When open source hardware becomes vital

 

Some thoughts on the relevance of citizen scientists – hackers, makers, tech enthusiasts, DIYers – and open source hardware. Writing this commentary might have been a bit of a coping mechanism, but it nevertheless raises issues that are crucial for allowing and supporting volunteers in exploring (technological) means for fighting covid-19.

 

In this time of crisis, many people are willing and eager to help tackling the challenges related to covid-19. While medical staff fight the pandemic and key workers maintain indispensable infrastructures and services, also people outside of these sectors explore possibilities for contributing to emerging issues. An important domain of civic support emerges at the intersection of citizen science and ‘disaster technology’.

Disaster technology[1] refers to technological, often ad hoc developments and appropriations aimed at addressing crisis-related problems. In the context of covid-19, citizen scientists and civic collectives quickly started examining what technology would be needed and feasible for them to develop. Stories about their activities and contributions, like the example below, are more than just a silver-lining in otherwise largely devastating news: citizen scientists offer valuable local, technological support and expertise that require further attention. In this opinion piece, I therefore reflect on the relevance and implications of citizen science during the covid-19 pandemic.

Italy, in early March 2020: feared shortages of medical devices for lifesaving covid-19 treatment have become reality. A hospital in in Brescia was about to run out of valves needed for respirators, as the supply chain was exhausted.[2] When realising that the valve could not be obtained on time from suppliers, people turned to additive, digital manufacturing, i.e. 3D printing. In 3D printing, objects are produced by a machine that adds material layer-by-layer, instructed by digital designs. Considering the possibilities of 3D printing, journalist Nunzia Vallini and Massimo Temporelli, who is i.a. affiliated with the FabLab Milano, discussed whether the needed medical device could be manufactured that way. They reached out to local communities and companies.[3] In response, engineers Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Romaioli swiftly started exploring how the valve could be printed.[4] They could not obtain the blueprints from the supplier, according to the company “due to medical manufacturing regulations”, and thus started reverse engineering, i.e. measuring and modelling, the device: with success, the hospital was able to start using the 3D printed valves for respirators that are crucial in covid-19 treatment.

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The story made headlines on various news platforms and was widely shared on social media,[5] thus inspiring and reinforcing civic tech communities and individuals in their efforts to contribute to the societal challenges raised by covid-19. In anticipation of possible, similar shortages groups such as maker- and hackspaces, fablabs, and other tech collectives are mobilising: they scrutinise and explore possibilities for countering shortages of medical devices by DYI-ing needed parts for the fight against covid-19. Because of social distancing measures, much of this mobilisation takes place online. For example, the crowdsourced Coronavirus Tech Handbook brings together projects and ideas for tackling the crisis, with volunteers discussing issues and solutions via social media groups or messaging services.

In particular, considering (looming) shortages of ventilators and masks, civic tech communities have started exploring means for producing these.[6] Moreover, they discuss technological solutions for sterilizing those medical devices that are normally considered disposable, but – due to scarcity – may now need to be re-used. Open source hardware is crucial in this context. While medical technology tends to be subject to patents, open source hardware moves beyond a proprietary approach, thus allowing for a free exchange of information on how to build technological objects. Relevant blueprints and instructions are circulated via platforms such as Thingiverse, Github and Instructables.[7] While my observations of these developments – which are clearly highly dynamic and in early stages – raise many questions, I will focus on two main points:

First, it is striking that, for instance in the United Kingdom but also elsewhere in Europe, larger manufacturers were urged to start producing medical devices such as ventilators.[8] However, small-scale civic initiatives tend to be overlooked. Policymakers should pay closer attention to the possibilities related to additive manufacturing and citizen science. While they may not be able to produce devices on a large scale, the flexibility and locality of technological expertise held by local communities and access to equipment can be immensely beneficial. As the already ongoing initiatives show, these communities tend to be self-starters, but still they could use support in what they do – for instance with regards to information on clinical utility and safety of use. Related to that, one should also keep in mind that DIY devices create additional moments of risk assessment for medical staff.

Second, shortages of medical devices needed for the fight against covid-19 make a compelling argument for the relevance of open source hardware. Patent law and the dominance of proprietary, medical technology were main reasons for why the Italian volunteers were not given any blueprints that could have accelerated their production of needed valves. Moreover, it put them in a precarious situation and legal grey zone. Medical device manufacturers have long been adamant in arguing that patents are needed for incentivising research and innovation, thus improving medical care. However, in recent years the counterpoint has been made that patents ultimately impede research as well as medical care.[9] The problems around medical devices during the covid-19 pandemic support the latter argument.

In cases when manufacturers realise that they will not be able to uphold the supply chain, patents and proprietary information stand in the way of alternative approaches for producing live-saving devices. Thus, the question emerges when manufacturers should (and may) allow for access to blueprints to ensure the production of such devices. Moreover, the described developments show that open source hardware approaches enable medical technology that is easily shareable and reproducible when its most needed.[10]

In this opinion piece, I have argued that citizen science and disaster technology make an important contribution to societal crisis responses. Policymakers should pay further attention to this domain and consider how citizen scientists may be supported. Moreover, the challenges in maintaining supply chains for proprietary medical devices needed in the fight against covid-19 show the importance and advantages of non-proprietary solutions: open source hardware approaches to medical devices can make a vital difference.

 

 

[1]             For an annotated bibliography see Manning, D. (2013). Disaster technology. Elsevier.

[2]         Peters, J. (2020, March 17). Volunteers produce 3D-printed valves for life-saving coronavirus treatments. The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/17/21184308/coronavirus-italy-medical-3d-print-valves-treatments.

[3]         Sher, D. (2020, March 14). Italian hospital saves Covid-19 patients lives by 3D printing valves for reanimation devices. 3D Printing Media. Retrieved from: https://www.3dprintingmedia.network/covid-19-3d-printed-valve-for-reanimation-device.

[4]             See Fracassi, C. (2020). Facebook post ‘Diamo a Cesare quel che è di Cesare’. Facebook. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/Ing.Cristian.Fracassi/posts/10222339428782713.

[5]             This case is also interesting in terms of difficulties for assessing (mis)information in times of crisis. At the time of writing this article, it was still contested whether the company producing the valves was threatening to sue the volunteers 3D printing the valves on grounds of patent infringement.

[6]         Bender, M. (2020, March 17). People Are Trying to Make DIY Ventilators to Meet Coronavirus Demand. Vice. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/5dm4mb/people-are-trying-to-make-diy-ventilators-to-meet-coronavirus-demand.

[7]         See e.g. Face Shield (2020). Retrieved from https://github.com/GliaX/faceshield; or panvent (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.instructables.com/id/The-Pandemic-Ventilator.

[8]         Otte, J. (2020, March 15). Coronavirus: UK manufacturers urged to consider switching to making ventilators. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/15/coronavirus-uk-manufacturers-urged-to-consider-switching-to-making-ventilators.

[9]         Gold, R. et al. (2010, January 5). Are Patents Impeding Medical Care and Innovation? Plos Medicine. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000208.

[10]        This is also reflected in the recently published HardwareX call for papers “Special Issue on Open-Source COVID19 Medical Hardware” (see https://www.journals.elsevier.com/hardwarex/call-for-papers/special-issue-on-open-source-covid19-medical-hardware).

Learning to…code with Freecodecamp

As mentioned before, I am starting a blog post series “Learning to…” in which I reflect on my experiences with learning resources for digital skills such as coding and programming. I started with Freecodecamp.org. Here are my first (early and enthusiastic) impressions and I may update this post from time to time still.

 

Freecodecamp is a website guiding and supporting users in learning digital skills such as coding. Apart from online courses, there are also a forum, the possibility to chat with other community members and news updates. It was founded and financed by former teacher Quincy Larson. Kudos Quincy!

I started absolutely from scratch, yes, Basic HTML and HTML 5 here I come. And here is the first good thing: as you learn online and at your own pace, there is not the slightest sense of shame creeping up on you as you do not have to tell anyone that “Yes, this is really where they will have to start and how long it is taking you”. Just a side note: during my interviews, this is also an issue that comes up regularly with regards to communal learning and differences between beginners and more proliferate programmers.

To start with, as a cat person, building a cat app also sounded like a good thing – and is your project for the first courses. Not sure how dog people will feel about this, but for me it certainly worked. The interface is structured into three columns: on the left you read the instructions (with some interactive elements), in the middle you write your code, on the right you see the result. Even with a small laptop the interface worked well for me. And gamification galore!, each completed step is lavishly praised – which at times might feel a bit over the top, especially if it took you several turns, but has a nice ironic touch.

The most important bit and the most difficult to explain: I enjoyed it. I completed short bits at a time and felt like I was increasingly understanding the logic behind the elements and classes. It does work better though when you force/encourage yourself to work regularly on it. Especially after the Christmas break, I felt like I had forgotten most about it again and – although I know that some things you simply need to/can look up – thought it would be good to have memorized some of the code too. For me, it thus works best when I can complete short bits of the courses every day. Let’s see how it goes – I will write an update over the coming weeks.

Also, I hope to be able to join one of the Codebar.io events in Brighton soon. They are popular and often fully booked, but once I managed to join I will also write about this initiative.

 

Image credits: The image at the start of this post is a screenshot taken of one of the Freecodecamp tutorials. Thanks for letting me share it here.

 

Learning to….

As part of my research project on hacking and making as learning, I am starting a post series titled “Learning to…”. As you may know, I interview people about how they learn, for example, to code or to build electronics. But it’s one thing to talk the talk and another to walk the walk. Therefore I also want to explore what it is like to learn yourself. Among other things, I am therefore collecting online resources and participating in various online learning platforms for coding. I will also participate in courses/meetups offered by communities and not-for-profit initiatives. Let’s see if I even make it to a coding bootcamp… 😉 I will start with a reflection on my experiences with freecodecamp.org. More will follow soon.

 

Readings for my project

This month I finally got to start my Marie S. Curie project. During the coming two years, I will do research on hacking and making as ways of informal IT learning. But before I will jump into interviews and field work, I need an update on what has happened in the research field during the last months (while I was on parental leave). Thus I am trying to figure out where to begin and especially: what to (re-)read. I’ll start sharing my reading list here and will update it along the way.

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Digital Society Conference: Chances, Changes, Challenges

Hackerspaces_org_logo

Good morning Amersfoort! I just arrived at the Digital Society Conference and look forward to presenting my ongoing and planned research on informal learning in hackerspaces today. My project “Hacking your way to IT expertise” is one of the showcases at the information market. For those who will/have come by to take a look at (and hopefully a chat about) my project at the conference, I have put together some additional material:

  • Earlier this year (2018), I published an article on ethical considerations for researching hacker communities. In this piece, I focus particularly on how to discuss controversial content that has been shared online – for example via publicly archived mailing lists. The paper Tracing controversies in hacker communities: ethical considerations for internet research has been published in the Information, Communication & Society journal.
  • I wrote an article on hackathons, i.e. hacking-marathons, which was published in the Convergence journal in 2017. If you are interested in how individuals and groups may develop their IT skills during such events, take a look at the article: Hacking events: Project development practices and technology use at hackathons
  • Together with my UM colleague Karin Wenz, I edited a Digital Culture & Society journal issue on Making and Hacking (2017). Just like the articles above, our introduction and all other contributions are available as open access.

Pressed for time/tldr?

Less talk, more action?

  • If you want to see and experience a hacker- or makerspace, rather than hearing more about it, consider a visit. Some communities have regular, sometimes even weekly, open evenings and many participate in the yearly International Open Hackerspace Day. You can find more inforation on Dutch hackerspaces here and an international overview, provided by the community network hackerspaces.org, here.

Picture credits and thanks: The image featured above is the logo of hackerspaces.org, a network of hackerspaces. It has been retrieved from http://hackerspaces.org.

CfP: Inequalities and Divides in Digital Cultures

Pablo Abend (University of Siegen) and I wrote a call for abstracts on “Inequalities and Divides in Digital Cultures”. For a Digital Culture & Society journal issue, we are looking for contributions that approach related topics from various, (inter-)disciplinary perspectives. Paper proposals (abstracts) may be related to the three themes described below. But we likewise welcome contributions moving beyond these. Do you conduct research on relevant issues and do you have an idea for a paper? We’d love to hear from you! Initial abstracts are due on Friday, 17th August.

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Writing a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship Proposal

Earlier this year, I promised that I would write a post on the feedback which I received on my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship proposal. I just completed the piece below and am happy to share my experience with this EU research grant scheme.

In September 2016, I applied for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (MCIF). If you do not know what an MCIF is, you can find further information here.  I submitted my proposal to the evaluation panel “Social Sciences and Humanities” (SOC). Alas, I did not make it at the first try. Since my proposal received a high score though, 91.40/100, my supervisor and I decided to submit the proposal once more in 2017: with success – the proposal was granted a few months later, with a score of 97/100. I am writing this post, since I learned a lot from the application process and the feedback which I received. And I think that particularly the reviewers’ feedback could also be useful for others who are currently preparing an MCIF application. Also, I hope that this post will inspire those whose project was rejected once and are still in doubt whether it makes sense to revise their proposal. I know how frustrating receiving the rejection letter is and I hope you will consider resubmitting after reading this post. : )

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Brighton Calling

When I saw that the long-awaited notification email from the European Commission started with “Congratulations…”, I almost couldn’t believe it: I was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship for my project “Hacking your way to IT literacy”. I will investigate what digital societies can – and need to – learn from digital learning in UK hackerspaces. By now, the grant agreement has been signed and I am thrilled to start the fellowship at University of Sussex, Brighton.

This would have been impossible without the fantastic supervision of Tim Jordan (Sussex). Special thanks go to him – and I would also like to thank those people from Sussex and Maastricht University who commented on earlier versions of the proposal, helped me navigate the application process and encouraged me to resubmit the proposal when my first application was not successful. I am immensely grateful for all the support I received. Also, the reviewers’ detailed feedback was extremely helpful for revising my proposal. If you are preparing an MCIF proposal this year – stay posted: I will write another post on the reviewers’ feedback soon, since it helped me a lot to understand what reviewers are looking for and how they evaluate proposals.

While I could not be happier about this chance to focus on my research and to acquire new skills, I regret having to leave Maastricht for two years: it is an amazing place to work and live. I will really miss working with my colleagues from the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences and other UM faculties, and I look forward to returning in 2020!

Geographies of Digital Culture

Very happy to find this in the post today: Geographies of Digital Culture, edited by Tilo Felgenhauer und Karsten Gäbler from Friedrich Schiller University Jena. The volume includes a great, critical introduction by the editors, reflecting among other things on matters of “spatial justice” (Soja 2010). The book emphasizes geographic aspects of digital culture: it sheds light on how digital technology becomes part of everyday practices – across various geographical but also historical contexts. I contributed a chapter on “Digital Health Mapping” (which I mentioned earlier on this blog). I am particularly glad to be part of this publication, as it pays attention to subjectivities and identities as well as politics and inequalities of digital culture. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like a pre-print or a scan of my chapter.

 

 

Wikipedia as educational tool

On Saturday, 4th November 2017, I will give a talk on Wikipedia as educational tool in university courses. My presentation will be part of the 2017 Wikimedia conference in Utrecht. I was delighted to be invited as speaker and look forward to the conference! Here’s a summary of my talk:

At Maastricht University, Vivian van Saaze and I organised a skills training on Wikipedia. It was part of the course “Sharing cultures” in the M.A. programme “Media Culture”. The skills training was offered twice so far, in autumn 2015 and 2016. In her lecture, Annika Richterich will present some insights into using Wikipedia as educational tool for university courses. The course “Sharing cultures” introduces students to practices of sharing facilitated by digital platforms and social media. The Wikipedia skills training had three main objectives: 1) to allow students to explore a form of digital knowledge sharing; 2) to familiarise them with principles of encyclopaedic writing; 3) to acquaint them with the use of MediaWiki and Wiki markup. Students wrote (or contributed to) a Wikipedia article on a concept relevant to the course theme, such as “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption”. A main idea for the skills training was that students would not only encounter Wikipedia as online environment, but would gain insights into the knowledge sharing practices and communal dynamics underpinning this environment. In this form, the skills training would not have been possible without the support of dedicated Wikipedia volunteers, among them the users Romaine, Dick Bos, Taketa and WeeJeeWee. They joined the skills tutorials and shared their technical as well as practical knowledge. The Wikimedians helped students understand the work of the Wikimedia foundation and Wikipedia as community.

You can find the conference programme and more information on the event here.