Head Coach of Public Invention.
In 2020 something happened that we had been warned about: the COVID-19 pandemic scourged the whole planet. I will not repeat the statistics here, except to say two things: many loved ones died before their time, and it would have been much worse if society had not responded vigorously.
Almost everyone did fight the pandemic. For every one person that denied the science or preferred a strong economy and massive casualties to social distancing, there were dozens more who stood up and did what they could, from wearing a mask to bringing food to their neighbors to working long hours under dangerous conditions in clinics.
This article is about only one of those groups of people: the engineers, makers, business people, artists, writers, managers, and leaders who came together and chose to address the pandemic with their specific talent by making open-source medical devices and personal protective equipment (PPE). If you want to support these efforts, this review of major organizations may be useful to you.
In March of 2020, experts predicted a massive shortfall of invasive ventilators. However, by May, it was clear that treatment involved less invasive ventilation while therapeutic oxygen, non-invasive ventilation, and PPE remained (and remains) sorely needed. Oxygen is widely available in high-resource communities in “the West,” but much less so in low-resource communities throughout the global South. Furthermore, a lack of PPE has plagued the United States even up to the time of this writing, although a mask is a much simpler device than a ventilator.
The diagrams below give my personal view of the basic timeline of the pandemic, from March 2020 to the present day, when vaccination has begun but daily cases and deaths remain high. On the day of this writing, more people died of COVID-19 than in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that precipitated several wars.
The future remains uncertain.
The Organized Free-libre Open Source Response
Starting in March, four umbrella volunteer organizations were quickly formed.
More than 100 projects were created just to quickly design and construct ventilators. A community effort led by Public Invention collected and evaluated these ventilator projects, which are too numerous to report here. Some of these projects were assisted by or under the umbrella of the big four organizations (HE, OSMS, COSMIC, and PubInv).
The following opinions may help you understand which of these charitable organizations (501c3, in the US) is right for you if you want to volunteer (and all of them need money!):
A more detailed diagram that categorized color-codes projects run by these organizations is shown below.
To see it in greater (zoomable) detail and links to all projects, click on the Plectica Map here.
There were at one time more than 100 ventilator projects attempting to address the pandemic, but sadly many have stopped making progress or have become closed-source and gone dark. Some of these dark projects may yet succeed in bringing a life-saving product to market, but since their progress is hidden, it is very difficult to judge. Some of the better open-source projects have been interviewed and analyzed.
Finally, this article is no doubt unintentionally biased, especially toward the anglophone projects which use English as their primary language. I know there are interesting and advanced ventilator projects developed in Spanish and French, for example. I would enjoy having large umbrella open-source design organizations parallel to the four highlighted here brought to my attention.
In March of 2020, the shortfall of ventilators was a hair-on-fire emergency. The adoption of social distancing, medical learnings, and the production by major corporations that rapidly manufactured ventilators abated the shortfall in the US and the wealthy nations. The vaccine gives legitimate hope that herd immunity will clamp down the pandemic by this summer.
But the less wealthy nations continue to have a dire need that has not been met. The world now needs long-term volunteers who have the faith and vision to make medical devices abundant. Steady, long-term dedication by a few dozen skilled volunteers with engineering, medical, legal, and business skills can create something new for humanity: a shared public commons of designs and test data for a growing ecosystem of open-source medical devices that are supply-chain resilient and more transparently open, and therefore safer and less monopolistic, than existing devices.
-- Robert L. Read, January 2021
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