After hard science, soft science. Just One Giant Lab (JOGL), an online collaborative open science laboratory, accompanies social and citizen projects seeking to improve communal quality of life.
Not content with spurring on new solutions for diagnostic testing and conducting meta-studies on their own data to foster collective intelligence on the platform, JOGL’s Open Covid-19 Initiative is also focusing on projects that benefit civil society.
Not long after joining JOGL, Vilsquare, an organization created to support the digital transition in Africa, realized that their priorities were quite different from those of their western colleagues. While many of the projects focused on lab testing or other biotech experiments, “our priority was to intervene on a social level,” says Obialunanma Nnaobi, co-founder and president of Vilsquare. Throughout Africa, lockdown measures have been in place since mid-March. In Nigeria alone, more than 39 million students have been affected.
To ensure continuity in education, the federal government and individual states have implemented solutions, most of which involve classes on television or radio. “But if you have four children at different levels, and they all share the same box, it doesn’t give them a lot of time,” says Obialunanma. VoltSchool is based on the Internet and mobile devices: smartphones, tablets, laptops. Even if the children don’t have their own device, it’s easier to borrow one from their family or community members. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she admits. “We can’t solve all of our social problems with a single initiative.”
After focusing on STEM courses (Vilsquare previously developed a low-cost microscope for classes), the organization responded to parents’ requests to develop courses in English and geography, aligned with the approved curriculum of the West African Examinations Council. The beta program is currently available to students in five English-speaking West African nations and seeks to continue in the long-term.
“Vilsquare has received a lot of support from JOGL,” says Obialunanma. In addition to being awarded a micro-grant of 1500 euros for VoltSchool, Vilsquare keeps in close contact with the JOGL community.
“What does the world look like under lockdown? What is happening to our freedoms to come and go, assemble, cross borders? Are the laws clear and limited in time?” As soon as nations began to lock down their borders and their citizens, Jean François Quéralt, founder of The IO Foundation, an organization that advocates the protection and defense of digital rights, decided to compile a comprehensive list of restrictions and time limits.
Already awarded in the EUvsVirus hackathon, Jean François’s map monitors Covid-19-related “non-pharmaceutical interventions”: not going to work or religious sites, not attending classes, not traveling between cities or across borders… over 20 criteria serve to quantify the scope of restrictions (none, partial, total or unclear). In order to update the map, Jean François and his team must forage through government documentation on a case-by-case basis. With some 50 members around the world, including in Canada, India, Spain, Mexico and Malaysia, where Jean François is based, the team is able to more or less cover the globe.
Jean François plans to update the site beyond the pandemic by integrating data related to contact tracing, identity cards, data protection policies and military presence.
Musician and teacher Rafaël Carosi began recording personal stories told by protestors during the Nuit Debout movement in France. At the time, he had no idea what he would do with them, but he was inspired to further blend the roles of musician and journalist.
Four years later, amidst a pandemic, Raphaël relaunched his project. First he approached his family, his circle of close friends, then he opened his microphone up to other voices. He is currently recording stories at ATD Fourth World, an organization that fights poverty, and he would also like to interview makers from La Quadrature du Net.
Raphaël doesn’t aspire to represent a global society coming out of lockdown. “You start somewhere, you have to accept that it’s subjective,” he says.
Why did he join JOGL? “I can appreciate this kind of initiative,” he replies. The artist also founded Listen Ensemble, a collaborative platform where music performers, researchers and artists create together, far from models that can be “hierarchical and institutional, where instrumentalists often serve an agenda”. Raphaël believes that JOGL opens up more possibilities, although “it isn’t easy for an artist to integrate teams of scientists.”
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Anyone who has seen a doctor in a foreign country knows just how hard can be to explain what ails them. “Even if you speak the language fluently, it requires a specfic medical vocabulary,” says Marie Kuter, a UX consultant who leads the project #Trad19. Dry or wet cough, medical history, cardiovascular problems… all vital information that could be dangerously lost in translation.
In response to these needs, particularly among migrant communities in France, Marie developed a universal visual language based on diagnostic tools used by the French government. In addition to illustrations, #Trad19 offers translations of Covid-19 symptoms in 8 languages, as determined by volunteers from the Yellow Chatters online community.
Originally designed to be printed out on cards, #Trad19 will soon be available as a mobile application to make it more widely accessible, also for use in the long-term.
In response to the surge in domestic violence under lockdown, a team led by systems engineer Kay Nag in Sweden is developing a device to send out a silent alert in case of danger. The size of a key fob, the device is basically a button connected to an application that sends an automated message to emergency contacts, all predefined by the user. The button also triggers an automatic audio recording of the immediate environment, which could eventually serve as evidence. There are two levels of alerts: the victim feels harassed but is not sure if they are in a dangerous situation; or the victim is in immediate danger.
The team discovered JOGL through the EUvsVirus hackathon, and was later awarded a micro-grant of 2800 euros for hardware development: “For us it was perfect, because we wanted to avoid soliciting venture capitalists, especially to retain our decision-making capacity.”
The team is currently in discussion with local organizations supporting victims of domestic abuse, and the device is being beta-tested by 50 users. Kay hopes to market the first versions by the end of summer, for 35-50 dollars, depending on the features. The model will be documented in open source.
Steve Tchuenté, an MBA student at HEC Paris, first developed the AccuroLab project during the MIT hackathon Africa Takes on Covid-19, in early May 2020. He and his team members Tarik Fathallah, student at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, and Marilyn Osei, product designer and UX strategist, decided to tackle fake news on social media, focusing on WhatsApp, “the most commonly used communication media in Africa,” according to Steve.
AccuroLab takes the form of a simple WhatsApp account that can be added to your contacts without having to provide any personal information or even telephone number. Users can chat with it to ask questions about Covid-19, from statistics to modes of transmission.
In order to verify the facts submitted, the AccuroLab team refers to public health sources such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the French Pasteur Institute. Then they synthesize and simplify the information without the jargon for average users and direct them to reliable sources for further research. They also plan to give users the option of transferring a long text, in order to verify social media threads. Meanwhile they are working on implementing human intervention, in case the algorithm is unable to provide a sufficient response.
“The main difference between AccuroLab and other fake news checkers by media like AFP, for example, is our speedy response time in checking the information,” says Steve. “Sometimes it can take hours or even days or weeks for a media to verify information. We want to progressively build up a knowledge base and provide an instant response to users, based on a dataset of predetermined topics. For topics that haven’t yet been researched, we want to reduce our response time using available resources. It’s a different dynamic.”
Eventually, the team hopes to integrate a journalistic entity into the project. For now, Steve says that this solution is motivated by its social impact during the Covid-19 pandemic, but he hopes to make it profitable through B2C and B2B offers.
AccuroLab was awarded a JOGL mini-grant and has already finished its beta-testing with 30 users in seven different countries in Europe, Africa and the United States. The team is also working with the Creative Destruction Lab accelerator in Canada to launch the fake-news detecting chatbot very soon.
More about these projects on Just One Giant Lab