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HACKERS and HOSPITALS: How you can help

by Dana Morgenstein Contributions Published on Mar 31, 2020 02:56 PM

Free software activists, as well as many scientists and medical professionals, have long since realized that proprietary medical software and devices are neither ethical nor adequate to our needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated some of these shortcomings to a broader audience -- and also given our community a unique opportunity to offer real, material help at a difficult time. We're putting together a plan to pitch in, and we hope you'll join us: keep reading to find out what you can do!

You may already be aware that software and hardware restrictions are actively hampering the ability of hospitals to repair desperately needed ventilators all over the world, and how some Italian volunteers ran into problems when they 3D printed ventilator valves. (As you can see from the link, the stories vary about exactly what their interaction with the manufacturer was, but it's clear that the company refused to release proprietary design files, forcing the volunteers to reverse-engineer the parts.)

The struggles of free software activists we've covered in the past to free the devices they use include:

  • Software Freedom Conservancy executive director and Free Software Award winner Karen Sandler's efforts to raise the alarm about the dangers of proprietary software in medical devices, including her own pacemaker;

  • The struggles of LibrePlanet speaker and OpenAPS co-founder Dana Lewis, and many others to help Type 1 diabetics take control of their medical treatment using an Artificial Pancreas System; and

  • The efforts of many patients and activists to improve the effectiveness of their sleep apnea treatment by hacking their CPAP machines.

We've also seen how free software can deliver better health outcomes from our friends at GNU Health and GNU Health Embedded, and how the participation of everyday people in the scientific process can help to save the environment through Free Software Award winners Public Lab, and help in disaster relief through Free Software Award winners Sahana.

So it's clear that the free software community has a lot of creativity and know-how to contribute in the tough days ahead, and that with over 350,000 people worldwide stricken with COVID-19 as of this writing, we absolutely need to pitch in if we can help people to avoid illness, and to recover from coronavirus. We know that the 3D printing of medical equipment is distinctly not an advisable hobby for amateurs, and that the production of anything more complex than cloth masks will require expert input. But we also know that the outlook is bleak if supplies run short – and that shortages are almost certain.

That's why we're looking into what we can make with our in-office Respects Your Freedom (RYF)-certified 3D printers, and we're talking to the brand new Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation so they can direct our efforts. We're also gathering resources for our "HACKERS and HOSPITALS" plan at the LibrePlanet wiki page, and if you have expertise, 3D printers, or supplies to contribute, please contact Michael via If you do not have the means to produce medical gear and you still want to help, research can be done from anywhere with only a computer and an Internet connection. Add any projects that are freely licensed working towards helping with COVID-19 to the wiki!

We've always believed that it's of crucial importance to human freedom and creativity to allow us to use all the tools at our disposal with no restrictions, and right now, we may be able to use the free software we've built, preserved, and advocated for together to save lives.

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