Google, its sister company Verily, and the US government are teaming up to create two separate information and screening websites for COVID-19. The websites were clumsily announced over the weekend by President Donald Trump and Google public relations, and today the first website, a Verily-developed site for the Bay Area, has gone live.
The announcement of the site was very disorganized and confusing. Normally we would expect Google and the government to have a simultaneous announcement for a project like this, but Google PR seemed to be caught by surprise by Trump’s Rose Garden press conference and took two hours to respond to the news on Twitter. When Google did respond to the president’s announcement, it disputed the description of a “nationwide” site, saying the site was in the “early stages of development” and that the site would roll out in the Bay Area for testing. A day later, Google communications took a second swing at making a statement, indicating that, actually, two sites were being made by the Alphabet family, one nationwide and one for the Bay Area.
In its second statement, Google communications said that Google, not Verily, would be “partnering with the US government in developing a nationwide website that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk, and testing information.” Google said that this nationwide site was “In addition to… work being done by our sister company Verily to launch a pilot website that will enable individuals to do a risk assessment and be scheduled for testing at sites in the Bay Area.” A report from The New York Times indicates that this effort is just as improvised behind the scenes as it seems from the outside: the Times reports that Google only started recruiting employees for its project the day before Trump’s announcement, and as of Wednesday, Verily’s site was described internally by Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai as “a planning effort.”
The very simple website
Somehow, Verily launched a website this morning, and for all the hype and promises that were made, the site in its current incarnation doesn’t provide any useful information or services. The site’s “Get started” button leads to a simple three-question multiple-choice survey that seems like it is meant to lead to some actual screening or medical info, but right now, it seems to turn everyone away no matter how the questions are answered.
The first question is “Are you currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other concerning symptoms?” and if you say “yes,” indicating that you are very sick, the site actually ends the survey and suggests you seek medical attention. If you say “No” to the severe cough question, the survey continues, asking if you are 18 or older, and if you are within 50 miles of the two California testing sites. Answering in the affirmative to both of those questions got us “Unfortunately, we are unable to schedule more appointments at this time. Appointments will continue to expand through this program as we scale capacity in the near future.” So no matter how you answer, you are turned away by the survey.
These three questions seem to be the extent of Verily’s site. It is extremely simple and limited. The site seems like something anyone could whip up in Google Forms in a few minutes.
Verily says its COVID-19 site is “a collaboration between Verily’s Project Baseline and the state of California to expand access to COVID-19 screening and testing in areas with a high volume of known cases.” The program is focused on “Helping those with concerns about COVID-19 to possibly get tested free of cost” and “Enabling public health officials to target testing efforts.” The program doesn’t seem like it can do any of that in its current incarnation, and the site says “We are working to rapidly expand testing in every way that we can; please check back soon as we add more testing sites and may expand eligibility criteria.”
We were never asked to use a Google account to take the survey, but according to the site, a Google account will be required at some point, which has alarmed privacy advocates. Verily says it requires a Google account to “enable us to collect your answers to the screening survey, contact you to schedule testing, and deliver results back to you.” But it seems like a simple email address would have served this purpose, too, without forcing people to be tracked through a Google account.
Verily’s FAQ says it “will not share any information with your insurance or medical providers without your consent,” but it also says “The information you provide may also be shared with the health care professionals who collect your specimen, the clinical laboratory that processes your specimen, the California Department of Public Health, and potentially other federal, state, and local health authorities, and other entities that assist with the testing program. Information may also be shared with certain service providers engaged to perform services on behalf of Verily, including Google, which Verily leverages for certain technology and services, including cloud services, security services, data storage, website hosting, and other support functions.”
So far, there’s still no word on when a nationwide screening site will launch.
Listing image by White House YouTube channel