The fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 is a tireless effort for the medical community, first responders, and government agencies. Personnel on the front lines are working together to save lives and mitigate the impact on citizens and businesses. At times like these, the power of community and collaboration come into sharp focus and show us all what we can accomplish when we work together for a common good.

The technology community has a critical role to play in this fight by driving the creation of innovative tools and putting them into the hands of medical and scientific experts that are leading the way. Making those innovative tools as accessible as possible starts with being free and open. Solutions and software based on a free and open philosophy are exactly that — free. Because they don't cost anything and have a low barrier to adoption, they can be immediately placed into the hands of responders, volunteers, and others who need them. And because they are open, these tools can be improved again and again. When governments look to free and open source software, they can quickly innovate and deliver solutions to move forward during a crisis like this pandemic.

Open source in action during a crisis

Software built on open source has proven critical to success during past periods of crisis. When Ebola struck West Africa in late 2014, staff with eHealth Africa leaned on open source solutions to evolve their efforts to collect, link, and analyze data recorded during the epidemic. At the outset of the virus, it was taking weeks between the identification of a suspected case and laboratory confirmation to start contact traces. By using an open source technology to deploy a call center application, workers could record data at a central location and distribute that data to its district centers. Around the country, these centers were able to receive the data, respond to the alerts, and then add in the follow-up alerts and the rest of the data.

Open source-based search engine technology also enabled immediate indexing of different facets of the call center, so indexes were updated quickly as new data sets became available. With these open source tools, eHealth African played a pivotal role in identifying suspected cases and getting contact tracing in motion sooner during the Ebola outbreak.

All of this was only possible because developers were empowered with open source technology to stand up projects quickly. Open source was the fastest, most affordable, and most flexible way to turn a mountain of data into insights and action that saved lives. Solutions built on a free and open philosophy are already being used in the fight against COVID-19, including geospatial technology that assists with social distancing in public spaces. Several applications to assist with contract tracing are also being developed using open source software. As we advance into an uncertain future, open source solutions will be critical to building the innovative tools responders and agencies need to continue the fight.

When is “free” really free?

Since the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold, many enterprise software firms have started offering their solutions and services for free, but only for a limited time. Eventually, these free offers expire and agencies who have adopted them during a crisis emerge worried about which fundamental services of government will encounter vendor lock-in and be forced into closed and proprietary ecosystems. These limited-time free offerings hinder the ability to innovate confidently in a crisis by making the procurement of software a primary concern over fighting the disease.

Alternatively, software built on open source or even free-forever tiers of pricing are free now and always. Nothing changes about the business model once we’re out of this crisis.

It’s still free and open and it remains that way. The free and open model puts tools into the hands of developers now to manage, search, and analyze various data types in real-time, and that gives IT leaders the visibility and transparency they need to truly implement a data-first strategy to modernize their systems tomorrow as well.

Solutions for the Future

The open source community has a history of collaborating to create solutions that benefit society and communities, especially during a crisis like COVID-19. The benefits of placing tools based on a free and open model were well documented before the crisis and it will remain that way after.

By drawing on the strengths of open source solutions -- quick to stand up, completely free with no potential for vendor lock in, and constantly improved upon by the community -- governments can build solutions that can be built upon in the future. Solutions that can be used in the next crisis.

Together with healthcare workers, scientific researchers, government agencies, and the scores of volunteers helping to stamp out this pandemic, it is through open source that we will light the path to innovation in the future.

We believe that the best products are built in the open, in collaboration with a community of passionate developers and users who push the bounds of what’s possible. Join us!

This content is made possible by our sponsors; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of e.Republic’s editorial staff.