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How a small health tech startup beat Alphabet with a coronavirus screening tool

It didn't take 1,700 engineers to build a symptoms checker that could help save lives.

Screenshot of the coronavirus checker website

A new site from a startup called Vital lets consumers assess their risk of COVID-19.

Screenshot: C19check.com

On March 13, President Trump seemingly shocked Alphabet by announcing to the world that Google was working on a screening tool for the coronavirus. He said the company had 1,700 engineers working on it and something would be up "very quickly." The following Monday, Verily, Google's life-sciences sister company, released a screening tool for parts of the Bay Area, and rather quickly hit capacity. And if you were showing signs for the virus, it wasn't even very helpful.

But a new site, a collaboration between Emory University in Atlanta and the health software company Vital, aims to help where Verily's site has so far stumbled. Together, they're launching Coronavirus Checker, a site that uses current clinical guidelines and simple language to help people figure out if they're truly at risk.


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Vital's CEO Aaron Patzer, who previously founded Mint, told Protocol that back in late February, he was first inspired to look into building a tool like this. The company's main software offering is an AI tool that helps manage patient flow in emergency rooms, and it's mainly being used in the Atlanta area. "I could see this coming," Patzer said, adding that the infection numbers in the U.S. are likely lagging "three to seven days" behind actual figures, given the amount of testing that's been done to date. He said he expected there to be some tools out there — well before Google was even brought up by the president. "There was nothing, there were no tools," he said.

Even after Verily launched its screening tool, Patzer was underwhelmed. "We were shocked. Google barely had anything," he said.

Vital's 20-odd person team set on the task of helping to "flatten the curve" — an increasingly common expression used to describe efforts to ease the potential strain COVID-19 could put on countries' medical systems. Many of the components in Vital's system were already built, Patzer said, and were already on a HIPAA-compliant platform, given the software the company usually builds, which helped speed up the process. The actual data for the quiz in the system comes from the constantly updated CDC guidelines, as well as the SORT algorithm, originally designed for screening for swine flu back in 2009. "It's gone through many, many months of rigor," Patzer said.

The system categorizes people into three broad categories — low, medium and high risk — and will recommend next steps accordingly. If you're low or medium risk, it may well tell you to self-isolate or follow up with a doctor, and if you're at a high risk of having the virus, it'll tell you to seek immediate medical attention. It's also written in plain English, instead of doctor-speak; rather than asking your BMI, it asks if you wear shirts larger than a XXL.

The checker asks for users' ZIP codes to help figure out if there are unreported hot spots of coronavirus, and the data will be made available to public-health officials and epidemiologists. The site should be light enough to avoid crashing out, Patzer said, unlike many other sites that have been struggling under the weight of coronavirus traffic. The algorithm actually runs in JavaScript on a device's browser, so even if the company's servers go down, users should still be able to complete the quiz, Patzer said. "We should be able to handle literally millions of people per day," he added.

Patzer puts Vital's ability to put out a comprehensive screening tool before any of the big tech companies down to the company's size, expertise and connections. Patzer's sister, Rachel Patzer, is an epidemiologist at Emory, and his co-founder, Justin Schrager, is the head of Emergency Medicine at Emory Hospital Group — and just happens to be Patzer's brother-in-law. Emory also frequently works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as it's just down the road.

The Vital team didn't need 1,700 engineers to spin up the project over the last few weeks, and being able to communicate in a close-knit team that could reuse work they'd already built likely helped as well.

"We basically built what Trump said Google built," Patzer said.


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Over the last couple of days, the site has been tested at Emory and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the checker is going through a review process. In the next few days, Patzer's team plans to roll the service out in several other languages, and provide email or text-message followups to remind people to keep checking their symptoms.

Verily declined to comment.

People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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