• CAREER COLUMN

How a team of Venezuelan expats is fighting COVID-19 at home

A woman's temperature is taken in Caracas, Venezuela

A woman has her temperature taken before she enters a market in Caracas, Venezuela.Credit: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty

Venezuela has been in the throes of a socio-economic, political and humanitarian crisis that has led more than 4.5 million people — more than 10% of the population — to leave in recent years.

At first, it was mostly young professionals who left, but now a broader spectrum of Venezuelans are rebuilding their lives elsewhere. Many of them still have family in Venezuela and remain committed to their homeland. We are two members of a group of expatriate Venezuelan physicians, scientists, engineers, and communicators who decided to do something to help their country in this time of need.

Adopting a can-do attitude of manos a la obra (‘let’s do it’), we got to work. The result is a coronavirus chatbot and other software tools to combat the virus. We built these through the group we founded last year: Code for Venezuela (C4V), a non-profit organization that sits at the intersection of technological innovation and social action.

At first just a small group of friends, C4V now has several hundred members around the world. Our aim has been to funnel the knowledge we have acquired in our various professional capacities back to our homeland — to use our skills and work with communities in need.

It wasn’t easy. Venezuela has some of the slowest Internet speeds in the world, representing a serious impediment to technology initiatives. But, by establishing connections with people living in Venezuela who are experiencing its crises first-hand, we work to deliver help where it is most needed.

We now have a network of individuals, groups and other non-profit bodies whose collective input has enabled us to develop practical, implementable solutions for improving conditions in Venezuela. Our partners include advocacy groups from the fields of domestic and global health, human rights and humanitarian advocacy, including Doctors For Health, City Monitor and iMMAP, a non-profit body specializing in information-management tools. Together, we have launched four projects that are providing solutions in the areas of health, infrastructure, analytics and data management.

Today, like the rest of the world, our focus is on COVID-19. Two key projects are in development.

The COVID-19 chatbot is a rule-based algorithm, created by Doctors For Health, which C4V developers implemented as a bot. It screens users for COVID-19 symptoms and provides a risk score. The chatbot is neither a replacement for a formal diagnosis by a physician nor a contact-tracing app. But as well as providing a possible diagnosis — thus filling the gap left by a lack of wide-scale testing in Venezuela — it collects user-provided location data to track the spread of the disease, and encourages users with ‘medium’ and ‘high’ risks to seek medical attention.

With more than 14,000 sessions in a matter of weeks across the country, the bot provides early-phase sampling data for assessing how outbreaks are distributed at a national level. Clearly, a user base of 14,000 is only the beginning, but the need and desire for information is driving Venezuelans to our service. This early success has allowed us to expand the bot to multiple platforms — including the Telegram messaging service as well as the web — and extend our reach in Venezuela. Our work has been featured in the Colombian press, and we have received enquiries from health organizations in Chile, Colombia and Peru asking for their populations to be given access to the chatbot.

Separately, we have built an analytics project providing a virus-risk-surveillance system in Venezuela. Data empowers physicians, health-care leaders and non-profit organizations to tackle COVID-19 on the ground. Through the data platform we created, Angostura, we collect, integrate and aggregate socio-economic, survey and hospital data from a variety of sources. We’re building dashboards that use those data to track health indicators and outcomes to best equip our medical professionals with the analytical and data tools to beat the pandemic.

How you can help

C4V was built for Venezuela by Venezuelans, but the organization is open to all. One newly hired software engineer told us that she was drawn to our group because C4V gave her access to a community of Venezuelan women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and a role model in Fabiola Rosato, one of our lead engineers for the COVID-19 chatbot. For one author of this article (Johanna), C4V has provided an outlet for channelling nostalgia for home into action. For the other (Samir), C4V represents a way to apply his skills and passion for biomedical data science where they are needed most.

In a time of isolation, frustration and homesickness, C4V represents a community of Venezuelans eager to contribute their skills towards bettering the home that they love. Please visit our website’s “Get Involved” page to find out how you can help.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01784-w

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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