Two non-obvious lessons from microcovid.org

by catherio2 min read24th Jun 20214 comments

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Postmortems & RetrospectivesCovid-19World Optimization
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At the 2021 Summer Solstice, Elizabeth Van Nostrand made a brief speech thanking the organizers of microcovid.org, which I found very heartwarming and meaningful.

I wish I had thought in advance about taking the opportunity to make a few public remarks about microcovid.org: things I wish the community knew, that weren't obvious.

Here's what I would've said, in terms of my lessons from this project:

  1. Build your own oxygen mask. Next, share it with others.
  2. Connect and collaborate with non-rationalists.

1) Build your own oxygen mask. Next, share it with others.

We didn't start out trying to create a resource for our whole community, let alone a website with many thousands of users. All we wanted was to save our own asses. We looked at the precipitous "autonomy crunch" we were facing, and said "oh shit, our house is going to explode if we don't fix this."

So, we built a spreadsheet — for ourselves first. Other group houses asked about it, and the momentum snowballed inexorably from there. Each broadening of project scope was compelled by a commensurate rise in demand, and corresponding deeply felt motivation.

I think many people who have altruistic or worldsaving ambitions could stand to have more focus on first making their own lives not suck. Fixing huge problems in your own life — and then later making an extra effort to share and export them — is one important path to altruistic impact.

2) Connect and collaborate with non-rationalists

To my knowledge, I'm the only project member out of the top dozen or so top contributors who self-identifies as a rationalist.

The "core idea" is an extremely, extremely rationalist idea. But the implementation took writers, copyeditors, web developers, backend developers, UX designers, a medical doctor whose patients were among our first users, and many more. These folks had to understand the core idea and know how to use it, but did not have to be skilled enough at quantitative risk thinking to have designed it in the first place.

The final product had a vastly more scalable reach because many people, who had very little identity-level commitment to epistemics, looked at it and said things like "I need to access this on my phone, I won't ever use a spreadsheet" or "This has too much jargon, move all these details to the appendix."

Thank you again everyone for the gratitude and recognition; and for using the system to make your own lives suck a little less!

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Thanks for writing this, and for writing the software! Microcovid was quite impactful in my own life and the software is shockingly thoughtful — you put so many tiny little details in to help me decide (oh, it’s a taxi ride and I don’t think the driver is going to wear a mask, but I can open the window…)

I think this must be a result of your & your team’s hard work talking to nonrationalists, as you note, but I also think you must have really good product instincts. Just talking to people is not, in my view, enough to produce a product that thoughtful — you also have to figure out what to do with the data. Nice work :)

Thanks for building it! I found Microcovid to be the single most useful tool to combat the pandemic prior to getting vaccinated. Even after getting vaccinated it was useful.

Seconding the point to, save myself and then export the program thereof to the rest of the world.

Love your work and these are two good lessons to draw from it!