How volunteers from tech companies like Amazon, Apple and Google built a coronavirus-tracking site in six days

In the last week, a group of thirty volunteers from tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Alphabet put together a website called “covidnearyou” that aims to track the coronavirus as it spreads. 

The idea started when Prem Ramaswami, the head of product at Alphabet‘s Sidewalk Labs, and his wife, started feeling sick more than a week ago. When he tried to get a test for the coronavirus, his doctor told him that would not be possible. According to Ramaswami, he was denied access to the test because he hadn’t been in touch with anyone who had tested positive.

Ramaswami, who previously worked on health projects at Google, wondered how he could help others in the same boat. So he got in touch with John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, to volunteer his services. Brownstein is well-known to the tech world as he has consulted with companies like Google and Uber on public health projects for years, including the Google Flu Project, which tracked the spread of the flu.

Once they jumped on a call, Brownstein informed him about a website that was already underway to monitor influenza, called “flunearyou.” The pair decided to co-opt the underlying technology for better COVID-19 monitoring, given the current gap in testing. That led to the idea of developing “covidnearyou.”

But Ramaswami realized he couldn’t do it on his own. So he pulled together a group of friends and acquaintances from the tech world to help out. Employees from Apple, Amazon, MongoDB, CloudFlare, Alphabet and other tech companies agreed to build the site, but defer to the public health experts on the content. 

“I’m a tech guy, not a doctor,” said Ramaswami, who is more focused on civic-tech these days at Sidewalk Labs. “We are here to help the medical experts and take their direction.”

After a week of work, the team, which includes designers, engineers and marketers, are now ready to go live with covidnearyou.org. The site is recruiting people from across the U.S. to share whether they’re experiencing symptoms or not, as well as some demographic information.

If they can get enough people to use the site — and the goal is to reach 100,000 users — they hope to fill in some of the gaps in reporting due to the lack of testing. 

“Without widespread testing, we don’t have a clear picture of where the illness is, ” Brownstein explained. “We are basically flying blind.” 

Healthy individuals who participate are asked to fill out information about their gender, age and zipcode, and whether they’ve received a flu vaccine. The site also includes a map of the various states and shows where the outbreaks are.

Those who are feeling sick are prompted to describe their symptoms, such as fever, a cough, or shortness of breath. They are also asked if they’ve traveled recently, and if they’ve been in direct contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. 

In future iterations, the team plans to add more symptoms as medical professionals release more information about the coronavirus. For instance, some doctors are now saying such as digestive ailments and lack of smell should be added the list that the public should know about, alongside fever and respiratory issues. 

According to Brownstein, the data will be shared with public health groups and not with the various tech companies.

As of this morning, about 10,000 people had provided their health status to covidnearyou, said Brownstein, and the majority of them are healthy. If usage keeps growing, he believes that the data-set will be large enough to be useful to public health officials.

The project’s volunteers say they are continuing to work on the site while juggling their day jobs. 

“Many of us are working on this from 3pm to 9pm after work, and our spouses are helping take on the load with childcare,” said Ramaswami. “But people in tech are hungry to help out right now.”

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