Crowdsourcing Against Coronavirus: The COVID Translate Project’s Mission to Spread Knowledge Worldwide

By Ruby Kwak

In late March 2020, as COVID-19 infection rates climbed rapidly in the United States, Dr. KJ Seung of Partners in Health — a global health NGO based in Boston — reached out to his brother, Professor Sebastian Seung, a neuroscience and computer science professor, at Princeton University, with an unusual request for help.

Dr. Sebastian Seung had secured South Korea’s COVID-19 response guidelines and wanted to share them with others, but the Korean document was not available in English. The document, titled “Coronavirus Disease-19 Response Guidelines for Local Governments,” was published by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) and included many useful protocols, such as how to manage suspected and confirmed cases, testing and isolation guidelines, and how to conduct an epidemiological investigation. It was apparent that the document would benefit many in the trenches of the global pandemic, but the language barrier made it difficult to access the knowledge.

Professor Seung — a veteran of crowdsourcing — thought of a creative solution. On the evening of March 27, he tweeted a call for volunteers from across the globe to join a crowdsourcing initiative to rapidly translate the document into English.

What followed was truly amazing. Within hours, more than 50 volunteers from around the world joined the Google Doc where translation was happening simultaneously on multiple pages. Some Korean celebrities retweeted the original post, quickly raising the profile and visibility of the work.

Teams for every major task (technical accuracy, formatting, glossary development, and more) spontaneously formed and volunteers from diverse backgrounds chimed in with their talents and expertise. A team member crafted a logo for the group, now known as the COVID Translate Project; software engineers built a website to host the translated product, and a publicity team put their heads together to produce a dissemination plan. Among the many volunteers were physicians, medical students, and public health researchers, who pored over the translated document to ensure the highest technical accuracy possible.

All volunteers worked furiously around the clock, and in just two days — after many revisions, Zoom calls, Slack messages, and emails — the first 75-page translation, the COVID-19 Playbook, was finished. The translation of its appendix, itself 60 pages long, was completed in the following days.

About the same time, Ariadne Labs formed a team to study global learnings from South Korea and to gather key lessons from the country’s successful response to COVID-19; this team immediately saw an opportunity for collaboration. Members from Ariadne’s team joined the COVID Translate Project from the very beginning to help both with translation and with dissemination of the translated products to key stakeholders within Ariadne’s rich network.

Ariadne Labs’s collaboration with the COVID Translate Project fueled the spread of knowledge, helping to bring the translated documents to the Massachusetts COVID-19 State Command Center, COVID-19 Policy Alliance, public health and government officials around the world, and many more. The COVID Translate Project’s media team helped to share the contents of the documents with the general public through media coverage by various news outlets (Korea’s JoongAng Daily, Medical Observer and more) and interviews (KBS World Radio, The Korea Society, TEDx Asia Pacific Forum and more). As of May 8, 2020, COVID Translate Project’s website had more than 28,700 visits from around the world.

The COVID Translate Project started as a short-term project to translate just one document. But before the ink was dry on the first document, requests flooded in for translations for other languages and English translations of more KCDC guidelines (Guidelines for Screening Center Operations, How to set up a Drive-through Screening Center, Management of Healthcare Facilities with Confirmed Cases, Guidelines for Routine Distancing in Daily Life, and more).

Many volunteers of the COVID Translate Project spent the next several weeks translating these additional documents. As word spread, more volunteers joined, resulting in a total of 130 volunteers from around the world. Other research groups from the United Kingdom, France, and South Korea contributed by sharing their work on a walk-through screening center design and operation guide for low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) and by sharing English translations of additional KCDC documents (KCDC COVID-19 Guidelines for Critical Care, Pediatric Patients, and more). Volunteers from Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and other places joined to translate and disseminate the documents in their own languages.

It was an incredible journey to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 and a testament to what a small group of dedicated individuals can accomplish. Volunteers had come together from different backgrounds and time zones, under a singular goal of spreading critical knowledge, with the hope that it could help fight the greatest pandemic that the world has seen in this century. Crowdsourcing, suited to physical distancing and today’s advanced technologies, provided a creative solution, but what made an otherwise daunting task into an enjoyable and meaningful one was seeing just how many people, regardless of their nationality, language, or culture, were willing to volunteer countless hours of their time, talent, and expertise for a worthy cause. In my humble opinion, that was the greatest accomplishment of all.

Ruby Kwak is a fourth-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She serves as a project planning team lead and a technical reviewer of the COVID Translate Project. She is also part of Ariadne Labs Global Learnings South Korea team and co-authored their Evidence Brief on South Korea’s COVID-19 Response.

Header illustration by Oliver Kufner / iStock

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