Introducing the COVID-19 Expert Helpdesk

By Brian Caouette | 27 March 2020

As we fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the pace of global learning will determine the fate of millions. Learn what OnFrontiers is doing to accelerate global knowledge transfer across regions and technical disciplines, and how you can get involved.


COVID-19 forces us to learn faster, and on a more global scale, than ever before

I’m writing this from Brooklyn, NY –  now one of the epicenters of the virus – where, despite social distancing, cases continue to double every three days, and healthcare workers must continue to respond despite a massive shortage of ventilators, hospital beds, and protective equipment. Meanwhile, around the world, developing regions (such as Latin America, Africa, and South Asia) brace for a much bigger hit. These regions have large vulnerable populations, weaker health systems, and little financial capacity to keep their economies afloat while implementing distancing programs.

At least in my lifetime, it has never been as critically important to learn quickly and communicate information on a global scale. This pandemic touches every country, every organization, and every person on the planet in some way. There are promising strategies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, but no silver-bullets.

The good news is this: we will solve this problem and, in the process, we will build a more resilient and cooperative world. Why? Because the whole world is currently focusing on one threat – a threat so great that it forces even rivals to collaborate. The magnitude of the COVID-19 threat therefore creates the perfect atmosphere in which to harness our collective intelligence. The same should have been true with climate change – but, as Dennis Carroll explains, here we are like frogs, permitting ourselves to be boiled in a pot of gradually warming water. In the case of COVID-19, the temperature is spiking fast – we need to quickly hop out of that pot before we miss the opportunity to minimize damage. We also need to remember that with every challenge comes the opportunity for improvement. In combating this crisis, we have the opportunity to build the infrastructure necessary for global knowledge transfer and communication. In doing so, we can create an essential foundation for addressing a variety of global challenges – from pandemics to climate change.

While it’s tempting to hope for a big breakthrough to get us out of this muck, it’s the more modest solutions, and the pace at which those solutions spread, that will impact lives the most – like the development of new containment protocols, new production processes for ventilators, new strategies for remote work, or new ways to communicate and mitigate risk in particular settings. Each day that passes, the global knowledge base that decision-makers can consult when crafting their pandemic response grows larger and larger. As such, it is not the amount of available information that poses a problem, but rather the ability to rapidly and effectively disseminate that information to those who need it. How can we ensure that decision-makers are able to access the information necessary to develop effective pandemic response plans? How can we accelerate information transfer on a global scale?

Networks are the most powerful tools we have for learning in a time of crisis

Today, I spoke with a hospital physician in a small town in western North Carolina. This physician had just finished a meeting intended to prepare her medical team to treat a possible onslaught of patients, some of whom may be in critical condition. After the meeting, the physician contacted a fellow physician at a hospital in New York City, who was preparing, with even more urgency, to handle the same scenario. The physician in NYC shared the plans and resources his team had developed. No academic journal article could have provided more value more quickly on this topic.

Networks also have significant drawbacks which impede their effectiveness

This example illustrates the power of leveraging our existing networks to facilitate learning and knowledge transfer in times of crisis. However, these networks also have limitations. Was the NYC physician the best person to consult, or would it have been better to consult a physician in Italy who had just confronted the exact same dilemma? Moreover, should this physician also consult ethicists and communications experts, even though these professionals may be outside her peer network? Further, if she doesn’t know a relevant expert, but one of her colleagues does, how can this network be leveraged in a way that allows her to gain access to the right person? 

Traditional networks are powerful, but also expensive and time-consuming to build. They require the development of personal relationships based on hard-earned credentials and experience. They are difficult to grow on the fly, and are often too cumbersome to use, especially when relationships extend beyond an organization, technical discipline, or geography.

The Expert Helpdesk helps human networks solve problems on a larger scale 

The Expert Helpdesk leverages OnFrontiers’ enterprise product – a SaaS platform that allows organizations to build their network of experts and access new expertise through a global expert marketplace. Helpdesk customers can ask any questions they have related to COVID-19, and can be introduced to an expert on that topic who is ready to jump in and start helping. Consultations can be conducted over the phone, usually within two days of the initial request. While some experts charge for their services, others provide their services pro-bono. All of our experts are handpicked and qualified to provide guidance and expertise regarding specific focus areas related to the COVID-19 response, including: transmission, treatment, and prevention; collaborations between the public and private sector; and understanding and communicating risk. We are currently launching new focus areas for regional responses, remote work, and supply chains, and will add more areas based on demand.  

Our increasing knowledge of COVID-19 is necessary, but not sufficient, to learn how to contain and mitigate its impact on society. Tools from risk communication and behavioral science can play a critical role in translating this knowledge into behavior that flattens the curve. One of the experts on our Helpdesk, Dr. Sabine Marx, recently co-authored an article in Medium on how leaders can communicate about COVID-19. Another Helpdesk expert, Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, provided tips in a recent interview with the National Press Club for how journalists can help individuals make fact-based decisions regarding COVID-19.

The Helpdesk aims to provide human knowledge connections as easily and rapidly as possible. Incentives are in place so that every expert you are introduced to through the Helpdesk will carve out time to help you. Experts can be engaged without an extensive administrative process, while protecting confidentiality, and steering clear of conflicts of interest. Once in place, relationships and learnings can easily be captured and shared with colleagues to facilitate transparency and communication and to reinforce trusted relationships. 

We want to help you learn and share knowledge faster throughout this crisis

Our goal is to make the Helpdesk available to any organization that needs assistance in responding to COVID-19. Most experts will, and should, charge for their time, but our aim is to provide access to experts at the lowest possible cost. Given the need to sustain our business, our ability to do this will depend on the support we receive from our partners; we are currently reaching out to philanthropic foundations and other donors that share our vision. Even without this support, OnFrontiers will provide 20 organizations on the front lines of the pandemic with free access and waive booking fees for any current client accessing Helpdesk experts.  

We want to hear from you and discuss how we can work together to facilitate and accelerate your efforts to fight COVID-19! To request access to the Helpdesk or to discuss partnering opportunities, contact the OnFrontiers COVID-19 Expert Helpdesk team. Or, if you have relevant expertise to share with the global community, submit a request to join the Helpdesk as an expert.