Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Public Sector Tech: New tools for the new normal

Microsoft is dedicating significant tech resources to COVID-19 first responder organizations

The company is committing $35 million to giving first responder organizations the tech they need to fight the spread of COVID-19.

GE Healthcare and Microsoft partner to help hospitals fight COVID-19

Every enterprise is doing its part to help as many people as possible during the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, and Microsoft is throwing its hat into the ring in a big way. On top of hardware and software Microsoft provides to more than 180,000 organizations across the globe, the tech giant is dedicating another $35 million for providing technology resources to first responder groups that are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

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The funding will go toward helping frontline workers coordinate remotely and use a suite of digital tools to help further the numerous efforts of healthcare organizations and schools. 

Justin Spelhaug, global head of Microsoft Philanthropies' Tech for Social Impact, said first responders are playing an incredibly important role right now, and Microsoft wanted to find some way to help. 

"Even before COVID-19 happened, we had been working with organizations like UNHCR, Save The Children, and the International Rescue Committee that are doing life-saving work for at-risk communities and refugee populations all around the world. Domestically, we've had really strong partnerships with organizations like the Salvation Army, Team Rubicon, Mercy Housing, Feeding America, small food banks, and large food banks that are all providing frontline support," Spelhaug said. 

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic (ZDNet special feature)

"We are seeing a number of organizations that are looking to use the computational power of the cloud to do better predictive analysis for everything from the disease burn rates to optimizing the supply chain for delivery of aid. That's why we made that investment of $35 million in additional Azure credits. We want to increase our Windows benefits so that when you combine those Azure credits with a modern Windows PC, you can enable really effective virtual desktop scenarios."

Spelhaug explained that Windows Virtual Desktop allows first responders to work in a remote environment but access all of the line-of-business applications they need to access to do their important work. The company has also invested heavily in a set of service desks to help first responder organizations get set up and active on Azure, Windows Virtual Desktop, and training tools that they have to help with first-line training. 

Microsoft has worked extensively with Red Cross systems in countries across the world, including Canada and Australia.

"We've seen the Canadian Red Cross rapidly deploying dynamic CRMs for their emergency management and information system, which is playing a key role in their COVID-19 response," Spelhaug told TechRepublic, a sister site of ZDNet. "The Australian Red Cross is also leveraging Dynamics 365 and power platforms so that, in seven days, they were able to set up a system that's helping them manage their operations specifically focused on providing support for in-home isolation, the elderly, and outreach for affected communities."

International nonprofit Team Rubicon has more than 100,000 volunteers across the United States, and it has been using Azure and Dynamics to pinpoint the types of needs that each community is facing. Their volunteers are doing everything from providing groceries to elderly individuals who are at risk to providing basic health and human services to those in need.

In addition to the company's donations, they have started an internal COVID-19 Microsoft employee challenge, where they have raised more than $12 million for nonprofits working on the front lines of the crisis. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Redmond, WA-based tech giant was providing a broad range of free and discounted offers of Microsoft 365 and Azure to groups doing critical work around the world, with millions of Teams' users working remotely within the company's nonprofit ecosystem.

"We've worked to extend support further for all nonprofits by offering the ability for volunteers to use our Microsoft 365 solution so they can connect virtually as well, putting together an end-to-end resource guide that combines a wide range of other offers for all nonprofits," Spelhaug said. 

"We are making sure that our digital skills center and specifically our Teams training that's offered through TechSoup is free, and we've seen a really accelerated rate of take up of all of that training."

Microsoft and UNICEF have forged a partnership where the tech company supports the delivery of digital skills, digital training, and education for students that currently do not have access to classrooms. 

Microsoft has developed technology that allows UNICEF to work with local governments to leverage the local government curriculum and deliver that in a mobile-first, low-bandwidth context so that kids with just access to mobile phones, and maybe not on broadband connection, can still interact with education and learning content to continue their educational experience--even while social distancing measures are in place. 

Spelhaug highlighted that the nonprofit sector is going through an enormously challenging time right now, both in their ability to move their workforce to remote working scenarios and their ability to weather the financial storm that all economies are feeling. 

"We're really trying to lean in during this challenging time and make sure that they know we're standing with them and want to help in every way possible so that we all get through this challenging period and have a positive impact during this crisis," Spelhaug said. He noted the positive impact of organizations like PATH, an innovative international nonprofit working on global health. "PATH is on the forefront of field diagnostics, disease detection, health system strengthening in developed markets, and information-based decision-making for health scenarios and outcomes. And they've been one organization that really jumped on some of the new support that we've been providing and are really using Azure as the computing infrastructure to drive all of that."

Jeff Bernson, vice president of Technology, Analytics and Market Innovation at PATH, said Microsoft has given the organization access to Azure, cloud services, and its invaluable data science expertise. 

PATH has long been at the forefront of trying to understand diseases and how they spread, using Microsoft's AI platform in combination with its own data to analyze emergent malaria hotspots. The organization has been heavily involved in the COVID-19 response of multiple low- and middle-income countries, partnering with health ministries in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help them start spinning up their response to the pandemic.

"We've been very heavily involved, both on the data and digital side but also on how those countries are starting to incorporate their COVID-19 response into their emergency response operation centers. We work very closely with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this has been a natural progression of our relationship because we also were heavily involved in the Ebola response there and similarly on many of the data and digital tools that we have been using. Many of those things were born out of different responses about Ebola," Bernson said.

"As a nonprofit, we don't get lots of access to data science assets, whether its people, algorithms, or platforms. We really make do with what's open source or available through our consortiums or our relationships with academic institutions. What's really rich about the relationship with Microsoft is they're opening their vault of resources to have access to." 

Bernson added that PATH is also hard at work helping countries identify which COVID-19 tests they should purchase as well as focusing on efforts to develop personal protective equipment both locally and internationally. 

PATH's work locally goes hand in hand with their work abroad, and they often use what they learn and spread it as far as they can.

"As we develop better designs, both for whether we're 3D printing PPEs or whether we develop better processes for injection mold development of those PPEs, we are sharing those designs out with lower- middle-income countries where we work so that they can use their fabrication and manufacturing industries to spin up capabilities to deploy PPEs as well," Bernson said.

Microsoft tools have helped PATH continue its work on improving health information systems through telemedicine, virtual assistants, and other digital approaches. 

"It's a pleasure that they have come with a focus on health. Not every tech company that's out there really has that focus, so I think starting with their AI For Good team has been the tip of the iceberg in terms of uncovering what we will be able to achieve. This is the beginning of what I hope will be an example for other large tech companies. None of us will come out of this COVID-19 pandemic unaffected," Bernson said. 

"I think we have similar visions in terms of our plans to improve health equity and really continue to make the invisible visible. Right now, one of the best, most cost effective ways that you can improve access to health services, whether it's providers, drugs, or vaccines, is using digital approaches because they're a real mechanism to level the playing field. The social sector and the NGOs can't do this by themselves. The public sector can't do this by themselves, and the private sector will be inadequate as well. You really need more efforts that pull these three things together."

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