Dear Google (and Apple),
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Scientists and academics the world over are racing to study the coronavirus – to sequence the genomes of the virus behind it (among other things) so that they can understand how it spreads, design treatments and vaccines for it, and track its evolution.
Speed is imperative because over three months after China first told the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31 that it was treating unusual cases of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, there are over one million confirmed Covid-19 cases across the world, and the body count is adding up: 59,188 as on April 4.
It’s April now and we still don’t have answers to so many Covid-19 questions and a vaccine is at least 18 months away.
In short, this is an emergency. Time costs lives.
Here’s an example of how scientists and researchers – a notoriously speed-averse community – have changed the way they work.
The New York Times reported on April 1 that scientists at the University of Pittsburgh recently made a discovery that could have implications on animal vaccine testing for Covid-19. Ordinarily, scientists would have started work on an article for an academic journal following this discovery, the report said.
“‘But you know what? There is going to be plenty of time to get papers published,’” it quoted Paul Duprex, a virologist leading the university’s vaccine research, as saying.
The article said: “Within two hours, he [Duprex] said, he had shared the findings with scientists around the world on a World Health Organization conference call. ‘It is pretty cool, right? You cut the crap, for lack of a better word, and you get to be part of a global enterprise.’”
Why has Google then, during this global pandemic, chosen to stick to the rule book and bar global innovators from publishing Covid-19 apps to the Google Play store?
Understand the urgency, Google.
But first, let’s get this straight: We understand that both Google (and Apple) must have stringent conditions to control the kinds of apps being uploaded on the Play and App stores to prevent bad actors from profiteering from the fears of people worried about Covid-19.
A blanket ban on listing apps, however, will do more harm than good. You must assess each application on merit. You must not assess Covid-19 submissions with rules that existed before December 31. These are extraordinary times.
Our bid to list on Google Play an app that we designed over a weekend while in quarantine in Australia and Sweden was met with a boilerplate response. “We don’t allow apps that lack reasonable sensitivity towards or capitalize on a natural disaster, atrocity, conflict, death, or other tragic event,” the email from Google said.
Our app is a free Coronavirus symptom tracker that is designed keeping three stakeholders at the centre: users, frontline healthcare workers and researchers. It was born from personal experience, of the anxiety that ensued when three family members started showing symptoms and had to go for a drive-in Covid test.
The app isn’t trying to diagnose people. It simply collects granular data about how certain Covid-19 symptoms manifest in individuals or clusters even before they decide to seek medical help.
This historical information helps anxious users keep track of symptoms whose details they may not accurately recall a week later.
A doctor we spoke to said any symptom history information is useful because the date of symptom onset is an important factor in deciding when a Covid patient may be safe to go home, but many patients struggle to remember when their symptoms started.
Each patient’s symptom history will also hopefully give researchers a clearer understanding of how the virus spreads and how symptoms evolve during infections.
The app is simple at its core, and keeps the user at its centre. It provides value to users, which is important as that leads to regular usage, which determines the quality and quantity of the data being generated. Apps that provide clear value and utility to users are those that are used again and again, says Google’s own research.
The app has been submitted to a number of Covid-19 hackathons. But as we understand it (and do correct us if we are wrong), we will need government or institutional backing if we want to list this app on the Google Play store.
We are a motley bunch of designers, developers, journalists, PR professionals and marketers who collaborated across continents to try and do something helpful for society. Between us, we have several years of experience in swiftly shipping digital products, taking them to market and scaling them globally. What we don’t have yet is government or institutional backing. Though we are working on getting this support, we are losing valuable time.
So, here we are with an app that can possibly help people, frontline healthcare workers and the global research community to understand Covid-19 better, but with no way to even get people to test it on Google Play or the Apple App store.
My Symptoms vs others
You may argue that there are other apps that do the same thing as ours – for instance the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker App developed by King’s College London and the How We Feel app that’s developed in part by the CEO of Pinterest.
We are excited about the potential of these apps to help in the fight against Covid-19. In our opinion, however, they have some shortcomings. The first is limited to the UK, and both neglect to put the user at the core of the experience, which, in our experience (and Google’s evidently), is what determines whether a user will use it in the first place.
Additionally, to our knowledge, no apps have so far been designed to solve problems for those at the frontlines of this battle: volunteers, paramedics, nurses and doctors. Old school paper and pen forms are still being passed around drive-through testing centres, for instance, exposing healthcare workers to risk.
The mysymptoms app plugs all these holes. It puts the user and healthcare worker at the core of the experience, and is not limited to a geographic area.
Additionally, we are committed to the following:
So, don’t stifle innovation, Google. We don’t claim to be doing the important work of scientists, but even you will surely agree that every effort counts. People are dying. The global research community needs any knowledge that can stop Covid-19 in its tracks. Do reconsider your policy and review our application and similar non-profit applications submitted by others. If you don’t, all we would have lost is a few days of our lives. But the world could lose much more.
We are a global work-from-home team from multiple organisations that decided to create something to help people in these difficult times.