The Technology 202: State and local governments are asking technologists to aid coronavirus response

With Tonya Riley

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The coronavirus crisis is already overwhelming city and state governments’ digital services. They’re looking for volunteers from the tech industry for help.  

New York yesterday launched a “Technology SWAT team” to support the state’s response. A state official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk candidly, told me New York needs help with digital tools directly related to the virus, such as building infrastructure for testing and scheduling. But officials also need to improve remote access to government services that could see a spike, such as unemployment services.  

The state hit hardest by the virus is seeking tech workers with experience in product management, software development, data science and other similar areas.

New York invited technology companies, universities, nonprofits, research labs, and other organizations with technology expertise to submit an online form if they’re interested in supporting the initiative.

Earlier this week, former Obama administration tech leaders and a former executive from payments company Stripe launched the U.S. Digital Response to match volunteers from the industry with impacted local and state governments. The group has already received requests from governments that need help collecting data from coronavirus testing facilities, building systems to better track data from hospitals about their bed and ventilator capacity, as well as modeling and mapping infection data, according to its website.

The race to galvanize volunteers underscores the significant toll that covid-19 stands to take on state and local governments with limited tech resources. Industry workers eager to lend a hand could have the most impact by working with governors, mayors and local officials as they emerge as key leaders in the country’s response. 

Julie Samuels, the head of Tech:NYC, tells me she is trying to connect workers at the 800 companies her nonprofit represents with the SWAT team. 

“We anticipate these needs will continue to shift and we fully expect to bring our network of companies to bear to meet them,” she said. 

Jennifer Pahlka, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and Code For America founder who helped launch the U.S. Digital Response, said Monday the group already had 40 requests from governments for services, and more than 1,400 volunteers.

But some are skeptical of local governments moving too quickly to borrow talent and tactics from the tech industry which has come under fire for abusing user data without greater transparency around the efforts. Countries including China and South Korea culled user data from smartphones to limit the virus’s spread, but proposals to use location data in the U.S. have already raised privacy concerns.

Albert Fox Cahn, the founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told me there needs to be greater oversight and transparency around these efforts, especially as state officials in New York wield broad powers to respond to the emergency. As of last night, nearly 33,000 covid-19 cases had been confirmed in New York. At least 366 people have died. 

“We haven’t gotten any clear indication from the [New York] governor on what role technology will be playing as part of the disease response,” Cahn said. 

“When we’re giving the governor extraordinary powers, it’s even more important than normal times to understand how those tools are being used,” he added. 

 Samuels said the New York SWAT team was focused on staffing, not on data sharing. 

“That said, people should absolutely be mindful of how the government might be using sensitive data, but that does not mean the government and private sector should not come together during these unprecedented times to do whatever they can to save lives,” she said.

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: The Senate passed a $2 trillion emergency relief bill last night that expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to gig workers and gives laid-off workers an additional $600 a week for four months on top of state payments, my colleagues Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane report.  A record 3.3 million unemployment claims were filed last week, the Labor Department reported this morning.

Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi praised the Senate’s action. Both Uber and rideshare competitor Lyft pushed for the inclusion of gig workers in the bill.

The bill also made Airbnb hosts eligible for small-business loans and unemployment insurance under the package, according to a company news release. 

“We are deeply appreciative of bipartisan Senate and House leadership for recognizing there is a new sector of the workforce who depend on Airbnb for their monthly economic needs,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s vice president of policy and communications, wrote in a statement. Airbnb said hosts sent nearly 100,000 emails to Congress advocating for legislative relief. The company also lobbied lawmakers. 

The bill is expected to be approved by the House on Friday. President Trump intends to sign the bill, my colleagues report. 

NIBBLES: State attorneys general called on Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos to increase paid sick leave for workers at the e-commerce company and its subsidiary Whole Foods. Members of Congress and worker advocacy groups are pressuring Amazon to expand its benefits for warehouse and delivery workers in light of the public-health crisis.

Amazon offers 14 days of paid sick leave to employees diagnosed with covid-19 or quarantined by a medical professional, but Bezos should expand paid sick leave to all warehouse workers, the 15 attorneys general urged in a letter yesterday. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But that policy “seriously undercut efforts to promote ‘social distancing’ in order to ‘flatten the curve’ of infections and to avoid overloading our already strained health care system,” the group led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote. Amazon’s plans to add 100,000 new workers would further increase the risk of “possible transmission of the virus both from worker to worker, and to the general public in homes across our states.”

The disease has spread to at least 10 Amazon warehouses in the United States, my colleague Jay Greene reports. Workers tell Jay tAmazon hasn’t provided them with necessary information about the infections or taken proper safety measures to prevent the disease from spreading. Whole Foods employees in New York have also tested positive, Lauren Kaori Gurley at Vice reports.

The attorneys general also urged Bezos to set aside funds for independent contractors who fulfill deliveries for Amazon and Whole Foods. Amazon launched a $25 million relief fund for delivery partners but it’s unclear how much of that money has been distributed.

BYTES: A surge in Zoom conferencing, Netflix streaming, Facebook calls and video gaming is putting a strain on the Internet in the United States and Europe as people adapt to stay-at-home orders, Cecilia Kang, Davey Alba and Adam Satariano report for the New York Times. 

The average download time for videos, emails and documents increased as broadband speeds declined 4.9 percent from the previous week, according to Ookla, a broadband speed testing service. Median download speeds dropped 38 percent in San Jose, Calif., and 24 percent in New York, according to a consumer broadband research website, Broadband Now.

“This is totally unprecedented,” Thierry Breton, a European Union commissioner who oversees digital policy and was a chief executive of France Télécom, told the Times. “We have to be proactive.”

European regulators like Breton have pressured streaming companies such as Netflix and YouTube to reduce streaming quality so their files don’t take as much bandwidth. U.S. regulators have provided wireless carriers with more spectrum access to bolster the capacity of their networks.

PUBLIC CLOUD

– Russia is using facial recognition and phone location data to monitor people ordered into self-isolation in an effort to limit the coronavirus, my colleague Robyn Dixon reports. It’s an extreme example of how authoritarian governments are using their surveillance apparatus to catch those violating quarantine orders, she reports.  

Moscow alone has more than 178,000 facial-recognition cameras and has caught at least 200 people violating mandatory self-isolation. More than 90,000 individuals are under observation for possible contact, Robyn reports. Russian authorities are also threatening those spreading disinformation about the disease on social media with fines of up to $37,500. 

The technologies could further sow public distrust during an increasingly confusing and chaotic time. “It looks more like a police operation, not a medical one,” Kirill Koroteev of the legal and human rights group Agora told Robyn.“I think people are reluctant to accept that they will be facially controlled each time they need to throw out the garbage or buy some bread and buckwheat. Now Muscovites are realizing the potential for abuse.”

The European Union has also pushed for increased surveillance, taking a less-extreme route by asking telecommunications carriers to share anonymized cellphone data to better track the disease.

— News from the public sector:

PRIVATE CLOUD

Twitter yesterday blocked an article suggesting that the medical community should consider intentionally infecting people with the coronavirus at “chickenpox parties” to help slow the spread of the virus, Michael Levenson reports. The social network also temporarily locked the account of the conservative website that posted it. Tech companies are racing to crack down on public health misinformation as the health crisis intensifies. 

— News from the private sector:

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— Tech news trending around the Web:

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