The Curious Case of Google’s COVID-19 Screening Test Site

Google is building a nationwide COVID-19 info site, but not one for screening

COVID-19 Website
 Lifewire / Catherine Song

It’s not hard to build a web site, especially an informational one, full of text and flat graphics. Things get a little dicey when you want to build in some function. It’s like the difference between a hollow toy car and one with a steering wheel and a functioning motor. The complexity skyrockets.

When President Donald Trump announced last week that Google was bringing the force of some 1,700 engineers to work on a special Coronavirus screening web site “to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location,” I got excited.

Earlier that week, the White House had convened a meeting of the top tech companies to see how they could assist in the fight to flatten the growth curve of the pandemic and mitigate its impact. One of the big issues for the U.S. response has been the availability of testing kits. A site to pre-screen sounds absolutely brilliant. I can imagine that there are many people who, perhaps just spooked by the pandemic, think they’re sick when they’re not. Screening out people before they overload local healthcare systems is surely the right approach.

White House Rose Garden
Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah L. Birx M.D. holds up the simplest website information architecture in history. C-Span

Something’s Not Right

During the Rose Garden press conference, Trump and his COVID-19 response team touched on many ways the private sector is assisting in the fight. Representatives from testing labs and major pharmacies (even competitors) appeared and spoke. Google, however, was not there.

As the creator of the biggest and most widely used search engine in the world, Google knows the value of real-time data. Whenever it does something, even just a new Google Doodle, Google backs it up with a blog post with details and what it means. I went looking for Google’s blog post on this major new site. There was none, just a March 6 post from Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlining all the company’s on-going COVID-19 activities. It did not mention a national screening site.

Meanwhile, Trump explained that the site was going to be “very quickly done, unlike websites of the past,” which I assumed might have been a veiled reference to the difficulties encountered when the Obama administration launched the vast and overly complex Affordable Healthcare website Healthcare.gov in 2013. That digital disaster led to the development of the U.S. Digital Service, which fixed the site and then stayed on to help in other Federal Government digital projects.

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah L. Birx M.D. then took the podium and walked through an ultra-simplified user-flow for the screening web site. She even had a handy piece of oak tag. Dr. Birx said the testing process would begin with the new screening site “facilitated by Google, where clients and patients and people that have interest can go, fill out a screening questionnaire, [and] move down for symptoms or risk factors.” Depending on what people told the web site, they’ll be directed to, potentially, drive-thru test options or be told they do not need a test.

It was an explanation suitable for a five-year-old, which I think was the right approach. Site development is a complex thing and there’s no need to overwhelm the public with details.

The one thing, though, that even a five-year-old would need is the URL. There wasn’t one.

White House Press Conference
President Trump holds up a printout of Google's blog on its on COVID-19 activities, then drops it. White House

What We Got

Even before the press conference ended, I tried contacting Google for details on what would surely be the most important website in the war in COVID-19. I got nothing, but soon other outlets discovered that a company called Verily, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet, is developing a screening site… for California.

Google sought to clear the air with a series of tweets. “We are fully aligned and continue to work with the U.S. Government to contain the spread of COVID-19, inform citizens, and protect the health of our communities,” they wrote. The company also detailed exactly what it was doing on its own and to assist the government.

Yes, it’s been building a national COVID-19 information web site and Verily is building a localized, online screening test.

In a subsequent press conference, President Trump held up what appeared to be a printout from Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s March 15 blog update, which reiterated all the company’s current COVD-19-related activities, and said Google’s Pichai called him to apologize, ostensibly for the confusion.

I contacted Google again to ask for more details, but Google simply pointed me to the blog post. It did not respond when I asked if Pichai had, in fact, apologized.

It was an explanation suitable for a five-year-old, which I think was the right approach.

By the time you read this, Google’s COVID-19 information site should be live. Verily’s Project Baseline screening web site also launched, but is, as Google explained last week, available only in parts of California.

At no point has Google promised a nationwide screening site, only that Verily hopes to “expand more broadly over time.” Again, the site is only useful if you live in the Bay area of California, and with self-isolation and social distancing, it's unlikely we can all travel there for digital screening.

I agree with the administration that such a site is needed. There’s too much confusion about what is and isn’t COVID-19 and whether or not people should run to Urgent Care or stay home (stay home, please).

However, I know too much about site development to believe that such an important and possibly complex website could be launched overnight or without adequate testing. Running a pilot, as Verily is doing, is crucial to ensuring that the site does not confuse or mislead people and that, if it goes national, it can handle what will surely be an incredible surge of users.

That was the lesson of Healthcare.gov, which probably launched too fast, too broadly, and without adequate testing.

So What

These are difficult and scary times for everyone, and we all want this pandemic to end as quickly and safely as possible. But the key to beating COVID-19 is facts, not fiction or false promises.