Using Open Source Tools To Fight COVID-19

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As we all adjust to living with the new realities that COVID-19 has brought, we are reminded how fragile our world can be. However, many open source tools and technologies have been developed that are being used to fight this crisis around the world. Two of these tools are:

  • SORMAS (the Surveillance Outbreak Response Management and Analysis System) was designed to track and manage the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It has been adapted for use by organizations to track and manage COVID-19 cases
  • DHIS2 is a health tracking system that is used around the world. The DHIS2 team has released a new package to accelerate case detection, situation reporting, active surveillance and response for COVID-19

The Open Source Center at the Digital Impact Alliance (OSC at DIAL) was created to strengthen the open source ecosystem and provide support to digital platforms like SORMAS and DHIS2 that have been developed to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For years, global health experts have been saying that another pandemic with the speed and severity to rival those of the 1918 influenza epidemic was a matter not of if but of when. Factors like climate change only increase the risks of new outbreaks around the world as vector-borne diseases move to new areas. Sadly, when a health crisis like this arises, it is usually the most impoverished communities that are impacted most, because resources are scarce and fewer systems exist to support the most vulnerable.

Technology has an important role to play in supporting better health in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs). As we see with SORMAS and DHIS2, organizations have responded to these new risks by developing technologies that give people tools and data to fight outbreaks like COVID-19. OSC has also provided direct support to other platforms like Medic Mobile, Ushahidi, and Open Street Map that have been deployed to support COVID-19 response. Beyond health, we have also seen how technology platforms can positively impact lives through remote learning, mobile payments, and messaging applications.

The OSC is working to make open source tools more accessible, deployable, and interoperable. To that end, DIAL has created their Online Digital Global Goods catalog (currently a beta product). This tool tracks over 200 products that support health, development, and better lives. Sadly, many of these products are not well known and not used as effectively as they might be.

Having the ability to quickly discover and evaluate available digital public goods will make a significant difference when handling the response to a communicable disease pandemic. The difference between being in the containment or mitigation phase of an outbreak relies on the ability to find an existing tool like a disease surveillance system or knowledge management system, all in one place. For example, OpenMRS, one of the products in the online catalog, was customized into two separate Ebola EMR servers during the height of the Ebola crisis. Using the same approach, OpenMRS could have the potential to be used in managing the COVID-19 cases.

In addition to providing a list of products, DIAL is working to provide relevant data about these products to help potential users evaluate them. DIAL is working with ClearlyDefined to collect fact-based data about the digital technologies in our catalog.

ClearlyDefined was designed to provide license data for open source projects in a clear, consistent way that gives open source consumers and producers confidence. It gets open source components’ license, source location, and copyright information in an automated, transparent way, and then produces data as a service to its users. In cases where the license information is missing or ambiguous, members of the community are able to discuss and submit changes that will improve the data. All changes to the ClearlyDefined data are upstreamed back to the original projects in order to have future versions of the components be more “clearly defined”. Over time, the project hopes to help all of the open source ecosystem become more clear in its license data.

DIAL is leveraging the work done by ClearlyDefined to show information about the licenses that digital technologies have been developed under. DIAL and ClearlyDefined are also working to expand the data that we can provide through the ClearlyDefined platform - including security and vulnerability information.

It’s DIAL’s goal to provide comprehensive information about the quality and sustainability of products that will allow users to understand and evaluate these digital tools so that they can deploy them effectively to improve the lives of people around the world.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit the DIAL Online Catalog or ClearlyDefined.

Image credit: "COVID19.png" by Open Source Initiative, 2020 (CC BY 2.0), is a derivative (cropped, scaled, and color adjusted) of "Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (49584358682).jpg" by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

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For over 20 years the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has worked to raise awareness and adoption of open source software, and build bridges between open source communities of practice. As a global non-profit, the OSI champions software freedom in society through education, collaboration, and infrastructure, stewarding the Open Source Definition (OSD), and preventing abuse of the ideals and ethos inherent to the open source movement.

Open source software is made by many people and distributed under an OSD-compliant license which grants all the rights to use, study, change, and share the software in modified and unmodified form. Software freedom is essential to enabling community development of open source software.