How to Help Science and Tech Experts With the Coronavirus Response

Photo: Mayur Kakade/Moment/Getty Images

TThere’s a certain paralysis many of us are feeling right now: We want to be helpful during this pandemic, but aren’t sure how to do so safely from our homes.

Fortunately, being stuck inside doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Forge recently shared some ways to support your community while social distancing — you can volunteer to call isolated seniors, or tutor students who are home during school closures, or sew masks for those who need them.

And you might want to look beyond your immediate community, too, to the science and tech experts working on vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. Across the country and around the world, researchers are calling on the public to provide useful data. Here’s what you can do to help.

Lend your (literal) voice

Did you know that artificial intelligence (A.I.) may be able to detect whether or not you have Covid-19 just from the sound of your voice? That’s the proposition of the startup Voca.ai, which plans to use voice forensic technology that looks at voice patterns, tones, and other sounds to determine if someone has a unique illness. The company has teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University to collect voice data from both healthy people and people who have tested positive for Covid-19.

To participate, all you need to do is provide daily voice recordings and answer a few questions on your home computer. The ultimate crowd-produced results will be used by researchers to provide remote testing for Covid-19 at no cost to anyone in the world.

Volunteer your computer’s time

Supercomputers, capable of testing out many different ideas and analyzing large amounts of data quickly, can help us find new ways to respond to diseases. The problem is that the use of these computers is very expensive, and access to them is limited.

Several years ago, the leaders behind the Folding@Home project came up with a solution: Ask the public to volunteer their personal computers to crowdsource scientific research analysis. The research group focuses on a technique called protein folding, which has provided insights on ALS, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and other diseases. It is now being used to better understand the coronavirus.

To help, download the software from Folding@Home. While you go about your usual business on your computer, the software runs in the background to find cures. You can sign up anonymously, create a username, or can create or join a team. (Perhaps this can be a great at-home classroom activity.)

Share your smartphone data

A number of organizations are developing ways to track the movement of individuals in a community. For example, if you volunteer to download an app on your smartphone, and then get the coronavirus later, health officials could look to that app to understand how the virus moves from one location to another, while also warning those with whom you may have crossed paths.

One of these apps is Private Kit, designed by researchers from MIT and Harvard, in collaboration with volunteer experts from Facebook and Uber. While it’s still in the early stages of development, you can help the researchers now by downloading it (it’s available for both iOS and Android), testing it out, and providing them with feedback.

Share your smartwatch data

The Covidentify project, run by Duke University, is investigating whether data collected from smartphones and smartwatches can determine whether you have Covid-19. Because those who do not display symptoms can still spread the disease, researchers are trying to learn how to detect the virus early.

To participate in this study, you just need to answer two questions daily for a month, and then weekly for another two months. Right now, you can only connect a Fitbit, but the team is working to include Garmin, Apple Watch, Samsung, Polar, Pebble, and other smartwatch brands.

Share your Covid-19 test results

The Greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN), led by major research institutions and hospitals in Seattle and conducted in partnership with local health officials, is collecting data on how the coronavirus is spreading in Seattle. Funding is provided by Bill Gates’ private Gates Ventures investment arm, and Amazon Cares is helping with the collection of test kits.

Anyone from the Seattle area interested in the study can answer a few simple questions. If you’re selected, you’ll receive a coronavirus test kit. All volunteers can see their personal results on a secure website and public health officials will benefit by better understanding the spread.

Test vaccines

Developing a vaccine for Covid-19 will likely take more than a year, but clinical trials are starting now. The first four volunteers began their test in March at Kaiser Permanente in Seattle. Government agencies, universities, nonprofit organizations, and companies from all over the world will be looking for more volunteers to test these vaccines.

The organization best known for clinical trials in the United States is the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, led by Anthony Fauci. Volunteer for an NIH clinical trial here.

As of this writing, there are more than 200 public and privately funded clinical trials related to coronavirus all over the world. You can find out about these trials, where they occur, and which ones are recruiting patients at ClinicalTrials.gov.

For those with a scientific or technical background, you can find even more ways to contribute. But if nothing here is doable for you right now, keep in mind that all these projects can use more funding. Many of the scientists and technical professionals involved are volunteers themselves, or would like to hire more people so that their research can happen at a faster pace.

In a global crisis, it’s worth remembering that we’re also a global community fighting this pandemic, even if some of us are doing the fighting from inside our homes. Even in the era of social distancing, we should do all that we can to help each other make it through.

Dr. Deborah D. Stine is a freelance consultant, policy analyst, writer, video producer, professor, and study director in science, tech, and innovation policy.

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