About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Crowdsourcing ideas to combat COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has brought unprecedented challenges for both people and society. We’re also seeing the power of human creativity and collaboration. One example is the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, the world's largest crowdsourced resource library of tech, tools and data relating to COVID-19 and supported by new grant funding from Nesta.

The Handbook was created by Edward Saperia and Nathan Young from Newspeak House and in this guest blog they share how it’s bringing together hundreds of expert contributors to tackle a global epidemic.

Why a tech handbook?

We noticed that the main problem in tackling the outbreak was coordination. Experts and institutions across all nations are all focusing their efforts on this. We will beat it if we work together, and that means specialising and learning from each other.

The Handbook collates the work of thousands of expert contributors. This includes technologists, civic organisations, public institutions, researchers, and specialists and uses custom-built software and a rapid crowdsourcing method. We pioneered this on collective intelligence projects such as our Election Tech Handbook. This follows from tools such as collaborative documents, wikis and social networks. Our method intuitively allows specialist communities to share knowledge and explore complex problems. Contributors share solutions, avoid replication and solve problems together.

How is it helping to tackle COVID-19?

To date, the Handbook has provided a platform for doctors and engineers working on open source ventilator designs. It’s also helped UK doctors advise doctors in Ecuador on how to develop safe personal protective equipment. Mutual aid groups in the UK have been able to share ways to organise volunteers and their finances and charities and public servants have shared approaches to service design in crisis situations. There are also resources on practical considerations too, such as how to manage a team remotely, arrange childcare, or keep family members safe.

To the user, the Handbook appears as a set of documents, each with a Whatsapp topic discussion group. Many people can be seen editing at once. It looks like Word, so people intuitively start contributing and categorising the content. We oversee the content layout so it doesn’t appear intimidating, to encourage participation. Engagement is key - users add data and then they structure it. People are great at spotting patterns and over time they move and reorder links and sections. Slowly the big picture emerges. The resulting taxonomy can be used to engage new specialist communities. And so the process continues. Finally the raw text can be extracted as structured data.

What’s next?

With the new funding from Nesta, we can make the handbook easier to find and use. We want to allow for more editors at once. The documents will have search functionality and the capacity for exporting links. We’ll also hire a community and PR managers to help share each of the 50 sections with those who need them. If you're working on a response to the pandemic, whether as part of a large institution or a lone volunteer, we want it to be represented in the handbook. And if you're updating your strategy, it can help you learn from the experience of others.

Further information

Leading the Coronavirus Tech Handbook are Nathan Young and Edward Saperia. Nathan is a research fellow at Newspeak House, studying forecasting and institutional decision making. Edward is an expert in digital communities and dean of Newspeak House. Members of the Advisory Board for the Handbook include Katherine Maher (executive director, The Wikimedia Foundation), Bill Thompson (principal research engineer, the BBC), Theo Blackwell (chief digital officer, Greater London Authority), and Jeni Tennison (CEO, the Open Data Institute).

Newspeak House is an independent residential college founded in 2015. Its purpose is to study, nurture, and inspire emerging communities of practice across the UK public sector and civil society. Previous projects include charitybase.uk, a database of all UK charities, openaccessbutton.org, a service to help researchers access papers, and unisocieties.com, a directory of UK student societies.


Nathan Young

Research fellow at Newspeak House

Edward Saperia

Dean of Newspeak House and expert in digital communities