Give Virus Alert Apps an opportunity

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Some state health officials are giving Americans the option to be notified on their smartphones when they've spent time around someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus. This technology is not a magic solution, but it is a promising tool for fighting pandemics that most people don't use.

My colleague Jennifer Valentino-DeVries recently wrote about the effectiveness and shortcomings of these virus exposure notifications. She talked to me about what's behind the technology and why she feels comfortable with it after years of warning about apps that encroach on privacy.

Shira: are these coronavirus exposure technologies working?

Jen: They're nowhere near as effective as extensive virus testing with quick results, widespread use of masks, and people keeping their distance.

However, the purpose of the alerts is to notify anyone that an infected person may have interacted with as soon as possible so that they can stay away from others and be tested. We have some data, including from Arizona and Switzerland, that these technologies can correctly notify those who have been exposed to infected individuals. When you combine effective testing, masks, human contact tracing, and these automated exposure alerts, you can make a big impact.

(Learn more about how these alerts work and how to find them for your state here.)

Then why are so few people using these apps?

When I started my reporting, I thought the answer would be relatively simple: after years of invasion of privacy, people who are concerned about the government or companies that persecute them would just say no. But it's more complicated.

Surely some people distrust the government and tech companies. People are also wary of human contact tracing. A big problem, however, is that many people are unaware that these apps exist, and not all states have actively promoted them.

In polls, a significant percentage of Americans said they wouldn't use these apps even if they were 100 percent effective in stopping the pandemic and protecting people's privacy.

They write about the scary trails We are being followed on our phones. Now are you saying yes to government and corporate surveillance?

This particular Apple and Google technology is so well designed that I'm not sure I would even call it "surveillance". No location or data is collected from your contacts, and information about your network is not stored by the government or a technology company. It relies on bluetooth to detect which phones have been around for more than a few minutes. However, apps that don't use this Apple and Google technology may be more intrusive.

California rolled out its Exposure warning system on Thursday. How does it work?

Like several other states, California uses Exposure Notifications Express technology from Apple and Google. The companies send notifications to all phones to encourage users to download the health department's exposure notification app or change the phone's settings to turn on the technology.

The notifications make a difference. States can get up to 20 percent of the population to join the alert system relatively quickly, which is a good start. Usage tends to be lower in states that have created their own apps without notifications or other promotions.

What are the flaws?

Exposure apps are most effective when users have good access to tests and relatively quick turnaround of the results – within minutes or a day. That means we're back to where we've always been in the US. That said, there is no coherent national strategy and testing is terrible in most places.

What do these virus exposure apps tell us about technology?

These apps are a crazy symbol of how tech companies are replacing government functions. Apple and Google don't do virus testing, but using these exposure technologies they developed the system, essentially creating apps for governments and, in some cases, saying no to countries and states that have tried to target apps with more privacy-invasive coronavirus technologies create.

Economy & Economy

Updated

Dec. 11, 2020, 12:33 p.m. ET

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What happened to the first Airbnb and DoorDash public stock offerings this week makes no sense. For real.

The values ​​of both companies shot through the roof – to the point where even the CEO of Airbnb was almost speechless in a television interview on Thursday.

I can't explain exactly why Airbnb is among the most valuable companies in the world today despite the money bleeding and travel bookings falling during the pandemic. DoorDash is not a slam dunk winner either, as the share price suggests.

Part of it is simply the mechanics of supply and demand. Airbnb and DoorDash, like many companies that go public, only sold a small number of shares. And it seems that a lot of people wanted to buy these stocks, so the price kept going up. Easy.

However, it's not normal for the methodological process of determining a company's initial stock price to be undone by people willing to pay double or more what professionals were worth to companies like Airbnb and DoorDash.

There are other factors here, as my colleague Erin Griffith explained. The Federal Reserve’s moves to shore up the US economy this year – and long before it – made it more attractive for people to put money into investments that can go up dramatically in value. (That means they can also depreciate dramatically. Bitcoin, tech startups, and stocks of newly listed companies are definitely considered risky.)

Bloomberg News also mentioned other financial changes this year that may have contributed to the eagerness to buy Airbnb and DoorDash stock, such as the increase in relatively inexperienced people using stock trading apps like Robinhood. But honestly I don't know what is going to happen.

More young companies are going public soon, and maybe there will be common sense. However, it is hard to ignore the divide between a soaring US stock market in 2020 and young tech bosses turning into gazillionaires as many Americans struggle to the point where they steal food. It really doesn't make sense.

Airbnb vs. local restrictions: The Wall Street Journal wrote of city-to-city struggles in the United States to curb short-term home rentals, which some neighbors believe may add to the housing shortage or make their communities less safe.

Data is not a neutral truth: Technology researcher Deborah Raji wrote for MIT Technology Review on the way healthcare, education, and law enforcement biases are encoded into software used in those areas, which further exacerbates the bias. My colleague Cade Metz has also written about artificial intelligence, which learns from hateful human language and then shows bias and hatred as well.

Atlanta! "Some of the most important creators of the Internet live and work here," writes my colleague Taylor Lorenz. And she said that Atlanta's internet creative community is different from other hubs for online talent: many of the influencers are black and are trying to fill a funding gap for black internet stars.

This is a ribbon eel and it is beauty in motion.

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