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Column: Makers, civic hackers step up to battle virus

Government agencies play a critical role in emergency management, and their leadership (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with how well a village weathers a storm. But today, myriad local movements can mobilize masses of volunteers, tapping the talents and passion of everyday citizens to make a real difference.

Whether rapidly launching websites where residents can find or provide help, or firing up an army of sewing machines and 3-D printers, Hawaii’s technology and creative communities have been working overtime to address some of the most pressing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the outset of this health crisis, simply finding information was a problem. Government websites are not known for their ease of use, and even in the best of times, helpful guides and important tools get lost in a spider web of bureaucracy and broken links.

Code for Hawaii, a civic hacking organization affiliated with the national Code for America, quickly began compiling a comprehensive directory of verified, credible resources, and within days had curated and organized more than 20 pages of links and helpful information.

The directory can be found at resilienthawaii.org.

This one project has spawned several branches, like lauhoe.org, which frames helpful information in community-driven storytelling to drive action, and coronacarehi.com, built by the Democratic Socialists of Honolulu to support a “mutual aid network” of services and volunteers.

Another project that inspired others is the statistical analysis of COVID-19 case counts and growth rates by Deja Ostrowski of Medical Legal Partnership Hawaii. Local app developer Brian Dote turned daily COVID-19 statistics into live online graphs at hawaiicovidcharts.com, while tech consultant Peter Kay posts daily charts and commentary at livinginhawaii.com.

And some incredible projects have come to life offline. There are dozens of groups making face masks to donate to health care professionals and vulnerable populations, whether with sewing machines or 3-D printers.

Punahou School houses one of many teams printing personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, Hawaii artist Gaye Chan helps maintain a massive crowdsourced spreadsheet of mask-making teams, patterns and hospitals in need (and is now spinning up an “urban foraging” sustainable food initiative). I’ve published a list of these groups at hawaiimaker.com.

Hawaii residents are even tackling the biggest but most complex medical equipment challenge: hospital ventilators to help patients breathe. Serial Native Hawaiian entrepreneur Olin Lagon is part of a team of local engineers and medical experts building an affordable, durable bridge ventilator.

Called Kahanu, or “the breath,” its design takes cues from many places, including an international community of ventilator designers and an old-fashioned hand-cranked shave ice machine. It will be open source, meaning anyone can freely use the design for their own projects, and with fundraising underway, the team hopes to manufacture 1,000 of the machines.

Now that teleconferencing tools are everywhere, educators and artists are also freely sharing their expertise. The Hawaii Society for Technology in Education is hosting regular “office hours” where teachers can collaborate and commiserate. The Purple Maia Foundation is offering free, weekly coding classes for kids. Hawaii Comedy Festival founder Kimee Balmilero has set up the “Tiny Stage” to feature local performers. And a number of musicians are putting on live concerts from their kitchens, like Kamuela Kahoano, raising money for charity.

There are so many other examples.

The Hawaii Children’s Action Network has put COVID-19 resources on a statewide map at covid19.hawaii-can.org, as has the Hawaii Geographic Information Coordinating Council at higicc.org. Media maker Ryan Kalei Tsuji created a beautiful pandemic news site at coronavirushawaii.com. Food writers Melanie Kosaka and Melissa Chang helped launch a crowdsourced database of over 250 restaurants offering takeout and delivery, which was then adapted by the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation into the foodagogo.com local dining directory.

People across Hawaii are contributing their talents to the greater good. And the best part is, with a little technology you can join them.


Ryan Ozawa is communications director for local tech company Hawaii Information Service. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @hawaii.


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