clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Meet the renegade engineers on Slack trying to fix the coronavirus supplies shortage

Inside a 13,000-user Slack group trying to hack together tools we need to fight Covid-19.

A doctor in Italy wears a face shield and stands outside of a tent.
A doctor in Italy wears a face shield similar to the ones being produced by Helpful Engineering.
Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
Open Sourced logo

When Charles He, a management and machine learning freelancer based in Victoria, British Columbia, realized the Covid-19 coronavirus was coming to the United States, he stocked up to prepare for months of social distancing. And then he started a Slack.

The idea was to connect people who wanted to work on efficient devices that could help fight the pandemic. We would need ventilators, he figured, but also personal protective equipment and lots of it. He, an economist by training, says he’d never done anything like that before but set off to scour sites like Reddit and Hacker News for engineers who might be interested in helping.

Fittingly, He called his nascent digital community, launched on March 9, Helpful Engineering. The group is dispersed and somewhat intentionally unorganized, and it’ll be a while before it’s clear how many of the ideas floated by its members actually make it into the hands of frontline workers. But only two weeks in, a face shield design project organized with the Slack’s support has already delivered much-needed protective equipment to some hospitals. And, the group can already say it’s brought people across the globe a little closer together — and kept them busy.

Uniting idealists can happen faster than you think.

The Helpful Engineering group now boasts thousands of volunteers working on dozens of projects with the ultimate aim of solving some of the tough problems that Covid-19 and our response to the pandemic pose. And other DIY projects have already had some impact: People are sewing homemade (though not the N-95) masks and mixing their own hand sanitizer.

“We aren’t trying to build some fancy shiny thing that looks good to us, that’s enjoyable. We focus on things that have the most value,” He told Recode. “And what has the most value? Often simple — unexciting in the media — [things] that actually save lives.”

That’s the same mentality, He explains, behind his work in effective altruism, an aggressively utilitarian philosophical and social movement bolstered by the philosopher Peter Singer. The idea, generally, is to be rigidly efficient, investing resources and effort to maximize the amount of good we can achieve. How efficient? Well, He once created an algorithm for determining “the exact location and number of animals in each Iowa egg farm based on Google Earth data” as part of an animal welfare effort.

As for the Helpful Engineering group, the effective altruism mindset has manifested in He’s intent to focus on building tools that are the easiest to create and will do the most amount of good. What the Slack is not is a social platform for hobbyists, flashy biohacking, or reinventing the wheel. Rather, it’s a giant community for engineers — and many others bored at home with nothing else to do — to take a stab at designing something that just might make the impact of this pandemic a little less awful.

Of course, He wasn’t the only one with the idea to collaborate on building simple tools and supplies through crowdsourcing. While combing through the internet, He soon stumbled upon two Brits: a software engineer named Alexander James Phillips, and Chris Graham, a doctoral student at the University of Warwick who was active on JOGL (short for Just One Giant Lab), an open web platform for collaborative engineering projects.

They all joined forces, combining their Slacks. Soon, others trickled in to help: programmers, engineers, owners of 3D printers, someone who works on spacecraft, a neuroscientist, a nurse. Even David Galbraith, who helped create Yelp, jumped in the chat.

Reddit helped bring initial traffic to the group. And some popped in from another widely popular crowdsourcing Facebook group, called Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies. (That group, which now has more than 30,000 members, claims to have identified potential solutions — though some are last resorts and far from health authority-approved medical devices — for about 70 percent of the supplies needed to treat Covid-19, according to Live Science).

Then João Nascimento, a scientist studying at Harvard who is running an affiliated project, appeared on Portuguese national television to talk about his work and the publicity brought even more new users to Helpful Engineering.

“It became a second wave of viralness,” explains Graham. Meanwhile, the pandemic’s impact in Europe had worsened. Graham’s lab shut down, leaving him to work on Helpful Engineering full time.

Now it’s been 16 days since the Slack launched, and the group’s at more than 13,000 users with more than 3,000 officially registered volunteers. People come from the US but also countries like India, Poland, Portugal, and Brazil. There are about 35 different projects underway, including some to manufacture protective face shields and design make-do ventilators. Meanwhile, new contributors — students, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and even a small-town mayor from Texas — continue to join the cause.

Forming a Slack group of 13,000 is hard, but managing one is much harder

When you first log in to the Helpful Engineering Slack group, it seems like enthusiastic chaos. People come to the introductions channel to share sliced-up versions of their LinkedIn bios, retrofitted to the demands of a pandemic. Some share designs for homemade ventilators, often machines they’ve dreamt up themselves. There are many, many links shared. There are groups for 3D printing, an idea for an ultraviolet disinfection system, legal advice, and even an idea for an open source guide that could bring us closer to more Covid-19 home testing kits.

That lack of organization represents an underlying core philosophy. He, the co-founder, doesn’t believe that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have the capability of “organizing and coordinating a huge amount of engineering talent to create useful things.” His Slack group might do that, but he acknowledges there’s a trade-off. He talks about “two masters.” One is the pressure to get things done as quickly as possible, and the other is the desire to create “a very effective system for organizing human activity together.”

He calls it a “swarm model.” By maintaining limited hierarchy, the project aims to collect an immense amount of talent and surface the best ideas. With a few good engineering minds, He hopes technical problems can be broken down, solutions can be weighed, and effort can be effectively dispersed so that the collective can hack together anything that might help.

“You get as many people who are motivated and have the experience necessary, and you put them into one channel and just see what happens,” says Brian Finch, a patent attorney who is now the chief operating officer of a Michigan-based company called Brightz that produces decorative lights for bicycles. “Some of it is going to be chaos, by its nature.”

But as the group has grown, a sort of governance structure has emerged. There are 15 people He considers founders (users who have been on the Slack for at least 16 days). Then there are 60 moderators, another 60-plus project managers, and about 35 project leaders. Now, a first wave of projects have been vetted, analyzed by voting on their quality and best guesses as to how quickly they could be produced, along with screenings from “experts” in the group.

The Slack group has no formal funding, and it doesn’t have any official legal status. And while some of the projects are well on their way to developing prototypes, there’s still a sense of disarray as the group tries to figure out how to quickly funnel newcomers in the group into productive roles. Slack might be a platform popular at workspaces, but the group is far from a streamlined company. It remains to be seen whether Helpful Engineering, with a still-emerging structure of leadership, will assemble together its thousands of members into a meaningful and productive community.

The simplest designs and concepts have the most promise.

There are lots of different ideas floating around the Slack. But one of the furthest-along projects is a face shield that can be produced quickly and easily. It’s exactly what you’re thinking: a screen attached to a headband.

“The face shield is the first line of defense for droplet protection, if someone comes into a clinic or if somebody is working in a factory — or something like that — and someone else coughs,” explains Nick Moser, a Bay Area-based project manager at a custom fabrication shop. Moser normally works on large art installations, but since his workplace shut down, he’s been leading Mask Project, a subset of the Helpful Engineering initiative.

One of the face shields.

Moser cautions that the face shield design is by no means the same as the much-coveted N-95 mask, and these face shields aren’t technically medical devices. Still, thousands are now being produced around the world through “crowdsourced manufacturing,” which essentially involves companies — either those that reach out or are reached out to — that can offer to take up producing these protective screens philanthropically.

Moser admits that he’s not actually sure who is currently making them but says that the shields are now being used by Valley Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente in California. And Moser’s Mask Project is hardly the only one producing such protective face screens. The auto giant Ford announced on Tuesday that it would start producing plastic shields of its own.

Another idea, also being facilitated through Helpful Engineering, is an “offset ventilator.” The idea is to develop a way to turn a ventilation airbag — these are sometimes called “Ambu” bags and are normally manually operated by an EMT — into an autonomous ventilator, with the help of basic machinery. Right now, Finch is working on building something that’s demonstrable, though he admits that doctors may be hesitant to rely on such a device.

“How do you manually compress this air bladder in a way that it can turn into a ventilator? That’s what a lot of people are trying to solve right now,” Finch says, pointing out that people across the internet have posted about their own approaches to the same idea, including a University of Minnesota doctor.

And that’s not the only way people are hoping to address the ventilator shortage. Another idea is to adapt continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which are usually used by people who struggle to breathe properly while sleeping. Two engineers from a small startup in Italy used 3D printing to make much-needed valves for high-grade medical ventilators, and one Canadian doctor has proposed running two hoses from the same ventilator — which could help two patients breathe at the same time.

Face shields are one thing, but tools that theoretically replace medical devices need the confidence of doctors and other health professionals. And what about liability, if one of these gadgets produced by Helpful Engineering doesn’t work as intended? Chris Graham says that, ultimately, health care workers will have to decide on their own whether they can make use of these devices while Phillips emphasizes that we’re in a moment of crisis where waiting around for an absolutely perfect solution could ultimately risk lives.

“Even if we don’t succeed at this particular project with this particular design,” Finch says, “I’m optimistic that with so many people working on this problem, somebody is going to find a solution.”

At the very least, Finch argues, trying to be a “helpful engineer” is a way to pass the time. “I could either sit at home, nervously refreshing Reddit and feeling bad about the state of the world, or I can at least still feel bad about the state of the world but at least know that I’m giving it my best.”

So maybe not every thought shared in a 13,000-member Slack group will ultimately end up in the hands of a health care worker. But that might be all right anyway.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.