Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Open source and health leaders join forces to fight coronavirus

The Linux Foundation has launched a new initiative to use open-source technologies to help public health authorities (PHAs) combat COVID-19: Linux Foundation Public Health.

When coronavirus appeared, open-source developers turned their efforts to defeat it. Now, The Linux Foundation is bringing together corporate open-source and public health authorities (PHAs) leaders to fight COVID-19 in the Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH).

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This also brings some much-needed organization to some open-source anti-coronavirus efforts. True, from the start of the pandemic, open-source has tackled COVID-19 problems. Indeed, some of the first efforts to track the virus' infection testing numbers came from open-source developers. But these efforts -- even when they're from large organizations like The Mozilla Foundation or companies like IBM and Verizon -- tend to be one-offs. The LFPH is bringing together numerous organizations. 
 
The LFPH has launched with seven Premier technology members -- Cisco, doc.ai, Geometer, IBM, NearForm, Tencent, and VMware -- and two hosted COVID-19 exposure and tracking notifications projects, COVID Shield and COVID Green.
 
COVID Shield was created by volunteer Shopify developers. It's being deployed in Canada. COVID Green was developed by a team at NearForm as part of the Irish Government's response to the pandemic. Since being deployed by Ireland's Health Services Executive two weeks ago, it has achieved extraordinarily high adoption of over one-third of the country's adults. Both programs are based on the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) system.
 
LFPH's initial focus will be on improving exposure notification applications using GAEN. They're also working on expanding all aspects of PHA's testing, tracing, and isolation activities. 
 
These apps are available for other PHAs and their IT partners to use and customize. Similar GAEN-based, open-source projects hosted by LFPH. COVID Watch, Kiel University of Applied Sciences, and US Digital Response have also joined as nonprofit associate members.
 
In addition to COVID Shield and COVID Green, an earlier cross-industry collaboration effort, the TCN Coalition, is merging into LFPH. The TCN Coalition is a global community of technologists supporting the development of privacy-preserving and cross-compatible exposure notification apps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
TCN Coalition Executive Director Jenny Wanger explained, "This is a logical next step for the work we've been doing since our inception. We look forward to an even wider collaboration to help navigate this fast-moving and essential endeavor." Wanger is now the head of the LFPH's Implementer's forum. There, she will coordinate implementation teams across the world building COVID-19 tools while publicly documenting their best practices.
 
To help their efforts and avoid duplication of work, the LFPH's general manager, the highly experienced open-source project leader Dan Kohn, said it's "building a global community of leading technology and consulting companies, public health authorities, epidemiologists and other public health specialists, privacy and security experts, and individual developers." That's important. But, Kohn said, "while we're excited to launch with two very important open-source projects, we think our convening function to enable collaboration to battle this pandemic may be our biggest impact."

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Theodore Tanner, IBM's Global CTO and chief architect of Watson Health agreed:

"To meet the global challenge of COVID-19, the world must quickly come together and collaborate in innovative ways while applying best practices from past experience. IBM's commitment to open source communities spans over two decades, and during this worldwide pandemic, we see real value in working with public health authorities and the larger healthcare ecosystem as part of LFPH. IBM has resources to share -- supercomputing power, code, and AI -- and we look forward to taking an active role working with leaders across the industry to solve the complex challenges ahead."

That's on the technical side, on the public health side. Historically, in the US, PHAs have suffered from decades of funding cuts. They simply don't have the financial or technical resources needed to meet the urgent need to scale up their capabilities to meet the demands of the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, many technology companies and individuals are eager to help them meet these challenges. The LFPH provides a forum and toolset for them to work together. 

"During this grave global crisis, I'm committed to having all parts of the Linux Foundation community support LFPH," said Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin. "Open source provides an architecture for global collaboration and that's what's needed to build, secure, and sustain critical components of our stressed public health infrastructure."