Covid-19: Hackathons & Social Entrepreneurship during Global Crisis
[7min read] This is not a press-release/ review on the hackathon/ startup. This is not an engineering/ data science/ scientific blog. Only a personal experience!
We are in a time of the century in 2020 when instead of AI-powered flying cars hitting the cities, a global pandemic beat us disrupting the life of billions on the earth, resulting in quarantines for months!
I observed during the 🦠 COVID-19 crisis that there are three kinds of population irrespective of how privileged or not you might be in any corner of the world:
- People who can contribute actively/ passively to the crisis given their skill-set/ profession/ interest/ background.
- People who can continue their remote work, but deal with the side-effects of quarantine like never before in their own ways.
- People who can be moderately/ severely affected by the pandemic due to various reasons including health and earning.
The second category in my opinion is the most “comfortable” one given the situation! I fall into this category as of now. In the last 10-weeks that I have been quarantined in Germany, I have had to turn the dining table into my workplace: Data science and engineering in the travel industry. During this time apart from indulging in a few indoor art-work, I have deep-dived into various personal tech projects & courses which to me is fun and learning.
I had already felt guilty & helpless for myself when I was super-proud of one of my friends who was actively pausing her Ph.D. in medical science to work towards COVID-19. It was one Thursday that I noticed the EuVsVirus Hackathon which made me question what value am I adding and if I can pause some of the personal tech learnings/ initiatives for something with which I could make a meaningful social impact even if that’s a drop in the ocean! And thus I was straight into the 👨🏻💻👩🏻💻 Hackathon for 50hrs on that Friday!
This was a pan-European hackathon led by the European Commission to develop innovative solutions for coronavirus-related challenges. The Hackathon saw over 21,000 participants from all across the globe submitting over 2,000 projects!
It was divided into challenges each of which has sub-categories:
- Health and life
- Business continuity
- Remote working and Education
- Social and Political Cohesion
- Digital Finance
- Other Challenges
I dived into the “Cheap Rapid Tests” sub-category of “Health and Life”. The process was pretty standard typical hackathon approach of “speed-dating”. But the impressive part was how this was organized on Slack with such a humongous amount of participants!
Hackathon Project: VoiceMed IVR
What is Voicemed? It is a machine learning backed approach to pre-diagnose a healthy person from a COVID-19 infected person by comparing coughs, breaths, and voice coupled with other extracted medical features from symptoms. It is expected to ease the load on healthcare systems by providing fast intervention diagnostics for everyone through cellular phone calls, API, and web-app integration.
For any machine learning project, data is gold. Even with GDPR in-place during a pandemic! So as a starting point for such a solution, for the 👨🏻💻👩🏻💻 next 50hrs I worked with our sub-team to 🛠 build a pipeline for 🤖 Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System for anyone to make a 📞 cellular call to our Bot so that we could gather 🗣 voice-data (breath, speech, and cough samples) along with other symptom responses.
Even though I am always interested in machine learning research, the motivation for diving into this software engineering project was purely to allow prediction models to ingest more data effectively in the near future.
We used Python along with Twilio, Firebase, Heroku, and sheer enthusiasm to achieve this prototype. The pipeline seemed to be stable enough such that we openly asked people around to voluntarily spend a minute talking to the VoiceMed Bot by making 📞 cellular calls (free via Hangout) to a couple of US numbers (🇺🇸+166-23301550 🇺🇸+186-34171575). The project is available on Voicmed | Devpost.
More than the project, I was lucky to work remotely in this team of amazingly enthusiastic people. Sergio and me would laugh at 5 am in the morning, cursing how annoying the Bot is turning out to be! Giuseppe and I realized holy crap, it’s been 40hrs we’re working together but we don’t know about each other and what do we actually do for living beyond this Hackathon! Irina turned out to be the sweetest project manager to hold us together and have our checkpoints achieved in these 50hrs!
Beyond the core-subteam of IVR, we had Chiara, Arianna, Cedric, Stefano, Agnese, Roman, Ons, Samantha, Soutrik, Harsha, Nicol, Michele, Joe and others who were actively looking into other areas of legal, finance, medical, funding, recruitment, marketing, design, etc.
VoiceMed Hackathon Pitch!
Thanks to the design team, the following 2-min clip on YouTube turned out to be our EuVsVirus Hackathon submission over the weekend:
Having met some amazing people, no wonder I decided to continue working with Voicemed part-time on weekends beyond my full-time job. It was a tuff call at the beginning given the number of initiatives I had already on my plate during this quarantine. But the project turned out to be such a blend of scientific and social impact, it drove me to focus further on the ML solutions in collaboration with the medical researchers in the coming weeks.
VocieMed: Few weeks into it, part-time!
What if I told you a startup is formed out of a series of Hackathons? That’s true! Having taken part in (and even won a few) Hackathons throughout April 2020, VoiceMed now has ~40 people from various fields working remotely and voluntarily (more important, passionately) towards the goal. Given the pandemic, of course there are 20+ competitors working on similar solutions across the globe at the moment!
I enjoy spreading my skill-set and contribution to the tech-area of VoiceMed ranging from machine learning research with medical, audio analysis, cloud & software architecture, and ideation/ product management.
Having my experience in machine learning limited to image and text, it is intriguing to expand into audio-signal processing and dive into medical feature extractions of cough & breath for non-contact diagnosis.
The ML team and speech scientists comprising of Jorge, Deepa, Tobia, Krishna, Thayabaran, Sapna, and me in cross-collaboration with medical researchers like Anvesh, Munawar, and others are spread across Europe! In spite of the challenge of working remotely and part-time, the enthusiasm to contribute is remarkable! Data is gold and there are people in VoiceMed working actively to get certified COVID-19 data from partnered hospitals in Italy and Lithuania!
Beyond that we have Roman building the vision and holding the roots strong together. It is incredible how within a month, we have Arianna, William, Rickard, Joseph, Cedric, Irina, Deepa, Elia, Giuseppe, Sergio, Munawar, Michele, Samantha, Chiara, Nicole, Agnese, and others handling various areas of Business Strategy, Operations, Marketing, UX, Product, Machine Learning, Engineering, Medical, Finance, Legal and GDPR, Partnerships, Grants and Funding!
It’s been a few weeks now that I am working 10hrs/ week in the ML team of VoiceMed apart from all my ongoing side-projects and 40hrs full-time job. It is indeed challenging to work most of my waking-hours and squeeze time for cooking, households, social-catchups, or a walk outside during quarantine. But at the same time the things that keep me on my toes at VoiceMed are:
- Insane learning curve on an inter-disciplinary field of machine learning and medical research.
- Surrounded by passionate people from different fields with concrete entrepreneurship vibes.
- Strong vision of a digital health startup making social impact during a global pandemic.
- Last but not the least, everyone resonating for a common mission!
- Science Business: EU vs Virus: hackathon proves to be a popular experiment in chaotic times
- The Patent News: Goodbye swabs: the test for the Coronavirus will be done with the voice
- Raoul Wallenberg Institute: COVID-19: Social Entrepreneurship
- EU-Startups: 10 innovative coronavirus solutions created during online hackathons