The Founder, President, and Director, Shrey Jain, along with the Head of Technology, Arthur Allshire, and the Head of Operations, Martin Staadecker, were virtually interviewed to discuss their work and impact on the growing not-for-profit organization, Flatten. All three students are enrolled in the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto and have been featured in the Q&A to provide insights to the public on topics including work culture, team composition, implementation in Somalia and personal experiences while working with the organization.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: What inspired you to start Flatten?
Shrey: COVID-19 was in the news for about three months before it became the only thing people started to hear about in Canada. Living in a family surrounded by doctors, I was following COVID-19 from the beginning. I knew that we were bound to leave UofT campus and work from home and wanted to build upon existing public health initiatives and thus gathered a team of individuals to build Flatten.
Q: What motivated you to join Flatten and why do you continue to commit your time to this organization?
Arthur: At the beginning of the pandemic, Shrey contacted a bunch of us at university to see if we wanted to work on brainstorming something to help with the crisis. At that time there was obviously a big panic around what was going to happen so we thought we might be able to do something with our engineering skills to help out. I continue to work on the project to model what’s going on within Canada as well as the work in Somalia that can potentially have a really big impact.
Martin: I think initially when Shrey reached out to join this project I was like “sure this is something new” and I just had a tendency to say yes to things to see how they go. Although as we work on the project more, I think what has kept me the most motivated is, first of all, knowing that what I do has an impact, and secondly, the fact that I’m always constantly learning new things. I’ve learned incredibly in terms of software and launching a full-scale website, very different from what is taught at school.
Q: What is your educational background and how does this fit your role with Flatten?
Shrey: I have prior programming and machine learning experience and have done a lot of academic reading. This helped prepare for my experience at Flatten as it is crucial to be in the know of what is going on in the world in the domain of epidemiology as well as technology.
Arthur: I’ve had a fair bit of experience in the past with an array of programming aspects including robotics, data science, and other related areas. With Flatten, I’ve been contributing primarily to the engineering side and writing website code as well as working on data analysis.
Martin: I had some experience in coding before coming to Flatten, nothing to this extent and nothing with hosting in the cloud. I still knew how to code with a bit of the libraries, however, I’d say what’s been most valuable is beyond the coding aspect and having critical thinking to understand Flatten’s objectives.
Q: What do you, individually, spend most of your time doing on this project?
Shrey: I spend most of my day meeting with partners, connecting with our team, project management as well as reading academic papers to work with the research team.
Arthur: Most of my time is spent in an editor. I work on the website as well as coordinating with the other people working on the engineering side. The rest of my time is spent planning what we’re doing next, as well as coming up with solutions to problems that arise.
Martin: I spend a lot of time coding, although the last two weeks I’ve been working on a few new features along with fixing, reviewing and managing the code aspect.
Q: What is the work culture like at Flatten?
Shrey: The work culture at Flatten is very open. We have deadlines that we need to hit for our stakeholders but we also understand balance. We enjoy getting to know each other and working in a healthy space.
Arthur: I’d say the work culture is very open to new ideas and trying different directions but also making sure that we stay at the same time focused on what we’re trying to do. Currently with what we’re doing in Somalia, we try to keep that focus and try to have an impact in that one area rather than trying to branch out to do many different things. We work primarily like most people through the pandemic, over Zoom and Slack.
Martin: I think the nice part about Flatten is that we are very flexible with each other to a certain extent, and as long as everyone puts in work, the hours don’t really matter. As we are a small team, it has been nice to get to know each other. One of the most important aspects of our work culture is focusing on us being mentally healthy in the first place.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest strength of Flatten right now?
Shrey: Our biggest strength is our network and community of people that are willing to support. Without our legal, medical, technical, privacy, ethical, humanitarian experts, we would not be where we are today.
Arthur: I think the biggest strength as an organization where we can contribute the most involves two things. From a product point of view, there are not that many people doing direct data collection from survey data. I think that’s quite an underexplored avenue in this context. Most of the focus, and rightfully so, is around testing but also trying different approaches such as ours which is relatively unique and quite valuable. From a cultural point of view, as we are students, we’re not set into one particular way of looking at things or solving problems. We can bring in the engineering side but then have also talked with many epidemiologists, public health specialists and experts in data science. That kind of melding of perspectives of us not being all doctors, or all engineers, is how we are able to combine many different aspects.
Martin: I think the biggest strengths can go in lots of directions. If you’re looking from what assets we have from a technical point of view, we have a system that works pretty well. Another strength is the number of people we know through networking, mostly due to Shrey, and that is very valuable in terms of connecting people. I think we also have a good amount of technical expertise, at least in our specific domain, in terms of what we’re doing where even if we’re new to this, we learned very quickly which is an advantage.
Q: How would you compare your platform and outcomes to others that are engaged in the same field of work?
Shrey: Flatten focused on engaging the community in the data that we are collecting. We are not a big company, meaning we can move fast and show things to the public even faster.
Arthur: I don’t think it is all about the comparison of outcomes at this point because it’s still relatively early in a lot of the work we’re doing. We don’t have any direct metrics to compare to.
Martin: Flatten initially started with a Canada site where we had a form and displayed results. There’s a lot of sites out there that display heat maps of COVID-19, and so Flatten wasn’t the first. Although the difference is that most of those sites did not have an open-source form to collect data, making us unique and different. We pivoted more towards Somalia because we found that a better method involves direct relations with the hospitals and government. We haven’t really seen the equivalent of what we’re doing in Somalia as widely as say the heat maps.
Q: How are you able to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of your work?
Shrey: Effectiveness of our work can be determined by the people we support, and to date is not a metric we have been able to evaluate. We are working with our research team to make informed decisions that the pre-clinical data present in order to educate humanitarian resource allocation as well as policy-makers.
Arthur: From a Flatten wide point of view, first of all, I would love for us to be able to demonstrate some kind of correlation between the numbers that we’re collecting in both Canada and Somalia with the official numbers on confirmed case data. This macro impact could actually be a tool that can have a real impact if you can predict where outbreaks are going to happen. This would really give me personal satisfaction out of the project because that could actually have an impact.
Martin: We don’t have the results yet and so it is hard to say. I don’t know whether or not it will have an impact as it depends on what governments do with the data. Obviously, we’re trying to open-source the data if it respects privacy policies, and get the data to the researchers so they can have an impact through our data.
Q: Do you have any plans to change or further improve what you are doing now with Flatten?
Shrey: I plan to focus on research as well as understanding best practices in project management and communication with individuals from a variety of different sectors.
Arthur: In terms of personal development, I would say I’m trying to focus on being better at working on engineering projects in a team setting. This involves making sure everything is checked off or done in a way with good practices that leads to good outcomes, such as no bugs in production. I’ve worked software before but not for this length of time and so that work becomes a lot more important because that’s quite new to me.
Martin: The biggest thing in terms of building our platform is just making sure that everything is working smoothly. Every time there is a bug that breaks the system, Somalia would lose a day of reporting because they’re shifted in terms of time schedule. The biggest thing is having good test procedures, good monitoring and just asking them how we can make this better. Eventually, our plan is to launch little extra features such as maybe a public form and a follow-up system so they get more data.
Q: How did you begin working with the Somali government?
Shrey: We were connected through a Red Cross Doctor, Ian Furst, who put us in touch with Dr. Hodan Ali, who is leading COVID-19 response efforts in Somalia. 10 weeks later and we have surveyed 50,000 people and are making great progress to support the city of Mogadishu.
Q: We understand that your goal in Somalia is to eventually empower governments to take on data-driven solutions to monitor crises independently. What steps are you taking to achieve this goal?
Shrey: Conducting research projects that answer the key questions they are trying to answer (ie. how to optimize resources, which NPI’s to implement, which districts need sanitation support).
Q: What have you enjoyed most about being on the Flatten team?
Shrey: Working with experts in a variety of fields (legal, ethics, machine learning, deep learning, medical, public health, global health, humanitarian, privacy, public speaking, geomatics, biostatistics, epidemiology and more!!)
Arthur: I think the most fun part was the first week when we kept pulling night after all night trying to get the original website up.
Martin: It was fun meeting everyone and having good use of coding.
Q: What do you like to do for fun when you are not working on Flatten?
Shrey: Train for triathlons and watch movies.
Arthur: Learning a bit about quantum computing, playing racing games and running.
Martin: Biking, rock climbing and sailing.
Interviewer and Editor: Sejal Jain