Tech giants are getting creative to manage the coronavirus epidemic

A good thing to do during the global outbreak of a deadly virus is to test people who think they may have it. Beyond providing important information to people affected by the disease, large-scale testing allows authorities to map the spread of the disease and respond accordingly. Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong all worked rapidly after the initial COVID-19 outbreak to identify carriers of the disease, and the work contributed to a successful containment strategy. In the United States, by contrast, testing rolled out with fatal slowness. On Monday, as the stock market crashed and San Francisco banned all non-essential travel for residents, a simple question — how do I get tested for COVID-19? — remains difficult to answer.

On Friday, President Donald Trump held a press conference in which he announced that Google was coming to the rescue. The company was building a website to help people understand whether they should seek a test for the coronavirus, Trump said, and added that Google had committed a staggering 1,700 engineers to the project.

Among the people this was news to were the employees of Google, who were unaware that they were working on such a project. It turned out that a more modest effort was under way by Verily, the life sciences company that, like Google, also sits under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. Dieter Bohn broke the news:

Google is not working with the US government in building a nationwide website to help people determine whether and how to get a novel coronavirus test, despite what President Donald Trump said in the course of issuing an emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a much smaller trial website made by another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is going up. It will only be able to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area. […]

Carolyn Wang, communications lead for Verily, said that the “triage website” was initially only going to be made available to health care workers instead of the general public. Now that it has been announced the way it was, however, anybody will be able to visit it, she said. But the tool will only be able to direct people to “pilot sites” for testing in the Bay Area, though Wang says Verily hopes to expand it beyond California “over time.”

The website, he said, would be available on Monday.

It has long since stopped being unusual to hear the president lie during a moment of crisis. (At Vanity Fair, Gabriel Sherman reported that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was the one over-selling Google’s effort behind the scenes.) Whatever the case, this was a particularly high-stakes bit of news to get wrong, in the sense that the president had essentially charged a corporation with building out a significant component of the nation’s coronavirus testing infrastructure. And it came just before more Americans would be ordered to stay inside their homes unless absolutely necessary — and as more high-profile reports of celebrity cases of the disease trickle in. (Get well, Idris Elba! That’s an order!)

But then a funny thing happened: Google decided to go ahead and build the website anyway. In fact, it’s building two websites! And they both already are actually built, at least partially, and one of them did launch on Monday morning, as just as Trump said it would. I liked Ina Fried’s concise summary in Axios:

Google was blindsided by Trump’s Friday announcement of such a project. The company is now working on two different tracks: ramping up a small pilot project that partially resembles what Trump spoke of Friday but had much more modest scope, while also scrambling to launch an entirely new, less personalized nationwide information portal about the virus.

That nationwide information portal sounds relatively modest. According to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai in a Sunday blog post, the site will contain “best practices on prevention, links to authoritative information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and helpful tips and tools from Google for individuals, teachers and businesses.” The site, which was expected to launch late Monday, will be updated regularly with new information, Pichai said. (It’s delayed.)

It’s the Verily effort, which Trump had pitched as a kind of national triage system, that commanded more attention. The good news is that Verily’s effort has launchedyou can find it at this link. But as Bohn also notes, it’s not at all like Trump described:

Verily’s website is very limited in scope: it’s only available to people in the Bay Area of California and it’s more of a pilot program than a public health utility.

In fact, it’s even more limited than that: in order to qualify you must be 18 years of age or older, be able to speak English, and be a US resident. It very much looks like the program a Verily spokesperson described to us on the phone on Friday and not the expansive triage system that the Trump administration promised.

The initial question on Verily’s site asks “Are you currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other concerning symptoms?” If you answer “yes,” you are told that the program is “not the right fit” and to seek medical attention.

That last part seems counterintuitive — people who are sick can’t be tested? But Verily says it is not equipped to treat seriously ill people. In any case, within a few hours, Verily’s pilot program was at capacity. And venture capitalists were on Twitter musing about building rapid testing kids. (Help them if you can!)

What to make of all this? One thought I’ve had lately is that we are seeing a shift in trust. In December, when we interviewed people for the Tech Survey, we found that trust was generally on the decline — particularly for social networks. But now we find ourselves in a time, as Ben Smith put it in the New York Times on Sunday, “when Facebook is more trustworthy than the president.” Social networks have gotten better at amplifying urgent updates and authoritative experts:

After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force, the crisis is revealing something surprising, and a bit retro: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.

Moreover. as I’ve noted in this space a couple of times, the tech giants have performed admirably in the past few weeks. Among other things, they have stepped up their fight against misinformation and begun paying more attention to what their algorithms are amplifying.

And, as Google showed over the weekend, they’re also springing into action. Trump may have forced Google’s hand, but I still expect the company to ramp up both of its new websites considerably in the coming days and weeks. Others are taking even bolder action — Amazon, for example, announced plans to hire a staggering 100,000 workers to help keep up with the surge in demand for deliveries, and said it would give warehouse and delivery workers a raise of $2 an hour.

In incredibly fraught times — the most anxious I’ve ever known — these are meaningful steps forward. None of it is a replacement for a competent government, and the hardest days are surely ahead. But at the moment tech giants have an incredible chance to give back to the country they were born in. And it has been heartening to see some of them take it.


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