The Hitchhikers Guide to Coronavirus

15th March 2020
This article by Nathan Young details his use of a Gived innovation project, HandbookPls
Syndicated from  is the ultimate crowdsourced coronavirus handbook. It has 16 editable sections, 100s of projects, 18 chat threads and has received 88k views in the last week. Nathan Young writes:

The shuttle loom was invented in 1733. It hugely increased the productivity of weavers, but required no new tools or materials . It could have been invented any time in the previous 5000 years, but it wasn’t. Why?

Part of the reason, I suggest, is connectivity — without practitioners comparing notes, testing things, sharing mistakes, new things can only be created by lone masters or happen by accident. Both of these are slow going . 

Whatever you’re doing, you want to connect the relevant people. And quickly.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I set little alerts in my brain. When I walk past a charity shop, I’m reminded there might be a bargain. When I’m driving at night, I’m reminded not to distract myself with music or conversation. 

Last year, my institution, Newspeak House, started the , the largest set of websites, data and tools around the UK elections. Most of the work on it was done by the community and we were involved in almost none of the projects. What did happen was collaboration. Things like:

Does anyone know if there’s a full listing of MPs

Does anyone have anything for local counsellors

Does anyone have experience with Facebook ads

People saved hours they would have spent understanding or looking for a specific tool, avoided the same mistakes and started projects they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. They were part of a community (and ours wasn’t the only one) of technologists— I imagine without that, some might have given up. 

And so I said to myself, that if ever there were a big problem, with an obvious community without any leadership, I’d create a handbook. Not so I could organise other, but so they could organise themselves.

In late February, the alarm in my head went off. I’m a bit of a forecasting nerd and one of the  sites I use had been predicting bad outcomes for weeks. Noone seemed to be doing anything and despite the tech community being mocked for its concern on the issue, no-one was building the tools we needed.

I set to work. A tech handbook needs 2 things:

  • Easy to add information
  • Easy to share

It has to be super easy for people to add their ideas or projects and it needs to be really easy for them to share with others. These two concerns outweigh all others.

It is composed of three things:

  1. A Google Doc for people to add ideas to.
  2. A WhatsApp group for announcements.
  3. A tool to link both to a URL — in our case C

So I made a Google Doc and a WhatsApp group. Joseph Reeve built the connection tool. And I began sharing in earnest. If this doesn’t sound very “tech-y”, it’s because it isn’t, you need something people will actually use. People understand WhatsApp and Google Docs and they feel comfortable using them. I cannot think of simpler tools with the same easy of sharing.

In case I’m not making myself clear, this is a thing you could do.

Within two days, Ed, the progenitor of the and Dean of Newspeak House, joined the sharing and the game was afoot. Getting the word out it requires a strategy — share to communities and influencers. I shared to several top newsletters, Ed has done most of the work, sharing on twitter and contacting people he knows with large followings.

With each day we raised our sights. First a share by someone with 100k followers . Then a 400k viral post . Then 300k followers . Then a million . Much of this is boring work. Relentlessly posting on tweets and sharing to Facebook groups that we’ve collected. It spread like… like the implication of a poorly constructed simile. 

In our first week the handbook had 2k hits. In our second, 98 thousand. 1 section became 10 became 16 with projects for developers , doctors, community organisers and more. 

So what are these? Well has all the dashboards and summaries we could find. /data has datasets from cases in Ohio to the effect on restaurant sales (hint it’s down). Ruth Ann Crystal, MD organised /doctors section which has been our most popular section, comparing triage and care advice from all over the world. /remote has a wide variety of remote working and online conference tools. /forecasting has models and forecasting website like the one I checked earlier.

With these handbooks you never know what someone will add. We guessed the people would want data, but not that they would build their own ventilators . Last night we created a section for grants and jobs .

Really it’s amazing what happens when people are connected.

The key here is technology, opportunity and timing. I think had I waited, a project like this would have come along in a day or perhaps a week. In fact, we are seeing many smaller, similar projects (and adding them to our handbook). But with each day this project is delayed, tools the community is building would come days later too. If there is a community which you could serve through connection, each day you delay costs.

I am glad to have worked on If it causes two people to meet and develop a tool that saves a lot of lives, it just might be the most impactful thing I ever do. 

You don’t need skills to build a tool like this, you just need to see a problem and realise that it’s a problem. Everyone is standing on the mountain, you just have to notice. Please take a moment to set a reminder in your brain, that if ever you see a community and a problem, then a handbook like this might connect people together and help find solutions.

Lessons learned


Look, I’m as surprised as you.

But try to share it within relevant communities. Most people don’t need to see, they just see the projects coming to fruition. The handbook is for communities working on projects. Don’t try and get it shared by Kanye.

You want a place for long term knowledge (Google Doc) and short term discussion/announcements (WhatsApp). Sadly this means that people will start chatting about random stuff. Create a #random WhatsApp chat and push people over to it whenever you get off topic.

We do very little moderation. This process has taught me that some people will complain and that arguing with them doesn’t help anyone. Largely when there is a minor issue, move the discussion on or create a space for that discussion to happen. Pushing a toxic discussion to another chat is a sure fire way to kill it. “Why don’t you chat about that here”

Why don’t you go chat about that here…

I kid. Telegram would actually be better, but most people don’t have it. Wikis might be better than Google Docs but your average punter is less familiar. Making things 1% harder leads to a greater loss of engagement. You want to make the process as easy as possible.

People really care about aesthetics. This is especially true when you’re working on Google Docs. You don’t have a lot to play with so make sure it’s clear what the link is, who to contact and a short summary of the project. After sharing, the most time is spent tidying up Google Docs.

By all means drop some files in and ask the community to fix the formatting, but if you leave too much to do, people will give up. Incomplete lists are good. Empty tables are intimidating. Create formatting that’s easy to emulate when people add their own stuff.

Google Docs are great because they show how many people are on them (up to 100). So people know that the page is useful, because they know other people are using it. 

It was clear this project was going to work within a week. During that time, it took perhaps 15 hours of my time. If you run a similar project and it fails then you haven’t lost all that much.

Thank yous

  • To Joe, for making the URL tool, Google Docs Enhancement Suite.
  • To Ed for doing the work to realise this was possible and for the plurality of the sharing.
  • To Waverley, for sharing and Networking
  • To Ruth Ann Crystal for her work on the Doctors page
  • To Waleed, for translating the handbook into Urdu
  • To Lucie, for translating it into German
  • To Lewis for editing and building the bot
  • To everyone who has been adding ideas
  • To everyone who has shared it

Please keep contributing, please keep sharing, please keep working for the good of us all.