Coronavirus Makers: Open technology and citizen collaboration against COVID-19

03/06/2021, por Angel

Coronavirus Makers: Open technology and citizen collaboration against COVID-19

César García Sáez

Director of La Hora Maker, new technologies disseminator and member of Coronavirus Makers


Empodera.org interviews César García Sáez, a computer scientist with a degree in East Asian studies from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia), who is a disseminator and trainer in new technologies. For the last 5 years he has been directing the programme La Hora Maker, on his Youtube channel, in which he talks about the maker ecosystem. His trajectory in the maker world began 10 years ago, in Medialab Prado, when he discovered a prototyping platform, which was then just starting: Arduino. This platform reminded him of LEGO blocks and Spectrum computers, where you could create things in a very simple and easy way. He was one of the thousands of participants in the Coronavirus Makers initiative, which at the height of the pandemic produced, in a decentralized way through 3D printing, and distributed visors, masks and other personal protective equipment. As a proper maker, he uses technology in a collaborative and open way to create and materialize his projects with Arduino and other tools such as 3D printers.

First of all, César, congratulations to the maker movement, once again, for mobilizing a citizen chain of creators, developers, engineers and researchers to save lives. How was the idea born and how has the process evolved to become a benchmark in the fight against COVID-19 in Spain?

Coronavirus Makers was born from a twitter thread of people who wondered if it would be possible to create respirators using 3D printing technology. This was the starting point, launched from Ireland by a person called Colin, and it was on 12 March 2020. On the same day, Esther Borao, who had also been involved in the maker community for some time, openly asked if this could be done. So this call to join that Esther launched, she did it together with the Telegram channel Coronavirus Makers. This is where it came from. Let’s say the first week started with 20, 30, 200, 500, 1000… two weeks later there were 15,000 people in this Telegram group.

One of the most curious things is that it started with this idea of working on the ventilator, but it soon became clear that it was very difficult to collaborate 15,000 people in the same group. So what happened spontaneously was that the groups began to separate and organize themselves according to different themes: there were people who had more experience in ventilators, there were people with more experience in electronics, other people had experience in 3D printing… groups were organized organically, in a similar way to the territorial distribution of Spain. In the initial organization, there were groups that were more into research and others that were more into manufacturing, into using their printers and finding designs that could be useful. This is where groups of Coronavirus Makers volunteers emerged, in all regions of Spain, trying to help and collaborate.

 

“Coronavirus Makers grew out of a Twitter thread of people asking if it would be possible to create respirators with 3D printing technology. Two weeks later 15,000 people were working on it”

 

One of the things that made Coronavirus Makers have this weight and relevance was the proximity. Instead of waiting for help to arrive from elsewhere, which did arrive, we focused, apart from the lack of respirators, on the lack of personal protection elements, such as masks, visors… A large part of what was created by Coronavirus Makers were these protective visors that were created and distributed throughout Spain. They are visors with a transparent sheet, quite flat and can be printed very well in 3D. 

In the end what happened was that in each region the makers organized themselves to supply hospitals and then also to neighbors, residences and other places where it was needed. What made this relevant was the intention and willingness to help anyone who needed it, on a voluntary basis, and at times when there was nothing, at the beginning of the pandemic, when things were more complicated.

The numbers are staggering, more than a million visors in a short period of time. Has it been easy given the circumstances to find enough financial support to fund the materials?

Well, as I said, the visors were one of the most important or perhaps the most visible elements of this Coronavirus Makers movement and the numbers are truly incredible. It went on non-stop, a lot of months, days and nights, with a lot of volunteers and people in their homes, makerspaces, digital fabrication labs, even places that were given to make and assemble these visors autonomously. The key was that people didn’t wait, initially, for anything. That is, people had filament at home and started printing with their own 3D printers and rolls of filament. There has been a lot of spending by makers, by people who have voluntarily decided to find these filaments, these materials wherever possible and start printing non-stop. 

 

“In each region the makers organized themselves to supply hospitals, neighbors, senior residences and other places. What made it relevant was the willingness to help anyone in need”



Little by little, as we worked, there were brands of filament manufacturers, printer brands, department stores, etc. that contacted Coronavirus Makers to offer special conditions for materials, donate filament or help with transport. Let’s say that there was a lot of support and that this support, from Coronavirus Makers, was always intended to be material and not economic. Coronavirus Makers is a voluntary movement, which does not seek money, and which is fundamentally there to work with the materials it has and to help where necessary.

There have been a lot of anecdotes and stories because, you have to take into account that all of this took place in weeks in which, one week you couldn’t go out on the street, the next week you could, the next week only transport workers could go out, the next week only security personnel could go out… So let’s say that one of the advantages of this movement, being distributed and having all these regional groups, is that in each group there was flexibility to adapt and connect. There were cities where taxi drivers were the people who picked up these visors. There were places where, in the absence of other means, the Guardia Civil or the police were in charge of the collections. I think it was in the flexibility and the willingness to collaborate with anyone in this common cause that really brought everyone together.

How did the movement grow from 20 volunteers to 13,500 at the height of the health crisis? How many of you are there now and how can anyone join you?

There are several keys to how Coronavirus Makers has been able to grow. I think the main one is that the moment when we started coincided with the beginning of the State of Alarm, so many people stayed at home and couldn’t go out. Teleworking started and I think there were a lot of 3D printers deployed and a lot of people trying to collaborate and try to limit the impact of this virus, even though it wasn’t very clear what was going to happen or what was going to work. But it was clear to everybody that the virus was serious enough to do their part. This is what made it possible for more and more people every day to look for ways to help, to do their part and to do whatever was necessary to reduce the impact of the virus. At the peak of inscriptions, there were about 16,500 people in the core group of Coronavirus Makers. But as I said before, there are many large groups. For example, Madrid has 4,000 or 4,500 active people. There are groups in all the Autonomous Communities. 

Right now, at the moment, I think we are at an impasse. There was a peak, at the end of May and the beginning of June, when there was a lot of printing. Then, it is true that there were companies that also joined in offering at very low prices some of these designs that were 3D printed or manufactured by other means, such as plastic injection. There also seems to have been an institutional response to provide health centres with all the means of protection. This also coincided with a drop in the number of people in hospital and intensive care, which meant that there was less stress on the healthcare system.

“Spain is one of the countries with the highest number of visor makers produced per inhabitant. We are in a model of open innovation, in which anyone can join in and collaborate”


There is still a connection between people and the groups are still active. We don’t print as much, but what we have done is to launch two associations to try to give continuity to Coronavirus Makers, in a more structured way over time, to try to help where necessary with all these manufacturing tools, with all these means and with all these desires, ideas, and inventions, always with open lisences.

Whoever wants to join or know more about Coronavirus Makers, there is the Coronavirus Makers website and we also have a channel on Telegram. There you can join, see where it’s at and I recommend you also check out the associations that have been launched: Mas Que Makers and the International Network of Makers (RIM).

In addition to the production of visors, you have also created the first open hardware ICU mask that can be replicated worldwide. How does it work?

There is a group, Coronavirus Makers, called Mascarillas Sin Filtros, which from the very beginning tried to create a mask that could be used in operating theatres and that would prevent the infection of healthcare personnel. This group investigated 3D printed masks and other options and the conclusion they reached was that 3D, for masks in operating theatres, is porous, which made it difficult to use and reuse safely.

This led to thinking about how else it could work. There has been a great deal of collaboration between all the people who make up this mask group to look for alternatives and, in the end, it was decided to generate a mould that would allow us to make silicone masks. Silicone has a specific texture, and certain types of silicone can be used in the medical context, as it can be properly washed and sterilized.

The interesting thing about this mask is that an HME filter is used on the front, which is a filter that is already used in hospitals so that it would not be necessary to re-certify the mask. It should also be noted that, with this mask that has been manufactured, the idea is to have these moulds available so that they can be manufactured by simply injecting the silicone. At the moment we are waiting for the two laboratories in charge of the homologation tests to be able to carry out these tests. Tests have been carried out with universities, but in Spain, for a mask to be considered a mask with all the guarantees, it has to pass through these two laboratories, which are now quite overloaded. But soon more will be known and the mask will be available to everyone once it has been validated and certified for use.

This wave of technological solidarity is based on a legion of home 3D printers. How has it been coordinated for mass distribution to hospitals, nursing homes, etc.?

Well, this has been very site-dependent. There were places where larger groups, such as Madrid, organized to distribute to the hospitals closest to them. There were groups in smaller cities, such as Palma de Mallorca or León, where the FabLab served as a space for assembly, coordination and local distribution. But, in general, the aim was to be a fairly direct distribution, taking precautionary measures, i.e. cleaning with appropriate cleaning materials, both in the collection from individuals’ homes and in the collection from hospitals. 

For example, for care homes, they found information on Frena la curva (Curb the curve). Each local group was calling the homes to offer these materials so that people could be as protected as possible. But, in general, it has varied a lot from community to community, it has even varied a lot depending on the time. There were places like Navarra, where initially volunteers started and then the institutions joined in to offer a series of facilities for the sanitation of the masks, for distribution… it has varied a lot depending on the place.

What response have you found from the public administrations? Do you think that these are temporary or emergency solutions or that they have demonstrated their efficacy beyond homologations and could change the panorama?

I think the response from administrations varied from time to time and from administration to administration. One of the issues that has perhaps been emphasized the most is whether or not the visor was accepted as an element of personal protection. In this regard, there were administrations such as the Canary Islands, which issued notes indicating that during the state of alarm and as long as there were no approved means, they could be used. There were also others, such as Madrid, where the use of these materials was authorized on 24 May and then disallowed on 28 May. There were places such as Valencia, which followed in the footsteps of Navarre, and which the administrations themselves promoted… There has been a lot of local variety. 

In the end, the truth is that thanks to the work of many people, the Ministry of Labour managed to get this visor validated. It turned out that it was not the doctors who had to validate it, but rather, as it was an element of protection, this validation corresponded to the Ministry of Labour. And one of the designs was validated at the national level. 

 

“The makers’ job was to give it all when people were standing still. When people were thinking “let’s wait, let’s see if it gets approved, let’s wait to see if they give the go-ahead…”, the virus doesn’t wait. And neither do the makers”

 

I think it varied a lot, even depending on the level of alarm. In other words, at the beginning when there was nothing, the response was different from now that there are means. So the question arises: if there are no means, is this a help? If there are means, what is the role? This is a question that is up in the air. I believe that solidarity, in the end, finds its way.

I remember when in Madrid they banned the distribution of visors in hospitals and they started to distribute them in other places, because the order came from the health department. I think that when something hits so hard and in so many different places in society, there will always be someone who needs it. Maybe the doctor doesn’t need it, because he already has a professional model, but maybe the person who works in the supermarket facing the public, dealing with people all day long, and who also needs to protect himself in the best possible way, doesn’t. I think this solidarity is the key. I think this solidarity is the key.

Obviously, at a volume level, an industrial solution makes it possible to manufacture thousands of visors and distribute them at incredible speeds when everything works. I think the job of the makers has been to give their all when people were standing still. When people were in the “let’s wait, let’s see if it gets approved, let’s wait to see if they give the go-ahead, let’s wait…” and the virus doesn’t wait. And I don’t think the makers do either. That’s the point. By this I don’t mean that we don’t aspire to homologation, because one of the big problems in this case is that we didn’t have openly available solutions for the visors and for all kinds of elements. I talk about visors because it is perhaps the best known. But in Coronavirus Makers, there were people working on respirators, on masks, on measuring tools such as capnographs… and the key so that this does not happen again and we do not find ourselves in this situation of material helplessness, is that these designs, even the already approved designs, are available with open licenses so that anyone can manufacture them.

 

“The key to not finding ourselves in this situation of material helplessness again is to make designs available with open licenses so that anyone can manufacture them”

 

We can think of the case of medicines, that we have generics. Well, maybe having these open generic scopes, with open licenses for free hardware, allowing anyone to download them, access them, print them, share them and improve them is what is going to prevent a problem.

In relation to the work of public administrations, one of the very powerful things that the Makers movement achieved, when there were no ventilators and it seemed that there were not going to be…, there were three plans called Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. In Plan A, the administrations would buy the ventilators from companies that sell approved and certified models, and that’s it. They would pay what they had to pay and that was it. Plan B involved revitalizing and promoting local respirator companies, converting part of their production lines for the manufacture of respirators. And Plan C was “Do it yourself” respirators.

I think that all the push from the maker world to create these respirators and homologate these devices was key here. One of the most important milestones was that, due to all the advances, all the information that was emerging and thanks to the intermediation of the Cotec Foundation, a meeting was held, openly, with the Spanish Medicines Agency. The meeting was attended by some 120 people. It was like an open round of questions about the process by which groups of makers, people, industries, universities, technology centres… with the ventilator we were developing, we could get help to people as quickly as possible. In other words, what are the necessary steps? It was a meeting that lasted almost two hours, which also helped to provide clarifying guidelines the next day so that everyone was clear about what had to be done and what the steps were. And I think that this open relationship model, in which anyone can ask questions and talk to the person in charge of the validation process, is very positive, because it facilitates, helps and makes it transparent.

Logically, once the state of exception is over, those designs that want to and have passed tests may undergo more traditional approval processes. The fact that the administrations, in some cases, are open to answering the questions of the development teams has been very positive and has made Spain one of the countries in the world where the most work has been done on ventilators, by far, due to the volume of people working on it.

What essential differences do you see in the research being carried out in the different European countries to combat the pandemic?

In general, the same development that we have seen in Spain has also been seen in other European countries. In Italy, there have been groups of makers working on replicating valves and adapting snorkel-type masks. I suppose that the different countries, as they saw the pandemic coming, adopted different measures. In countries like the Czech Republic, there was a whole process of homologation for visors by Prusa Research, which is a company that works with open source 3D printers. Globally I think 8.5 million visors were made (September 2020 figures). Visors were made in India, in the US, etc. 


“When you face a new problem, the first thing is to learn what you are facing and understand what is going on, scientifically validate that information and share it”


Spain is one of the countries with the highest number of visors produced per inhabitant, in fact I think we are the first. But for me the key, with regard to research, is that we are in a model of open innovation, in which anyone can join in and collaborate. In fact, for me, one of the success stories, when the Coronavirus Makers group started up, something that also happened at the same time, is that Foro Aire was launched, at the initiative of the Cotec Foundation, with which I have been collaborating for several years and I am part of
the COTEC 100 network. And in that Foro Aire group there were many doctors and physicians who also wanted to collaborate and they found Telegram too intense due to the number of people talking at the same time, so we launched a forum that was slower, but allowed the possibility of sharing information more slowly. There, doctors, electromedical technicians and other people who wanted to collaborate, etc. joined in and shared in a very generous way, everything they knew about how to make the ventilators, the visors…

One of the strangest videos I have made of The Maker Hour, in these months of pandemic, was to read an article that someone had posted on the forum about what the visors were for and what the masks were for. Because I think the key to all this that we have to learn is that when you face a new problem, the first thing is to learn what you are facing and understand what is going on, validate that information scientifically, share it… and a lot of that has happened in the forum. Also in the Telegram channels. And the key is that it’s a one-on-one conversation. That is to say, there were citizens with all kinds of profiles, technical, non-technical, curious, top researchers… who have sat down to look for open solutions and solutions that could benefit anyone. This is the main lesson we should take away. How, in a case of need, when there is something that exceeds the capacity of one person to solve it and provide a solution, how these ecosystems in which people with technical knowledge, with production machines, with communication skills, with the will to leave everything behind and start helping others, can provide a quick solution to the pandemic or at least mitigate the effects it can produce, preventing more people from becoming infected.

More information:

Coronavirus Makers website: https://coronavirusmakers.org/ 

Facebook Coronavirus Makers: https://www.facebook.com/CoronavirusMak3/ 

Twitter Coronavirus Makes: https://twitter.com/CoronavirusMak3 

Instagram Coronavirus Makers: https://www.instagram.com/coronavirus_makers/ 

La Hora Maker website: https://www.lahoramaker.com/ 

Twitter César García Sáez: https://twitter.com/elsatch 

César García Sáez’s website: https://www.cesargarciasaez.com/

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