The COVID-19 outbreak has created a new wave of challenges for organisations, but many have quickly pivoted the focus of their operations.

We’ve seen organisations transform existing healthcare solutions to tackle COVID-19 diagnosis, or shift their research priorities to help find a cure. Other companies have focused on moving online to continue operating during lockdown, keeping their business going, and the economy moving. Across all these responses, the cloud is helping organisations be more agile, react quickly, and rapidly scale to keep up with demand for their services. Here are some of the innovative ways we’ve seen organisations shift gears in response to a changing world.

Easing the health system with diagnosis tools

One of the difficult aspects of fighting the COVID-19 virus is its broad range of symptoms, and their similarity to more benign ailments. Aaron Patzer and his team at Vital, a digital health company, set about creating a software tool to help people assess their risk of contracting COVID-19.

While Patzer’s background is in software engineering, his family includes an epidemiologist, and an emergency physician who both have affiliations with private research institution, Emory University, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Patzer and his family launched Vital in 2017, and together they developed a software that uses machine learning to enhance patient experience and emergency department flow. But in February 2020, when they realised that the rate of COVID-19 infections weren’t slowing down, and hospitals faced being overburdened with patients, Vital quickly shifted its focus.

The result was, a self-diagnosis tool built entirely on Amazon Web Services (AWS) with guidance from Emory University. This tool asks users a series of questions about their symptoms, age, and underlying health conditions. Based on these answers, the tool uses machine learning algorithms to place people into either a low, medium, or high-risk category, and then provide recommended next steps based on guidelines from a public health institution, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The tool is designed to reduce an influx of patients at healthcare facilities, while educating people about what steps they should take based on their symptoms.

“The primary goal is to prevent a systemic overload of the healthcare system, and you do that by giving very clear instructions,” Patzer said. “Blue means you have no symptoms, so continue practicing social distancing. Most people who are tested are green, which means you have minor symptoms, so stay at home but consider calling a doctor. Orange means you have major symptoms, so call a doctor immediately, and red means you are currently experiencing emergency symptoms, and should get to an emergency room now.”

The site was launched on March 20 this year and since then, more than 400,000 people have completed checks for symptoms of COVID-19. Patzer said this test can also help to slow the spread of infection by reducing overcrowded waiting rooms and limiting unnecessary patient exposure.

He added that being built entirely on AWS, and leveraging machine learning services, meant could be built months faster than such a system would usually take, and easily handle the rapid surge in users.

“By running our service in the cloud, we are now equipped to handle at least one million screenings per day,” Patzer concluded.

Helping other businesses to swiftly move online

As New Zealand continues to lift social restrictions, it’s imperative that small retail businesses are able to keep selling. But with so many businesses taking to e-commerce, micro and small businesses that are strapped for resources and sometimes low on expertise, could get left behind.

Three former colleagues teamed up during an innovation hackathon in April 2020 to create a solution that would make sure every business in New Zealand can be seen, heard, and supported during lock down and beyond. The outcome was an early iteration of what is now called Swiftly – a platform built on AWS that allows business to create an online store in under 15 minutes.

Since the hackathon, Swiftly has taken off and is now helping more than 600 micro and small businesses across New Zealand to create an online presence for businesses offering services ranging from hospitality, art, and skin care – for free.

Swiftly co-founder, Matt Weston believes the move to e-commerce platforms will ultimately help to advance the New Zealand economy as people have become accustomed to the convenience, and ultimately safety, of buying online.

“We saw that many of our local businesses didn’t have an online presence when closures began, so we knew we needed to move quickly to support them. The platform has been really well received, and we are seeing more than a hundred new businesses sign up for Swiftly each week since we launched,” Weston said.

Among the many businesses that Swiftly has helped is Devon’s Cordials, founded by seven-year old New Zealander Devon Marshall, who typically sells his home-made elderflower cordial at the local Blenheim Farmers Market on the weekend. Swiftly also helped move a local Hamilton-based café, Snack Baby, online after co-founder, Kat McIntosh was forced to close the doors during the level four lock down. Neither of these businesses had an online sales presence before Swiftly, and are now able to market and sell their services in a new way to reach more customers. They will keep their businesses trading online even after the pandemic has finished.

Redirecting research efforts

While citizens have been doing their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by staying home, the team at Vodafone Foundation found a new way for people to help slow the pandemic by simply downloading an app on their phone.

Developed in partnership with Melbourne-based AWS Partner Network (APN) Select Consulting Partner Transpire, the Vodafone Foundation DreamLab app is powered by AWS, and unites the processing power of many idle smartphones to create a virtual supercomputer capable of processing billions of calculations.

Originally launched in 2015 in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation and Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the app was designed to run an algorithm to group and understand cancers based on genetic mutations rather than the tissue in which the cancer originated. Since 2015, the app has been expanded to support research institutions and projects across 15 international Vodafone markets including, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy and South Africa.

But in April this year, the team reacted quickly to repurpose the app from its focus on cancer to support COVID-19 research. The project, with DreamLab partner The Imperial College London, seeks to accelerate the discovery of anti-viral properties in existing medicines and food molecules that could help fight COVID-19.

Head of Vodafone Foundation Australia and creator of DreamLab, Alyssa Lane said refocusing the app creates a new, simple way for people to get involved with COVID-19 recovery efforts, even if they’re not scientists or researchers. Participants download the app, select the ‘Corona-AI’ project, and choose how much data they’d like to contribute on mobile or Wi-Fi. The app then uses the combined processing power of the participating idle smartphones to enable scientists to speed up manual processing of data, and help find a cure for COVID-19.

“The agile nature of DreamLab has enabled us to react quickly and refocus to address COVID-19 and the unprecedented circumstances the world is facing,” said Lane.

According to Transpire’s chief executive, Luke Smorgon, AWS has played a critical role in bringing Dreamlab to life.

“As an APN Select Consulting Partner, we were able to leverage existing AWS technologies and work closely with specialists to guide architecture discussions," said Smorgon. "By working closely with AWS, we were able to validate our approach and thinking, and quickly refocus DreamLab's technology to help with COVID-19 efforts."

The announcement of DreamLab’s COVID-19 project immediately led to a massive spike in interest in the project as customers signed up to the fight to help find a cure.

“We haven’t seen that level of activity before,” he said. “It took less than a week for COVID-19 to become one of DreamLab’s largest projects. The spike was a 700 per cent increase in users that first week, and operating in the cloud allows us to scale significantly to manage this growth.”