Dmitry Nikolaev - stock.adobe.co

Hackathon launched to help fight coronavirus pandemic

Virtual hackathon seeks to develop a suite of applications to help people during the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak through ethically built technology

A virtual hackathon supported by NHSX and other major partners aims to develop technology that can help fight the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, as well as mitigate against its economic and social impacts.

The Hack from Home event, which will be held remotely on 4 and 5 April 2020, will bring together technologists, creatives, activists and experts from a range of fields so they can collectively develop 25 applications to help deal with challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

The projects will centre around the themes of citizen science, community health and mass coordination, which are all designed to encourage a participatory, collaborative approach to development that brings the technology developed closer to serving the real needs of people.

“We’re giving people a chance to respond with action, by working together to improve the lives of everyone affected by Covid-19,” said Irene Ng, CEO of Dataswift, a personal data management platform that is organising the hackathon.

Ng told Computer Weekly that large institutions such as governments and healthcare providers were often divorced from the people they are trying to help by their tendency to develop solutions in isolation from citizens.

“Our goal is to band together to help communities, patients and their families using what we know best – technology. We need to ensure that in these difficult times opportunistic app makers aren’t hoovering up our data, and to avoid a scenario where the world ends up worse than it was before. This collective action will prove that the ethical data economy can trump the surveillance economy,” she said.

Other partners of the hackathon include Case Western Reserve University’s xLab, Hat-Lab, Samsung Medical Centre, a number of UK universities, and the Ethical Tech Alliance – a network of startups, developers, business leaders and advocacy experts devoted to the responsible and ethical development of technology.

“Our goal is to band together to help communities, patients and their families using what we know best – technology. This collective action will prove that the ethical data economy can trump the surveillance economy”
Irene Ng, Dataswift

At the end of the event, viable projects will be offered funding and professional developer support to take them forward. Most of this expertise will be provided by the Ethical Tech Alliance, which will use its network to tap into mentoring opportunities and other resources, much like an accelerator programme would.

“A multi-disciplinary, multi-industry approach to this struggle is required, and the market failure of the ethical use of personal data is one of the challenges,” said Youngjin Yoo, the faculty director of xLab.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is demonstrating in real time why the society desperately needs a scalable, ethical technology infrastructure. This hackathon will bring bright minds together to address this complex and rapidly evolving problem.”

Ensuring ethics

Since early March 2020, hundreds of mobile applications containing either “corona” or “covid” have popped up.

While most are entirely legitimate – for example, medical booking services or those providing information on how to avoid infection – analysis of Android telemetry from Google Play and other third-party marketplaces has revealed that relatively harmless opportunist developers and malicious cyber criminals have climbed on the bandwagon.

To ensure participating developers are operating ethically the hackathon’s applications will be built on top of microserver infrastructure provided by Dataswift, which utilises ‘personal data accounts’ to give people legal ownership and control over their data.

The microserver technology itself was developed through a collaboration between seven UK universities using government funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Dataswift’s role is to essentially manage this technical infrastructure, which it does through a personal data account management platform that helps users manage all of their data in one centralised personal data server.

However, Ng said participating developers would not be limited in what they could build by this infrastructure, which is only being used to ensure data is being handled ethically.

“We’re hoping that with this infrastructure the data being used is ethically and responsibly sourced from the person themselves, so they have all the control and agency over their data,” she said, adding the company would be running a ‘data donation’ so people could give the hackathon developers access to their data if they chose.  

There are no limits on the number of people who can sign up to the Hack from Home event, which is also actively looking for mentors and sponsors to take part.

Read more about the tech response to coronavirus

  • The NHS has confirmed it is working with Microsoft, Palantir and Google to improve data analysis to make its anti-coronavirus effort more efficient and effective.
  • The Australian government has launched a Covid-19 mobile app and a WhatsApp message service to help Australians stay up to date on the latest measures and health advisories in the fight against coronavirus.
  • Police forces across the UK are using technology to exercise new emergency powers granted by the government this week as part of its coronavirus response.

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