Tech pitches in to fight COVID-19 pandemic

A growing number of tech companies and IT pros are working in a variety of ways to help fight the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Here's a rundown of what some of them are doing to help fight COVID-19.

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The school said it hopes to be able to use the data collected by Facebook – and a separate effort involving Google – to accurately forecast coronavirus activity several weeks ahead of time.

Ryan Tibshirani, co-leader of the school's Delphi COVID-19 Response Team, said the effort has netted millions of responses and that the data tracks well with other sources of information about the pandemic. "I'm very happy with both the Facebook and Google survey results," said Tibshirani, associate professor of statistics and machine learning. "They both have exceeded my expectations."

The survey responses, when combined with data such as medical claims and testing, should allow CMU to highlight disease activity better than simply relying on positive coronavirus tests alone. "Most of the data sources are available on a county level and the researchers say they have good coverage of the 601 U.S. counties with at least 100,000 people," the school said in a statement.

"Within a few weeks, [CMU researchers] expect to use these estimates to provide forecasts that will help hospitals, first responders and other health officials anticipate the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admits likely to occur in their locales several weeks in advance."

Said Zuckerberg: "We’re partnering with faculty from the University of Maryland to expand this survey globally, and the team at Carnegie Mellon is building an application programming interface, or API, that will let researchers everywhere access the results. We’re hopeful that this will help governments and public health officials around the world who might not otherwise have this kind of precise data to make decisions in the weeks and months ahead."

Instagram founders launch Rt.live virus tracker

Entrepreneuers Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who founded Instagram in 2010 and later sold the company to Facebook, have launched Rt.live. The website uses continuously updated data from the COVID Tracking Project to determine how quickly the COVID-19 virus is spreading state by state in the U.S.

The site focuses on the virus' "Rt" value, where anything above 1.0 indicates it is spreading in a given state, and numbers below 1.0 indicate the spread is slowing down. 

"The metric being tracked here (Rt) represents the effective reproduction rate of the virus calculated for each locale," the site explains. "It lets us estimate how many secondary infections are likely to occur from a single infection in a specific area. Values over 1.0 mean we should expect more cases in that area, values under 1.0 mean we should expect fewer."

Rt.live data graph Rt.live

In an April 12 blog post, Systrom went into detail about tracking and how Rt values can change as a population modifies its behavior, by staying away from other people and keeping social distance, for instance.

"We’ve all witnessed that humans are adaptable," Systrom wrote. "Our behavior changes, whether mandated or self-prescribed, and that changes the effective R value at any point in time. As we socially distance and isolate, R plummets. Because the value changes so rapidly, Epidemiologists have argued that the only true way to combat COVID19 is to understand and manage by Rt.

"I agree, and I’d go further: we not only need to know Rt, we need to know local Rt," he wrote. "New York’s epidemic is vastly different than California’s and using a single number to describe them both is not useful. Knowing the local Rt allows us to manage the pandemic effectively."

TechCrunch initially reported about the site launch on April 18.

Bannersnack offers its Team collaboration option  free for 90 days

Collaboration platform company Bannersnack is offering its Team-level plan for free for 90 days to nonprofit groups fighting COVID-19.

"...You’re contributing with mission-critical services that are needed more than ever, and this is the least we can do," the company said in an April 10 corporate blog post.  "We’ll ensure you get setup help via our onboarding team and that you’re equipped to be up and running with whatever you need. This includes training on how to build a complete marketing campaign in minutes, how to personalize graphics and posters, import PSD files, and how to get your workspaces organized so that everyone is collaborating efficiently.

"To clarify: this is open to everyone in nonprofit or [a non-governmental organization] that is focused on fighting COVID-19, and there’s absolutely no obligation that you continue as our customer afterward. It’s our most advanced plan, free for a duration of 90 days from the time you sign up for the trial."

To sign up, potential users should send an email to teams@bannersnack.com with a  subject line that reads “NGO Fighting COVID-19.”

Twilio's Video platform now free for COVID-19 responders

Twilio said it is now offering three months of free use of Twilio Video Boost for customers in healthcare, education, and in the nonprofit sector fighting the pandemic; users have to sign up before June 30 to take advantage of the offer.

"...Twilio is excited to launch the Twilio Video Boost program, offering three months free usage of our Video product for new customers (or existing customers with a new video need)...," the company said in a statement

Anyone who meets the criteria and is interested in using Twilio should reach out to the company directly.

Gazelle donates iPads to healthcare workers

Online retailer Gazelle is donating all of the iPads from its warehouse in Louisville, Ky. to hospitals in the U.S. Gazelle, which is owned by ecoATM, has so far donated about 300 iPads since late March to frontline healthcare workers who are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

A statement posted on the Gazelle site says: "iPads Currently Unavailable – During this difficult time, we are donating iPads from our inventory to hospitals across the country to help patients communicate with loved ones, aid with telemedicine and provide better communication between patients and health workers."

The iPads have gone to a number of faciltiies, the company said, including Sharp Healthcare in San Diego, Calif.; UofL Health in Louisville; Kaiser Permanente in Ontario, Calif., and to hospitals such as Weill Cornell in New York City. In particualr, Gazelle said the devices could be used in a number of ways, including for communications between patients and loved ones while quarantined; for telemedicine with remote patients; as a communication tool with COVID-19 patients to reduce the use of PPEs (masks, gowns, face shields); and to allow for telemedicine consultations with ICU doctors.

Nuance offers Dragon Medical for free for 90 days

Nuance Communications, which offers offers conversational AI, speech recognition and transcription services, is making some of its services available for free to healthcare workers.

"To enable uninterrupted services during COVID-19, Nuance is offering a range of free templates, licenses and services to healthcare customers," the comany said in a statement. Among the services, Nuance will provide:

  • Free Dragon Medical One 90-day add-on licenses to allow physicians and nurses to use their voice to capture patient info efficiently and securely.
  • Free Dragon Medical for Epic Haiku and Canto 90-day add-on licenses so  physicians can capture the patient data through Epic mobile apps.
  • Free PowerMic Mobile 90-day add-on licenses to help physicians and nurses dictate, edit, and navigate electronic health records (EHRs) using a smartphone as a secure wireless microphone.

More information about what Nuance is providing is available on the company's website.

Apple, Google team up on COVID-19 contact tracing

Two of the tech industry's biggest companies – Apple and Google – announced Friday afternoon that they are jointly working on technology to help trace and track the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The two companies plan to release APIs and OS-level technology that will allow government agencies and healthcare groups to alert users when they may have been exposed to the virus.

"Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread," the two companies said. "A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology. To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist...."

The technology will be rolled out in two phases: in May, the companies plan to release APIs to enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps that will be available in the companies' respective app stores. After that, the Bluetooth-based technology will be built into operating systems – what Apple and Google called a more "robust" solution. They also stressed that protecting privacy will be an important consideration.

The companies unveiled draft technical documentation offering more specifics, but did not offer a more detailed timeline for when the tracking system would be in place.

"All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems," the two companies said. "Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments, and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID‑19 and accelerate the return of everyday life."

DeepCode's dev platform now free for three months

DeepCode, which uses artificial intelligence to help developers analyze their code for bugs, said it is offering its cloud and self-managed solutions for free "for at least the next three months."

The company's technology relies on machine learning to process code in open-source software projects and look for serious coding issues and identify bugs.

“Developers spend 30% of their time finding and fixing bugs, which is valuable time that they really can’t afford to lose right now,” said Boris Paskalev, CEO and co-founder of DeepCode. “We’ve seen an increased rate of usage as more developers have started trying new ways to check their code for bugs. We’re temporarily expanding our free offerings to help as many developers as possible continue to produce great software.”

MIT: Bluetooth 'chips' from phones could help trace virus 

MIT researchers and experts from other institutions are developing a system called PACT that could help public health officials track and trace COVID-19 while preserving privacy, the school said in a statement. The system – PACT stands for "Private Automatic Contact Tracing" – relies on short-range Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones; the signals represent random strings of numbers that nearby smartphones can receive and "remember."

"If a person tests positive, they can upload the list of chirps their phone has put out in the past 14 days to a database," said Kylie Foy, of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. "Other people can then scan the database to see if any of those chirps match the ones picked up by their phones. If there’s a match, a notification will inform that person that they may have been exposed to the virus, and will include information from public health authorities on next steps to take."

The random chirps are designed to protect users' privacy. 

“I keep track of what I’ve broadcasted, and you keep track of what you’ve heard, and this will allow us to tell if someone was in close proximity to an infected person,” said Ron Rivest, MIT Institute Professor and principal investigator of the project. “But for these broadcasts, we’re using cryptographic techniques to generate random, rotating numbers that are not just anonymous, but pseudonymous, constantly changing their ‘ID,’ and that can’t be traced back to an individual.”

MIT said the prototype system works for both iOS and Android devices, and researchers are now working with hardware makers to try and roll it out. No release date has yet been announced.

MariaDB offers SkySQL free for virus data analysis

MariaDB Corp.s is offering free access to MariaDB SkySQL to groups who are fighting COVID-19 and need enterprise-grade analytical capabilities for their work.

"If you or your organization in the healthcare, medical, academic or other nonprofit space have an application that requires analytical capabilities to analyze large amounts of data, we would like to offer you the opportunity to use MariaDB SkySQL for free," the company said. Projects chosen as a good match "will be able to securely store, analyze and visualize massive amounts of data at no cost on MariaDB SkySQL."

Applications can be made online and "must directly support research, innovation and analysis targeted at fighting COVID-19 or its effects," MariaDB said. "The application needs to be able to store and access data on SkySQL. Note, SkySQL is HIPAA compliant. MariaDB, along with a panel of experts, will determine within [five] business days whether your application qualifies or if more information is needed to make a determination."

BIMobject opens up platform to host product files

Building Information Modeling firm BIMobject is making its platform freely available for uploads of files used to create medical equipment, a move it says could help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

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