In times of crisis, people often say “look for the helpers.” But while social distancing helps slow the spread of Covid-19, sheltering in place has left many people restless and eager to contribute toward relief efforts. That’s why Masks for Docs is empowering these everyday civilians to help out from the safety of their homes. The coalition relies on Slack, the channel-based messaging platform, to centralize communication and align volunteers from around the world.
“There are a lot of people out there who want to help, and a lot of these people have crucial skills to contribute,” says Chad Loder, the Masks for Docs head of operations who co-founded the organization with the head of user experiences, Rachel Smith. “So we thought let’s figure out a way to help get masks to doctors using Slack. We can get people in every city to form chapters and self-organize around a playbook.”
Masks for Docs connects doctors, nurses, EMTs and first-line responders with available personal protective equipment (PPE). Within two weeks of launching the community, Masks for Docs delivered more than 20,000 medical supplies nationwide and overseas. Here’s how members use Slack to organize.
“What’s great about Slack is that you don’t have to put much of an architecture in place. People can join and self-organize. This is exactly the kind of tool we needed because we can’t organize everyone ourselves.”
Getting PPE to frontline workers using Slack channels
Masks for Docs coalition members come together in Slack channels, digital spaces for people to share messages and files. Channels help give each project, initiative, interest and social group its own dedicated space.
There are nearly 160 channels in the Masks for Docs workspace, ranging from location-specific channels for connecting members within the same city, to social channels through which members can discuss wellness tips for keeping healthy or compiling shelter-in-place music playlists. Currently, 4,500 active members communicate in the Masks for Docs workspace.
Loder says that ease of use is one of the biggest advantages of working in Slack channels for getting PPE to frontline workers.
“What’s great about Slack is that you don’t have to put much of an architecture in place,” he says. “People can join and self-organize. This is exactly the kind of tool we needed because we can’t organize everyone ourselves.”
Loder says that as coordinators, he and Smith help local chapters vet volunteers, provide best-practice playbooks, connect with other chapters and amplify their messages.
“Ultimately, our volunteers are the people who know their community the best,” Loder says. “They have the relationships and they know what other mutual aid organizations they can reach out to laterally within their community. Slack and the chapter channels are there to facilitate that coordination.”
Helping local chapters connect with communities across the globe
Loder says that each local chapter is run by a chapter head, who spends about 10-30 hours per week coordinating logistics. There are chapters across most major U.S. cities as well as international chapters from Colombia to Cambodia.
There are also coalition-wide channels where members come together across the organization to share information. These channels keep the grassroots coalition aligned and working toward the same common goals and include:
New members can easily search the Masks for Docs workspace to connect with a chapter in their neck of the woods. U.S. chapter channel names are organized by the following naming convention:
The city code is often the airport code. For example, the San Francisco chapter can be found in
International chapters are organized as
#zlocal-country-city. The chapter for Bogota, Colombia can be found in
Loder encourages members to make and lead new chapters if they don’t see their city represented. “Don’t ask for permission,” he stresses. “If there’s not a chapter that exists, you’re now the chapter lead.”
Masks for Docs also built a custom integration called Welcome Bot for new members using Workflow Builder. Workflow Builder is a visual tool that allows any Slack user to automate routine functions by creating custom workflows. When new members join the Masks for Docs workspace, Welcome Bot sends them a message with FAQ documents and information about relevant channels to join.
Creating and distributing medical supplies using Slack
Frontline workers need more than masks; they need protective equipment like face shields and gowns. Producing these supplies in mass requires reaching beyond the medical community.
Masks for Docs uses Slack channels to coordinate 3D printing specialists, tailors, developers and data scientists to share their skills and create these much-needed supplies. Popular skills-related community channels include:
#skill-3d-printing, where members discuss open source 3D printing solutions for producing CDC-approved face shields
#skill-3d-printing-help, where members can ask printing and printer-specific questions
#skill-makers, which connects do-it-yourself makers and hobbyist communities to share ideas for creating supplies using readily available CDC-approved materials
#skill-sewing, a shared Slack channel connecting adept sewists in Masks for Docs with the MakeMasks grassroots collective
#skill-data-science, where members compile and discuss diagnosis data and efforts to flatten the curve of new infections
“We’ve connected with about 20 sewing professionals in the Los Angeles area who aren’t working their typical jobs right now and wanted to help produce gowns,” Loder says. “I talked to a hospital here in L.A., where they asked us, ‘How many gowns can you get us? We need thousands because we’re burning through them.’ So we helped coordinate and connect the hospital with these sewing professionals who can help.”
Masks for Docs also utilizes 35 Slack integrations, which connect popular software and apps, such as Google Drive and Zoom, into the Slack workspace. Slack users can also build custom integrations to help perform daily tasks, such as daily updates or triaging incoming requests.
Look for the helpers, with a little help from Slack
Connecting with others and making medical supplies helps Masks for Docs members put their skills to use while alleviating feelings of helplessness during the pandemic.
“A lot of folks are either under order to stay home as much as possible or they’re immunocompromised and can’t leave the house,” Loder says. “People can say, ‘I can’t drive around and deliver supplies, but I can certainly edit spreadsheets or I can make phone calls to hospitals or I can post information on social media.’ ”
With Slack, Masks for Docs can bring together a large-scale, skill-sharing effort that gives people an opportunity to help out as much as they can during the Covid-19 pandemic while maintaining a safe social distance.