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Understanding the significance of volunteer-driven crowd sourcing initiatives to handle the spread of COVID-19 infection in India

The Prime Minister’s address to the Nation on April 14, announced an extension of the current lockdown till May 3, with strict area monitoring by all police stations till April 20. These measures warranted due to the significant rise in COVID-19 infection-related morbidity and mortality among citizens in India. Indian Council of Medical Research, spearheading diagnosis effort expanded its testing criteria notably. Besides, the Prime Minister in his above address has updated on 200 testing centers and 600 designated hospitals across the states have currently in operation. Enhanced outreach interventions and testing of potentially at-risk people have started across states in the right earnest.

Supplementing the above, another momentum seemed built up among concerned citizenry towards responding positively to the mid-March 2020 India government mooted ‘volunteer-driven crowdsourcing’ approach, under the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor. Media reports indicated that the government has set up an “S&T core team” in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to look at these ideas and collaborate with labs and industry to take those solutions faster to the public.

Notably, volunteer-driven or often described, micro-volunteering is an altruistic activity where members of a community contribute time, resources, and services to fulfill a community needs without being paid financially; while crowdsourcing, coined in 2006 by Jeff Howe, is the process of mobilizing millions of people into a powerful movement by using the internet. Examples of crowdsourcing observed during earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, as well as during the Ebola pandemic in West Africa in the recent past. Eight areas where crowdsourcing has been used in health were identified through studies as, diagnosis; surveillance; nutrition; public health and environment; education; genetics; psychology; and general medicine/others.

Research studies indicate that new technologies, including Internet tools such as social media or mobile devices, all coupled with global positioning systems, enable a new form of infectious disease information to be garnered directly from citizens. These crowdsourced data evade potentially constraining infrastructure costs and regulations, can be generated in real-time, and can be used to fill in gaps in health information. Crowdsourcing offers a real-time picture of disease by harnessing information as individuals are diagnosed, or even before. Additionally, these tools can spatially augment information in places that current surveillance sites do not cover. Another benefit of working directly with the public is that it augments engagement and enables individuals to become more aware of and involved, as anecdotal evidence has shown. Again, through crowdsourcing, health authorities can learn about aspects of disease dynamics that are not accessible through traditional data, such as contact patterns and social environment, as governments at the Union and States in India are stressing on surveillance and contact tracing to counter COVID-19 outbreak.

Interestingly, the Boston public radio station WGBH recently partnered with ‘The Ground Truth Project’ and ‘NOVA Next’ on a series called “Next Outbreak.” They reported on an innovative global online monitoring system called ‘Health Map” essentially crowdsourced initiative. Equally notable is the initiative by the Eastern Herald, a prominent news portal of India, which partnered with WHO in devising the COVID-19 outbreak map of all countries, including India, affected by the virus outbreak. It is undoubtedly a notable crowd-sourced initiative, and their live data is currently drawn from the Health Ministries sources of 162 countries of the world including WHO and can be seen below

[cov2019map]

Internationally, there also exist notable crowdsourcing platforms, like Amazon Mechanical Turk, the reCaptcha, Wikipedia and the ESP game (for image labeling). Recently, Google and Facebook launched location-based mapping efforts for COVID-19.

In India, of late important advancements took place, as Omidyar Network (ON) India committed funding towards solution of COVID-19, Indian Observatory set up portal that can help the government and nonprofits to plan setting up migrant workers’ relief camps, quarantine facilities, and healthcare services, Indian Development Review curated a list of relevant virtual events on crisis management and mental health, Connect For is offering volunteering opportunities that can be done from one’s home, Online giving campaigns link is a curation of initiatives by different organizations to support communities economically, India Data Insights is running a dashboard of initiatives taken to fight the pandemic in India and across the world, Haqdarshak has created infographics in 11 languages that explain claim for relief package during the lockdown, Amnesty International has put up the list of organizations supporting relief for COVID-19 in India, The Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists has shared a list of volunteers who can provide tele-counselling and psychological first aid during this lockdown period, The Association of Psychiatric Social Work Professionals has also released a list of mental health professionals volunteering to provide online support, COVID-19 cases trackers for India, the volunteer-led initiative gives real-time, state-wise data on the confirmed, active, recovered, and deceased cases of the COVID-19 virus, to cite some instances.

Besides, the Aarogya Setu mobile app launched by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to connect health services and people already gained popularity, and a team of public health specialists have put together a checklist for workers in rural primary health centers to prepare them in case COVID-19. In addition, web reports indicate that projects and services such as CrisisCamp Haiti, OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi, and GeoCommons already had communities of contributors, tools, and data that can provide immediate ad hoc geographic information and situational awareness for Indian states, and can be tapped. Google on March 29,2020, brought out a Mobility change report to help individuals and public health officials understand responses to social distancing related to COVID-19. These are undoubtedly encouraging developments for the country.

However, data scientists caution the potential biases and challenges that every data source face. Research studies on crowdfunding have found that there are three distinct areas as regionalize, prepare and research. Each of these areas requires effective handling, as failure to implement one area sufficiently can lead to overall project failure. Understanding the factors that contribute to project success is necessary for crowdsourcing’s continued adoption, effective implementation, and maximizing its potential. Website statistics shared by crowdsourcing project teams provide evidence that the potential of the crowd can be significant, and crowdsourcing can be a promising tool in health for India.

© The Eastern Herald
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Dr Gautam Kr Ghosh
PhD (sociology), PG in Reproductive & Child Health. Research Scientist, ICMR National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, Beliaghata, Kolkata. Contributor to The Eastern Herald.