Scientists put up crowdsourcing site to support COVID-19 research

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 18 2020 04:12 PM | Updated as of Jun 18 2020 04:13 PM

MANILA — Danielle Arcon is a biochemistry student of De La Salle University in the Philippines. During her free time, she serves as a research assistant for a professor and volunteers to help COVID-19 researchers from across the world.

Arcon is one of 47,000 researchers who have signed up for Crowdfight COVID-19, a crowdsourcing site created by a group of scientists looking for ways to help others on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a press release, Crowdfight COVID-19 said the site was set up last March after its proponents were forced to go on self-quarantine and abandon their ongoing experiments.

“We were almost sure that it wouldn’t work, but still we created the website,” said Alfonso Pérez-Escudero, a computational biologist at CNRS (the French National Center for Scientific Research) in Toulouse, France.

“We felt that if we could help even a single researcher, the effort would be worth it,” said Sara Arganda, a behavioral ecologist at the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain.

In just two months, the platform has helped solve hundreds of COVID-related research requests.

The idea is simple: for anyone doing research on COVID-19 to submit a request (that could be anything from clinical data to translating content), and for the platform’s in-house team of about 40 collaborators to analyze each request and forward it to volunteers.

“It is gratifying to see how some COVID-19 researchers have been able to get what they needed thanks to the positive feedback from the volunteers,” said Crowdfight COVID-19 coordinator María Hernández, a biotechnologist at the Institute for Biomedical Research of Salamanca (IBSAL), Spain.

Arcon, who has yet to graduate from college, said volunteering has been a “humbling experience” for her.

“Assessing how fit I was for each task was sort of an exercise on self-awareness and introspection because as a Biochemistry major, although it made me more aware of what I can and cannot do, the calls for volunteer also made me realize there are so many ways to help advance the fight against the pandemic,” she said.

According to the Crowdfight COVID-19 website, tasks requested by researchers and given to volunteers may be as simple as transcribing data, manual analysis of images, and data curation, or as complex as bioinformatic analysis, finding reagents, literature search or finding experts to interview or to train a team.

Everything is done for free, and volunteers are not required to be credited, although the platform states that it is up to the researchers if they want to pursue actual scientific collaboration.

Volunteers are scientists who do not work on COVID-19 studies but are interested in helping out.

Gonzalo Polavieja, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Foundation in Lisbon, and one of the collaborators of the platform, said the large number of volunteers has allowed them in some cases “to solve requests that would normally take months in just a few days.”

To further improve the efficiency of the workflow, the team is developing an artificial intelligence system for the identification of volunteers best suited for each task.

The project has already received funding from the Co-Creation program of the European Open Science Cloud, a program from the European Union. With funding, the team is hoping to keep the platform running until the end of the year.

Currently, there are 32 Filipino researchers who have volunteered for the platform.

Arcon said it would be great if more Filipino scientists would join.

“I would love for Filipino scientists to pitch in with their own brand of skills and resilience and let their contributions speak for the passion and dedication of the researchers we have here,” she said.

Arcon said she keeps on volunteering because she believes collaboration is one of the best things in the scientific community.

The founders of the platform are already looking at what else can be done with the concept of crowdsourced research work.

"I think that from here, we can grow and use this philosophy and methodology to tackle other problems. I imagine many other ‘crowdfights’ to address issues such as climate change or fake news,” said Alberto Pascual-García, a computational biologist at ETH Zurich and coordinator at Crowdfight COVID-19.