Open source innovators César García Sáez (top) and David Cuartiellies (right) created Coronavirus … [+]
As hospitals prepare to take in more patients with the coronavirus, they are in acute need of life-saving equipment: ventilators that help patients breathe, face masks and protective gear. The problem is, there aren’t enough of them. And there’s not enough manufacturing capacity to easily hike up production.
This is where the do-it-yourself (DIY) community in Spain comes in: Under the name Coronavirus Makers, over the last few weeks, thousands of citizens have been connecting online to fight against the shortage of life-saving equipment. From their living rooms and basements, they tinker with ideas and designs, share them, build prototypes and print them out with 3-D printers.
Ashoka Fellow David Cuartielles and César García, both innovators in the open source space, are helping to curate the Coronavirus Makers Forum that they set up on March 13 as the crisis was getting worse. The Forum takes a bird’s eye view of all the community’s activities, connects members, extracts insights, and builds bridges to health care institutions and experts — to speed up solutions that could save lives.
I caught up with them on Zoom to learn more.
David, Cesar, thanks for making time available, I know it’s 9 pm in Europe!
Cesar: Thanks, we still have another 2 hour phone call now, and then I will work through the night while David signs off and comes back online tomorrow morning. Then I’ll try and catch some hours of sleep. We’re working around the clock.
What have you been doing today?
David: We’ve been in constant calls today. To give you an example, we had several conversations with doctors today who desperately need ventilators. Now, a ventilator is a very complicated machine. It’s impossible to 3-D print that in your basement. But it turns out there are a lot of patients in hospitals with milder symptoms. And they may be fine with simpler, mechanical ventilators. Doctors told us: Look, my ventilator has 100 parameters, but it will work fine for certain types of patients with just 5. Can you help me? And the answer is: Perhaps we can!
Cesar: The maker community is working on these minimum viable products. One of our DIY-subgroups called reesistencia is progressing really fast on building such a respirator prototype.
Who are members of your group?
Cesar: There’s everyone — engineers, students, dads, moms, daughters, sons, people who work in companies, teachers, carpenters. It’s the open source maker community. Also doctors from places like Mexico and Argentina have joined to try to anticipate what’s coming to their countries. Spanish doctors don’t have the same amount of time right now, they are all working 24/7.
David: All our community members have something in common: They are channeling their energy into making something positive. We’re under lockdown here in Spain, you can’t go out, so you might as well help in other ways to fight against the virus.
The medical field is heavily regulated — but it seems you’re on purpose focused on hardware that is relatively simple to make, like masks or as you said mechanical ventilators.
Cesar: Yes. Every group is self-organized to create something useful based on the feedback they get. When we learned that there could be a shortage of respirators in Spain, a group decided to tackle the challenge and start producing one. As the list of needs grew, other groups started exploring simpler open source devices, such as face masks. In this community, everyone is contributing and doing what they can to mitigate the crisis.
What are you learning from your bird’s eye view?
David: Right now, transportation is one big bottle neck. Because there’s a lockdown, we can’t just go out. You’ll get fined. Let’s say someone prints a face mask prototype in their house — how do they get it to the nurses and doctors, to get feedback for the next iteration? Some people have asked relatives who work in the hospital to take stuff along, but that can’t be it. We realized that in the city of Murcia alone, there are 120 people with 3D machinery, and they are ready to print. Regional groups have been created to organize the production and help thousands of people all over Spain, which is great, because we’ll need to print regionally. But we’ll need the data, and we’ll need to solve the transportation issue.
What can be done? All this is happening so fast — you’ve been online doing this for just a little over one week!
David: Yes, it’s happening super fast, and our job is to filter out all the relevant insights and learnings out of thousands of data sets that are inputted daily, and to connect people who are working on similar issues but have never talked to each other. Regarding transportation, we need help from UPS, TNT, to offer free transportation for the equipment that’s being produced. That’s very important.
Are companies taking notice of what you do?
David: Yes. And companies are also interested for business reasons. They don’t have time for R&D now, so they are calling in. They are looking for the R&D to come from our community, to eventually take it and scale it up to help.
I’m assuming the likelihood for creative, out-of-the-box solutions coming from the DIY community is high.
David: Yes. I think that we are really close to seeing some sort of unexpected side innovation, not necessarily on the ventilator side. For example, one member in one of the groups was saying: “Given the nature of the virus, if you make a column of one meter high water with soap and if you filter the air through that column with bubbles, the virus might die.” And then others take this and experiment with it.
Cesar: Because people are locked at home, they are pouring all their energy into this. People are so creative and collaborative across disciplines. For example, there’s this group working on face masks, and some are reading up on scientific papers and bringing that knowledge back to the group. We don’t focus on news, we don’t focus on politics. We focus on facts, science, and technologies that can solve problems. And hopefully this will help all of us to gain time while the curve of patients flattens, so we can avoid a pretty bad health system breakdown. Thanks to the collective effort, we think we can help this happen, and eventually save lives.
David: Technology is a way to be useful and re-connect and work together in the most difficult times.
You can follow David and Cesar’s work and other initiatives against Covid-19 on Twitter @AIRE_Covid19.
David Cuartiellies is the co-founder of the hardware platform Arduino, one of the world’s leading platforms for DIY electronics. He has collaborated with various universities and is a research Fellow at the Center for Internet of Things and People at Malmo University in Sweden, teaching on interactive technology. He is changing how Spanish schools engage with technology, allowing children to play, test and engineer. He became an Ashoka Fellow in 2017.
César García Sáez is an independent researcher specialized in digital fabrication, Internet of Things, open design processes and smart cities. He co-founded Makespace Madrid, and shares the latest news about the maker movement on his podcast/Youtube channel La Hora Maker.
Konstanze Frischen leads Ashoka’s new global Technology & Humanity initiative. She’s a Leadership Group Member of Ashoka. Konstanze is from Europe and currently based in Washington, D.C.