Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Bungled Launch of Verily’s Coronavirus Screening Website

Lauren Hepler, Levi Sumagaysay, and JP Mangalindan, reporting for Protocol on Friday:

With financial markets tanking, the nation’s most valuable companies going remote and medical concerns mounting about inadequate COVID-19 testing,Trump announced that Google has been tapped to build a website to help determine if and where people should get tested for the virus. The endeavor was announced at a Friday Rose Garden news conference, during which Trump declared a national state of emergency and said he was enlisting Walmart, Roche, CVS and other corporations to help respond to the virus and public anxiety.

“I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website,” the president said. Then, in an apparent swipe at the disastrous launch of healthcare.gov under former President Barack Obama, Trump said, “It’s gonna be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past.” He said the website would serve to “determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”

Dieter Bohn, reporting for the Verge hours later:

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, told The Verge 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.”

I never thought I’d say this — but, in fairness to the vulgar talking yam, nobody really understands the difference between Alphabet and Google. Why did Google acquire itself by creating an obscure holding company that bought its most prestigious name? Nobody knows.

In fairness to everyone else, though, the difference between what the President described and what Verily was planning on delivering is a vast gaping chasm. This is a pandemic situation; the President said this at the same press conference as he declared a national state of emergency. The least we can ask from public officials is careful and precise wording so that we get the best information available.

Jennifer Elias, CNBC:

Alphabet’s Verily on Sunday night launched a pilot of a COVID-19 screening and testing website in the San Francisco Bay Area, a day earlier than it said it would.

[…]

In order to be eligible, users must be at least 18 years of age, a U.S. resident, able to speak and read English, located in one of the available counties, and willing to sign the COVID-19 Public Health “authorization form.”

Before the user can find out if they qualify for testing, they have to create or use a Google account to login and sign an authorization waiver. During the registration process, Verily informs users that it will be collecting personal information like name, address, email, phone number and health information, which can all be used by various government and health authorities and for “public health purposes.”

This information is also not being collected and stored under HIPAA rules. Alphabet later clarified that the bulk data would be used in conjunction with other tools, but would not be associated with users’ individual Google account data. That they needed to issue such a clarification speaks to the rushed launch of this site, and the selection of a privacy compromised provider.

I don’t think this was malicious; I think Alphabet used an existing framework to try to get this thing up and running as quickly as possible, and that framework just happened to have a user scheme built on Google accounts. None of this would be worrying if there were adequate privacy protections in place for all users. But, because there aren’t, it is inherently suspicious that an advertising company is building healthcare software.

Matthew Wille, Input:

Say you do live in one of these two counties. You’re coughing, have a fever, and are generally very scared that you’ve contracted COVID-19. You log onto Project Baseline seeking assistance in finding a testing facility nearby. The site prompts you with an opening question about your symptoms: “Are you currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other concerning symptoms?”

You click yes. Project Baseline provides you with an answer: “We suggest that you seek medical attention.” There’s also a link to the CDC’s website.

That’s the entire screener. No links to testing facilities, even within Project Baseline’s supposed coverage area.

Lauren Goode, this morning:

Verily’s Project Baseline is already at capacity.

Goode tweeted this about twelve hours after the thing launched.

Ina Fried and Kyle Daly, writing for Axios on Sunday before this screening tool launched:

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.

The personalized service Trump spoke about Friday will be based on a tool in development by Google’s sister company Verily and initially will serve only the San Francisco Bay area.

This was the website that launched shortly after Axios published this piece.

Only after Trump’s claim Friday that the tool would be rolling out nationally “very quickly” did Google begin working on the separate national website project, Axios has learned.

An incredible effort all around.

I understand that a crisis often involves miscommunication and rapidly changing circumstances. Nobody was going to be perfect here, and mistakes happen. But it is not often that such egregious errors are made during press conferences that, by their very nature, are supposed to clarify what is known and defuse misinformation.

Alphabet, for its part, rushed this half-baked survey to the public, and it is not at all as helpful as was promised. It’s not even close to something that people should be directed towards.

I am positive that there are many factors that I am not taking into consideration, including political dealings. But I am also certain that this was not anyone’s best effort. It goes without saying that the expectations of the President were low and he still failed. That is just the kind of guy he is. But the screening tool that Alphabet ultimately delivered appears rushed, of little help, and with privacy concerns to seal the deal.

After all of this, the good news is that people are, generally, stepping up and taking this seriously. I am working from home for the foreseeable future as, I am sure, are many of you. Economically painful measures are being taken — events are being cancelled and stores are being shut — so that this virus spreads less quickly and gives healthcare systems around the world a chance. Doctors, nurses, and researchers are doing their damndest, and we owe them patience and gratitude. Government agencies and professionals, including those in the United States, are trying to provide accurate information clearly and rapidly. We are doing our collective best to slow this thing down, because our shared responsibilities demand a shared response.

That message, sadly, has not reached the highest levels of the U.S. Executive Branch.