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Tech's First Big Plan to Tackle Covid-19 Stumbles: 'An App Is Not Going to Fix This.'

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05/29/2020 | 09:14am EDT

By Kirsten Grind

SAN FRANCISCO -- A heralded effort to bring together Silicon Valley tech giants, investors and the White House on tools to fight the coronavirus is fizzling.

In March, a cohort of influential technology leaders formed a task force to devise tech solutions for the pandemic, a signal that the nation's innovation engine was kicking into gear. Employees of Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Microsoft Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. were involved, along with the White House and famed venture investors.

Months later, the Technology and Research Task Force's biggest plans, such as a hospital-bed tracker, contact-tracing tools and a project to ship Kindle devices to nursing-home residents, have failed to materialize amid what members say were disagreements over privacy and other issues. It has cycled through members and a leadership change, and some of the group's biggest names, from Microsoft and Facebook to the White House, have dropped out or are playing minimal roles.

Members say that the experience has shown them that the tech industry can play an important supporting role as the world battles the coronavirus crisis, but technology alone won't save the day.

"An app is not going to fix this," said John Borthwick, a New York-based venture capital investor who is now leading the group.

The task force had been working with developers building contact-tracing apps, one of its goals. When Apple Inc. and Google later announced their own effort to help track infected people on behalf of governments, some members say they were taken aback. Some questioned its effectiveness and the companies' ability to keep user information completely private, members said.

Mr. Borthwick took over the renamed Covid-19 Technology Task Force in late April. He said the group, formed amid the chaos of early March, was "messy at the beginning." He is now refocusing its efforts on making connections and sharing information, rather than developing its own projects.

The group is organizing a virtual "hackathon," to drive interest in tackling the issue of social isolation, and is hosting a series of online events on contact tracing with public health officials and other experts.

As they brought together representatives from tech giants and government in March, task force members harnessed the "save the world" ethos that for years has defined Silicon Valley.

Everyone wanted to help. The biggest problem was managing the deluge of ideas pouring in from the tech community, members say.

The impetus for the task force came from Josh Mendelsohn, a former Google employee who founded the company's disaster response program after Hurricane Katrina, working on a system that coordinated helicopter rescues across the Gulf states.

Now a managing partner at the New York-based venture firm Hangar, Mr. Mendelsohn enlisted Ron Conway, an angel investor renowned in Silicon Valley for his early bets on Twitter Inc., Google and Facebook and his wide industry network.

Some 45 people joined an early task force call in mid-March, including Michael Kratsios, the White House's chief technology officer, and his deputy, Lynne Parker, along with representatives from the big tech companies.

The group soon ran into controversy: privacy. After seeing tech giants get hammered by regulators and lawmakers over data-collection practices pre-pandemic, conversations about tracking individuals' virus exposure via cellphones and other initiatives got lost in policy and regulatory concerns.

Caroline Buckee, a Harvard University epidemiologist and early member of the task force, said weekly Zoom meetings devolved into long discussions about privacy implications and best practices for data.

"It was fragmented and it was unclear what the goals were," Ms. Buckee said.

She and another early member, the geolocation startup Camber Systems, left the group to build a network of aggregated location data to help cities and states track how residents are moving around, called Covid-19 Mobility Data Network.

The April 10 announcement of the Apple-Google project further complicated efforts as members grew unsure about what to focus on next. Ms. Buckee of Harvard was among members who questioned whether the two companies' opt-in system -- which uses Bluetooth technology to track users' cellphones and alert those who were exposed to virus carriers -- would be effective as designed.

Members and executives at other companies contacted Apple and Google, skeptical that the effort would truly protect the privacy of users, or unsure that cities and states would opt for tech tools over human contact tracers.

Julie Brill, privacy head at Microsoft, and Peter Lee, head of research and incubation, and not members of the task force, warned in a post on the company website that despite "rising excitement" about using technology to fight the pandemic, companies needed to consider evolving regulations as well as individuals' comfort with sharing data.

"Technical advances, such as the use of mobile phones to collect data of various kinds, need to be considered in the larger context of the complexity of the world," the executives wrote.

Mr. Conway said he was "strongly in favor" of the Google and Apple project and said he wasn't aware of anyone on the task force who wasn't supportive of the company's efforts.

A spokesman for Apple, speaking on behalf of both Apple and Google, said the technology isn't a substitute for traditional, in-person contact tracing and "both companies are firmly grounded in the fact that it's another tool at the disposal of public health agencies -- not a silver bullet."

The companies earlier this month released the technology supporting contact-tracing from mobile devices. Three states have requested access to the technology but no apps are available yet in the U.S. using the Apple-Google standard.

Starting in late March, some task force members said they could no longer reach White House aides. Cities and states -- not Washington -- were making decisions over which technologies to use, making joint tech efforts even harder to manage.

A spokeswoman for the White House says it hasn't been involved with the group since the call in mid-March, noting that the administration is engaged with the tech industry, such as a partnership with International Business Machines Corp. and Amazon to offer free supercomputing resources to help develop virus treatments.

The group's leader Mr. Mendelsohn was juggling volumes of email about the task force along with his day job -- funding startups through Hangar -- and family duties.

"I finally had to cry uncle," Mr. Mendelsohn said of his decision to step aside from running the group. "This is a job for people with grown kids."

In addition to Mr. Borthwick, the task force now counts about 18 members in its working group; 140 companies receive regular updates on its doings, Mr. Borthwick said. Everyone is a volunteer.

It has appointed a new advisory board, which includes Robert Iger, the former Walt Disney Company chief executive, and Leon Panetta, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense. The board is involved "when they wish or when there's something specific we need to ask them," said Mr. Borthwick.

A spokesman for Mr. Panetta said he was unavailable. A representative for Mr. Iger didn't return a request for comment.

"We are trying to bring a degree of modesty," Mr. Borthwick said. "Less thinking of tech as a solution."

Write to Kirsten Grind at kirsten.grind@wsj.com

 

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