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Bystanders guilt - volunteering during the pandemic

Emmy Hoyes recently joined us at an #OpenDataSavesLives session to share her story of volunteering remotely during the initial weeks of lockdown in the UK. She used her skills on an online project to help get PPE to the people who needed it.
When the number of Covid-19 cases started to increase throughout March I felt like a coward. I was watching from the side lines as people put their lives at risk for the common good by going to work in hospitals or supermarkets. I was very lucky to have an employer who very early on allowed most employees to work from home. My dog and I were therefore living in a peaceful and safe bubble in the Yorkshire Dales surrounded by sheep and curlews while normal society was transforming into a surreal sci-fi movie.

It came as a great surprise when my manager informed me that I would be furloughed with no guarantee of a job to go back to after the crisis. Up until that point I naively assumed it was only people in retail and hospitality who would be affected since as a software engineer I could still do my work perfectly well while based from home. Overnight I found myself cut off from work as my access to email and the corporate network was turned off. I had no excuse now, money was still coming in thanks to the government and I had all the time in the world. I felt overwhelmed by the feeling that I needed to do something to help. I could have chosen to sew hospital gowns or shop for people shielding but it felt more appropriate to contribute to the Covid-19 effort using my programming skills. Through a newsletter I stumbled on a site called which is an initiative started by Katz Kiely to help people needing PPE by linking them with new and existing PPE suppliers. They were looking for volunteers in various skills areas including software development and were using the platform for people to register their interest in contributing.

At this point I had no idea how many people were working on this and what kind of technology they were using but I could immediately feel the decrease in bystanders guilt even as I was filling in the application form.I was finally doing something, even if it was just from the comfort of my home and with no risk of contracting a deadly disease. I was pleasantly surprised when only a couple of hours later I was contacted by Benjamin Smith. They were short on people with software skills and after a brief chat was I emailed the link to the git repository and given work to do. Things were happening fast.Everything was kept simple as there was only one goal, to save lives. It makes people focus like nothing else does.

As it turned out I was quite late to the party. The site was already up and running and volunteers were working hard behind the scenes to match health care professionals with PPE suppliers. But it needed an overhaul to make it more flexible and provide better functionality for the volunteers who were resorting to using Google Sheets to try and manage their work.

Ben had taken the repository over from the people who originally set it up and thankfully had the work planned out. In the weeks that followed I was emailed tasks that also included very nice and helpful hints as I hadn't used some of the technologies before and at times felt like a complete novice.

Mid-June the team had a retrospective over Zoom which was the first time Id seen some of the people Id worked with. I had mostly been on the fringes doing coding work so it was great to hear what other volunteers had done. The new website was pretty much ready but the peak had passed. People were tired but had started to catch up on sleep as things had calmed down. It was a good time to reflect. Though hugely positive, there was almost a feeling of disappointment that there was no longer a huge unmet need of PPE out there.People had got a huge buzz from working with complete strangers on such a rewarding initiative. But we aren't out of the woods yet. As the society opens up step by step, new groups are finding that they need access to PPE and many other countries still have the worst to come. The website will still be there ready to help. The code for the site is available in a git repo and available to anyone anywhere in the world. The team is currently investigating routes into other countries where a site like this could help, wary that many governments would rather not have shortages highlighted in public even though,as we all know, open data saves lives.