is the Director of Emerging Technology Messaging at Dell Technologies, a Ph.D. candidate at University College of Dublin SMARTLab, and the host of the Elemental Collision podcast and video series highlighting startups, diverse and inclusive technologies and companies, as well as technological innovation..
Contacting David Graham:
By David Graham.
A little over a decade ago, I was a social worker. Working with those who needed social supports, whether financial or otherwise, shone a light on the struggle with ensuring that those who required aide, received it. Frustration with process, with technology, with the tools that could be used to expedite decision making processes or help were commonplace. What was ostensibly a “people problem” was hampered by the intersection with technology, usually to the negative. Driven by antiquated terminals and technology, it was difficult to ensure timely access and application for services through the various agencies and court systems I worked within. Thankfully, as the years have passed, technology has moved beyond what it once was, bringing with it a plethora of benefits that can be realized more rapidly than ever before. As I’ll discuss below, in the intervening 6 months, I’ve been privileged to see and be a part of how this technological progress has changed how communities interact with social supports in new and exciting ways.
When Covid-19 roared onto the international stage in early of 2020, it became apparent that some level of social support would be needed. People who were stuck at home, had no access to services, personal protective equipment or groceries were going to need help beyond what the normal infrastructure could provide. In the weeks that followed, we all witnessed the wide-scale rampage that Covid-19 caused, particularly amongst those who could not fend for themselves. Nursing homes experienced high transmission rates, marginalized and indigenous communities were forced to make accommodations for government short-sightedness, workforces across all industries and verticals were sent home and schools were forced to restrict physical access to facilities. In the midst of this, people began to unite to solve these problems with technology and willpower, leveraging the collective power of community to change the narrative. Two stories were particularly powerful to me, CovidCommunityResponse.ie and OpenSourceVentilator.ie.
The Republic of Ireland has roughly five million citizens with a population density, in 2020, of 72 persons per square kilometer. As such, it faces unique challenges when it comes to connecting people to resources under the auspices of a global pandemic. The ideal behind CovidCommunityResponse.ie (CCR) was to stand up a rapid response communications hub using open and closed source componentry as quickly as possible. By tapping into the ideals of a connected community, CCR was able to quickly leverage technologies like Discord, Zendesk and Twilio to establish a rapid text and message driven infrastructure to get people connected to each other. Establishing this nationwide “helpdesk”, connected through common language and engagement, those in need were able to be connected to those who could provide, safely and securely. By using common, off-the-shelf software with a limited amount of re-tooling, CCR was able to be brought to bear with rapid efficiency and work within the bounds of government agencies to provide relief.
The second project I was able to witness was OpenSourceVentilator.ie. TeamOSV, as it was colloquially called, embarked on rapid prototyping of Ambu-bag systems, designed to shore up what was then a lack of appropriate emergency ventilation systems. By drawing on a global community of hardware and software engineers, project managers, doctors and nurses, TeamOSV was able to rapidly develop workable ventilator prototypes within weeks. Using tools like Slack, Github and Gitlab, Solidworks, OnShape, Altium and others, allowed designs to be iterated quickly and changes to be incorporated in near real-time. Coupled to the widespread availability of 3D printers using medical-grade PLA and other high-grade polymers and metals, these prototypes were open sourced and available to be iterated upon by anyone in the community, regardless of geographic location. The sheer volume of participants and designs was overwhelming and, as the medical community started to recognize the value in emergency ventilation designs, it brought along interest from government agencies around the world. The value of community, united in purpose, was powerfully shown.
Technology was a foundational element to both approaches. For CCR, the availability to rapidly deploy helpdesk software in the cloud to solve problems happening in real-time in rural, suburban and urban environments enabled marginalized communities of people to receive aide. TeamOSV was able to use common messaging tools, standardized software and repositories and, rapid prototyping hardware to quickly iterate, test, and build ventilator designs based on the ever-changing presentation of Covid-19 around the world. In both cases, technology enabled, rather than detracted from, communication, service and ultimately, social transformation.
In the weeks, months and years ahead, the world will undoubtably face new challenges and opportunities to apply technology to social change. The challenges will always be present to ensure that what is done is to the benefit of society at large and not just a momentary cause. The lessons learned from enabling rapid response in CCR and TeamOSV cannot be overstated: when called to solve problems, people, leveraging technology, are unstoppable. The caution remains, however, that the misuse of technology is of equal notability. Without appropriate checks and balances, technology is easily capable of turning good intentions into chaos, purpose into aimlessness. We need to ensure that balance is achieved by listening to the agencies and social currents that carry the voices of those that need to us. As we continue to fight the ravages of Covid-19, I’m honoured to have spent time working with the people and technologies that have enabled a small island of hope to appear in an ocean of agitation.