D-Lab Research in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic


Please note: We recognize that the world is dealing with an ongoing, hundreds-of-years-old pandemic of racial injustice.This blog post addresses only the Covid-19 pandemic and the D-Lab research team’s response to it.

Across the globe, communities are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – trying to find ways to stay healthy; to access food, energy, and clean water; and to support their families. Is there a role for D-Lab research to play in alleviating the impact of the virus?

The answer is yes. And the answer is yes because our mission has always been to identify assets and needs and collaboratively develop solutions with under-resourced communities around the world. We may not play a frontline role in fighting the pandemic, but D-Lab research paves a way for building inclusive and resilient communities, which in the long term, will be better equipped to fight the pandemic and other emerging global challenges.

D-Lab research has never been just theoretical. Our researchers work closely with community partners to understand the local context and to develop, test, and implement ideas and solutions in areas ranging from health to food and energy security and local innovation systems. With the pandemic adversely affecting vulnerable medical systems, supply chains, and livelihoods, supporting local innovation and innovators, and providing practical technologies, methods, and actionable results has never been more important.

More specifically, D-Lab research addresses issues such as testing and diagnosis for respiratory health issues and pulmonary disease, low-cost vegetable and fruit storage, access to affordable cooking fuels and stoves, access to clean water, inclusive systems innovation, and local innovation ecosystems.

As the pandemic begins to take its toll on the locations where we work including Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Mali, Mexico, and Uganda, among others, we believe our applied research will continue to help communities build the resilience they need to weather the pandemic.

Here is how D-Lab research is addressing relevant issues during the pandemic:

Health: diagnostic and screening tools for pulmonary disease and respiratory infections

In the Mobile Technology group, the team has been creating new diagnostic and screening tools for pulmonary disease and respiratory infections in collaboration with the Chest Research Foundation and other clinics in India. The Mobile Technology group has created new algorithms that help diagnose respiratory infections from a questionnaire, analysis of the patient's cough, and a thermal image of the patient's face. Building on this work, the team is now developing a set of pulmonary diagnostic tools that will be tested at health camps and clinics with partners in Bangladesh to support the testing and epidemiological surveillance of Covid-19. Through this work, the group is directly addressing health needs during the pandemic.

Food security: evaporative cooling for fruit and vegetable preservation

Our Evaporative Cooling research group, which seeks to improve access to food, is iterating on and testing designs of evaporative cooling devices targeted for use by households and farming cooperatives, evaluating the outcomes of using these technologies, and training others to construct and sell these devices. These projects seek to extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables, reduce the number of trips to the market needed to purchase or sell produce, and increase farmer income, all of which are important for providing access to nutritious food during this time.

Energy use and access: cleaner-burning cookstoves and fuels; thermal comfort

The Biomass Fuels and Cookstoves team continues to support local enterprises in East Africa and explore ways to improve the technical performance and usability of fuels and cookstoves, in order to improve access to affordable fuel and reduce indoor air pollution, an important environmental factor related to pulmonary health. The team has also been looking at ways to improve the thermal comfort of homes in India and Nepal, assessing the current environment, improving airflow, addressing temperature changes to make the environment more comfortable, and reducing indoor air pollution.

Understanding local systems innovation and innovation ecosystems

During this time, we are also developing tools and research to understand how systems innovation change occurs and how local innovation ecosystems operate, so that people can collaborate with key stakeholders to generate effective solutions that will address local needs, leverage assets, and take into account the local context. In the inclusive systems innovation research, which is part of the Local Innovation group at D-Lab, the team is exploring the “dynamics of inclusive systems innovation processes” across a variety of sectors including agriculture and health to identify how these innovation systems operate and how they change. This research will help policymakers, community representatives, and donors understand these processes and generate solutions in collaboration with a variety of actors. In addition, as part of the D-Lab Local Innovation group the team is mapping “local innovation ecosystems” to understand the ecosystem including the stakeholders involved and how they interact. Through this work, the team is also identifying assets, so that actors in the ecosystem can respond to challenges and develop innovative solutions through collaborative, inclusive processes.

Conducting respectful, actionable research

How we conduct our research matters more than ever. D-Lab strives to apply the principles of Lean Research including rigor, respect, relevance, and right-sizing, so that our research minimizes the burden on key stakeholders involved in the research, the information is accessible, the results are actionable, and the research process and results can generate positive outcomes. Recently, the Lean Research team that I lead with  Elizabeth Hoffecker has continued to provide relevant resources, practice the approach, and develop the capacity of local researchers, students, faculty, and practitioners in Ghana to implement the approach.

Adapting our work in the time of Covid-19

In each of our research programs, we are adjusting or delaying our work due to Covid-19-related research and travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and most important, out of respect for the health and safety of our research subjects and collaborators. For instance, in our local systems innovation and evaporative cooling research, the team is conducting research remotely through the phone, sensors, video and photo observations, or other remote platforms. We are also developing the capacity of local teams to collect data so that once interactions can take place, the local team can gather the relevant information. In other cases, we are delaying activities to a time when community members are able to participate and it is safe to collect data in person.

In some cases, we have had to change the research questions. For a study in Latin America with Laboratoria on the outcomes of their training program on developing the information technology skills of young women, the research questions have shifted from comparing the outcomes and satisfaction levels for in-person and remote training to understanding the barriers to and enablers for successful completion of the program, which is now completely online.

For now, our workshops, trainings, and hands-on activities have either been delayed or moved online. These include our training activities on ecosystem mapping,  a workshop to share the results of our thermal comfort research, and a series of Lean Research workshops in Ghana.
Finally, we are prioritizing activities that can be done remotely including analysis and writing.

Looking ahead

As we look ahead, we are thinking about how these new ways of interacting, conducting our work, and supporting one another are making us more adaptive and nimble as researchers and collaborators. We are inspired by the knowledge and expertise of our community partners and will continue to collaborate with them to build on our work together to make us all more resilient now and in the future.

Thanks to the entire MIT D-Lab research team  Rich Fletcher, Megha Hegde, Elizabeth Hoffecker, Anish Paul Antony, Dan Sweeney, and Eric Verploegen  for their input and contributions to this blog post.

More information

MIT D-Lab Research


Kendra Leith, MIT D-Lab Associate Director for Research