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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft partner with White House to provide compute resources for COVID-19 research

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 04:01 PM PDT

During today’s White House coronavirus task force press conference, President Trump announced the launch of a new public/private consortium to “unleash the power of American supercomputing resources.” The members of this consortium are the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM . Other companies, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as a number of academic institutions, are also “contributing lots of different things,” the president said.

While Trump’s comments were characteristically unclear, IBM provided more details, noting that it is working with a number of national labs and other institutions to offer a total of 330 petaflops of compute to various projects in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also part of the consortium, which is being led by IBM, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Department of Energy.

IBM and its partners will coordinate the efforts to evaluate proposals and provide access to high-performance computing resources to those that are most likely to have an immediate impact.

“How can supercomputers help us fight this virus? These high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics, and molecular modeling. These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms,” writes Dario Gil, IBM’s Director of Research.

AWS has already dedicated $20 million to support COVID-19 research while Microsoft has already announced a number of different initiatives, though mostly around helping businesses cope with the fallout of this crisis. Google has now launched its own coronavirus website (though it’s very different from the one Trump once promised) and Alphabet’s Verily is helping Bay Area residents find testing sites if needed. It’s unclear what exactly Google and Microsoft will contribute to these current efforts, though. We’ve reached out to both companies and will update this post if we hear back.

“Today I’m also announcing the launch of a new public/private consortium organized by the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM to unleash the power of American supercomputing resources to fight the Chinese virus,” Trump, who continues to insist on calling COVID-19 ‘the Chinese virus,’ said in today’s press briefing.

“The following leaders from private industries, academia and government will be contributing and they are gonna be contributing a lot of different things, but compute primarily — computing resources to help researchers discover new treatments and vaccine. They will be working along with NIH and all of the people working on this. But tremendous help from IBM, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Department of Energy’s, the National Science Foundation and NASA. They are all contributing to this effort.”

Justice Dept. files its first coronavirus takedown: a bogus vaccine website

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 02:51 PM PDT

U.S. federal prosecutors have filed and won a temporary restraining order against a website offering a fraudulent coronavirus vaccine, which the Justice Department said is its first enforcement action related to the pandemic.

In a statement, the Justice Dept. said the action was taken against a website, said to be engaging in a wire fraud scheme, seeking “to profit from the confusion and widespread fear” surrounding COVID-19.

The website, seen by TechCrunch, claims the World Health Organization is “giving away vaccine kits” to unsuspecting victims who pay a small fee for shipping. The website asks for a victim’s credit card information.

“In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine,” the Justice Department’s statement said.

A federal judge issued the temporary restraining order against the website’s owners, whose names are not known. The order also demanded that Namecheap, the site’s domain host, pull the site offline.

Although the Justice Dept. names the website, we are not. The website remains accessible at the time of writing.

A spokesperson for Namecheap did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Assistant attorney general Jody Hunt said: “The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain. We will use every resource at the government's disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware.”

As it stands, there are more than 300,000 confirmed cases around the world. But as government authorities continue to lack testing equipment, the global number of infections is said to be far higher.

As of Friday, wome 80 million Americans are under lockdown, including in California, New York, and Illinois, in an effort to limit the spread of the respiratory illness.

The spread of the virus also prompted the U.S. and Canada to mutually agree to close the northern border, and the U.S. to close its southern border with Mexico to all but essential travel.

On Thursday, the U.S. ordered an unprecedented “do not travel” warning to all Americans.

Ford, GM, Tesla given the ‘go ahead’ to produce ventilators, Trump says

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 01:30 PM PDT

Ford, GM and Tesla have been given the “go ahead” to make ventilators to help alleviate a shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump said in a tweet Sunday that ended with a challenge to auto executives to show how good their companies are.

Ventilators are a critical piece of medical equipment for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

The tweet follows a plea Sunday morning from NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the federal government to nationalize medical supply acquisition instead of leaving it to individual states. Cuomo is one of a growing group of officials to call for Trump to order companies to produce medical supplies under the Defense Production Act, a law that allows the federal government to compel private industry to produce materials needed for national defense.

Without the nationalization, states are competing against each other for supplies, Cuomo said. Prices have spiked as a result, putting more pressure on a health care system.

Trump has issued an executive order that invokes the Defense Production Act, but it’s unclear if it has been used. Trump said last week during a press conference that it had been, but Federal Emergency Management Agency head Peter Gaynor told reporters Sunday that the president has not yet ordered any companies to make more critical supplies.

Several automakers said last week they were looking into the feasibility of producing ventilators. GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators that are needed by a growing number of hospitals as the COVID-19 pandemics spreads throughout the U.S. The partnership is part of StopTheSpread.org, a coordinated effort of private companies to respond to COVId-19, a disease caused by coronavirus.

Ford told TechCrunch in an email Sunday that it stands ready to help the administration, including the possibility of producing ventilators and other equipment.

“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility,” the Ford spokesperson Rachel McCleery said. “It's vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever."

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Saturday that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. He had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Box’s Aaron Levie says it will take creativity and focus to get through this crisis

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 01:30 PM PDT

The COVID-19 virus is touching every aspect of our lives and having a profound impact on individuals, businesses and society at large. Box’s Aaron Levie has built a successful business from dorm room to IPO and beyond. He spoke to TechCrunch today about the level of creativity and focus that it’s going to take to succeed in the current environment.

Levie pointed out that his company was a fledgling startup when the economic downturn hit in 2008, but he thinks this one could have a much greater impact on business than that one did.

“I think Silicon Valley is going to definitely experience this in a very, very significant way. We were building a company in 2008, and that was extremely hard, but I don’t think it is going to compare to how hard the coming year is going to be,” Levie said.

This morning on Twitter, Levie wrote that we are in uncharted territory, and everyone will have to work together to help navigate this crisis.

He believes the government will need to step in to help individuals and businesses alike. “Businesses, who have lots of employees, need to be supported, but fundamentally we need to make sure that we’re focused on all the workers that are out of work, hopefully just temporarily displaced, but we’re going to need a lot of government financial support to get through this,” he said.

For startups, he advised startups to firmly focus on their mission. “It’s about extreme focus right now. It’s about extreme discipline. It’s about making sure that you’re maintaining your culture during this time,” Levie said.

As for his own company, he’s looking a three areas: his employees, his customers and the community. He said his first priority is making sure his employees are safe and healthy and that the hourly workers who support the business normally are being taken care of as we move through this unprecedented situation.

Secondly, he’s making sure that he supports his customers. To that end the company has removed any license limits as customers deal with increased usage with employees working from home.

He has also joined forces with Cloudflare in an effort to provide small businesses with 90 days of free services to help ride out the situation, and he said they would revisit extending these programs if the situation continues.

Thirdly, he says every business who can has to look at ways to support the communities where they live to assist non-profit organizations who are helping in the response. “This is an event where business communities globally are going to have to put more of a concerted effort on this than any issue in modern history,” Levie said.

Levie is not alone in this thinking by any means. He points to other leaders such as Chuck Robbins, Marc Benioff and Tim Cook, all who have stepped up in recent days to offer help and support.

He has built his company from the ground up to one that’s on nearly an $800 million run rate, but like so many business leaders, he is dealing with a situation which, as he said, has no playbook. Like every other CEO, he’s trying to help keep his business thriving, while not losing sight of the needs of the people in his organization, his customers or his community. It’s not an easy balancing act for anyone right now.

Emirates will suspend most passenger flights by March 25

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 09:25 AM PDT

Emirates, the world’s largest airline by international traffic, today briefly announced on Twitter and its own website that it would halt all passenger flights by March 25 but then reversed course and said that it would still fly to 13 destinations, including the U.S., UK, Japan, Australia and Canada.

It’s a sign of the times that a) nobody would blink if Emirates had actually announced that it was ceasing all passenger operations and b) that there would be confusion around this given how much the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the airline business into sudden chaos.

“Having received requests from governments & customers to support repatriation of travellers, Emirates will continue to operate passenger and cargo flights to few countries until further notice, as long as borders remain open, and there is demand,” the airline said in a later statement.

Like most of its competitors, the airline will continue its usual cargo operations. Passenger flights, though, will only continue to leave for the UK, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, South Africa, U.S. and Canada. Before this decision, Emirates operated flights to 161 cities in 85 countries.

In the U.S., many airlines are facing decisions. United, for example, announced two days ago that it will reduce its international flying by 95% for April, leaving only half a dozen international flights on its schedule through May. American and Delta have made similar cuts, though theirs are not quite as drastic. And all this could still change, given that virtually every airline now likes to say that this situation is “dynamic.”

With kids and adults staying at home, are virtual worlds ready for primetime?

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 09:15 AM PDT

We've been diligently following the development of virtual worlds, also known as the “metaverse,” on TechCrunch.

Hanging out within the virtual worlds of games has become more popular in recent years with the growth of platforms like Roblox and open-world games like Fortnite, but it still isn't a mainstream way to socialize outside of the young-adult demographic.

Three weeks ago, TechCrunch media columnist Eric Peckham published an in-depth report that positioned virtual worlds as the next era of social media. In an eight-part series, he looked at the history of virtual worlds and why games are already social networkswhy social networks want more gamingwhat the next few years looks like for the industry and why isn't it mainstream alreadyhow these virtual worlds will lead to healthier social relationswhat the future of virtual economies will be and which companies are poised for success in this new market.

Given all that has changed in just the last three weeks — who would have thought that large swaths of the knowledge economy would suddenly find themselves entirely interacting virtually? — I wanted to get a sense of what the rising popularity of virtual worlds looks like in the midst of the outbreak of novel coronavirus. Eric and I had a call to discuss this and decided to share our conversation publicly.

Danny Crichton: So let's talk about timing a bit. You wrote this eight-article series around virtual worlds and then all of a sudden post-publication there is this massive event — the novel coronavirus pandemic — causing a large portion of the human population to stay at home and interact only online. What's happening now in the space?

Eric Peckham: I wrote my series on the multiverse because I was already seeing a surge of interest, both in terms of consumer demand for open-world MMO games and in terms of social media giants like Facebook and Snap trying to incorporate virtual worlds and social games into their platforms. Large companies are planning for virtual worlds in a way that is actionable and not just a futuristic vision. Over the last couple of years there has also been a lot of VC investment into a handful of startups focused on building next-generation virtual worlds for people to spend time in, virtual worlds with complex societies shaped by users’ contributions.

Talking to founders and investors in the gaming space, there has been a huge increase in usage over the last few weeks as more people hang out at home playing games, whether it’s on the adult side or the kid side.

Most of these next-generation virtual worlds are still in private beta but already popular platforms like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite are getting substantially more use than normal. A large portion of people stuck at home are escaping via the virtual worlds of games.

You wrote this whole analysis before you knew the extent of the pandemic — how has the outlook changed for this industry?

This accelerates the timeline of virtual worlds being a mainstream place to hang out and socialize in daily life. I think people will be at home for multiple months, not just a couple of weeks, and it’s going to change people’s perspectives on socializing and working from home.

That’s a really powerful cultural shift. It’s getting more people beyond the core gaming community excited about spending time in virtual worlds and hanging out with their friends there.

We have seen this most heavily with the youngest generation of internet users. The majority of kids 9-12 years old are users of Minecraft and Roblox who hang out there with friends after school. We’ll see that expand to older demographics more quickly than it was going to before.

One of the complaints that I’ve seen on Twitter is that even though we have one of the largest global human lockdowns of all time, all the VR headsets are basically gone. Is VR a key component of virtual worlds?

Well, you don’t need VR headsets in order to spend meaningful time with others in a virtual space. Hundreds of millions of people already do it through their mobile phones and through PCs and consoles.

This is at the heart of the gaming industry: creating virtual worlds for people to spend time in, both pursuing the mission of whatever a game is designed for but also interacting with others. Among the most popular mobile and PC games last year were massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.

Talking about gaming, one facet of the story that I thought was particularly interesting was the fact that gaming was still not that high in terms of market penetration in the population.

More than two billion people play video games in the context of a year. There’s incredible market penetration in that sense. But, at least for the data I’ve seen for the U.S., the percent of the population who play games on a given day is still much lower than the percent of the population who use social media on a given day.

The more that games become virtual worlds for socializing and hanging out beyond just the mission of the gameplay, the more who will turn to virtual worlds as a social and entertainment outlet when they have five minutes free to do something on their phone. Social media fills these small moments in life. MMO games right now don’t because they are so oriented around the gameplay, which takes time and uninterrupted focus. Virtual worlds in the vein of those on Roblox where you just hang out and explore with friends compete for that time with Instagram more directly.

Theater chains like Regal and AMC announced this week that they are entirely shutting down to wait out the pandemic. Is that going to affect these virtual world companies?

I think they are separate parts of media. Cinema attendance has been declining quite substantially for years, and the way the industry has made up for that is trying to turn cinemas into these premium experiences and increasing ticket prices. Kids are just as likely, if not more likely, to play a game together on a Friday night as they are to go to the cinema. Cinemas are less culturally relevant to young people than they once were.

We've seen a massive experiment in work from home, which is a form of virtual world, or at least, a virtual workplace. When it comes to popularizing virtual worlds, is it going to come from the entertainment side or the more productivity-oriented platforms?

It will come from the entertainment side, and from younger people using it to socialize, in part because there's less fear around cultural etiquette compared to people meeting in a business setting who are worried about a virtual world context not feeling as professional. Over time, as virtual worlds become pervasive in our social lives they will become more natural places to chat with people about business as well.

As more and more people are working online and interacting virtually, a big question is how you get beyond Zoom calls or the technology that’s currently in the market for virtual conferences to something that feels more like walking around and chatting with people in person. It’s tough to do without the ability to walk around a virtual space. You can't have those unplanned small group or one-on-one interactions with people you don’t know if you’re just boxes within a Zoom call or some other broadcast. It will be interesting to see what develops around virtual business conferences that stems from virtual world technology. I’ve seen a few teams exploring this.

Last question here, but we are looking at a major recession in the economy, and so how does the landscape of people earning money from virtual worlds change with coronavirus?

The second-to-last article in my series is about the virtual economies around virtual worlds. Any virtual world inherently has commerce and people have already been making real-world money from games and from early virtual worlds like Second Life.

Both people staying home amid the coronavirus and the recession that we seem to be entering are pressures that will push more people to look online for ways to make money. That will only increase the activity of virtual economies around some of these worlds, whether those are formally built into the game or they’re happening in a gray or black market around the games (which is more common).

Thanks, Eric.

Amazon, Apple and Microsoft CEOs detail their companies’ efforts to combat coronavirus pandemic

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 08:41 AM PDT

The tech industry is mobilizing its considerable resources to attempt to support efforts against the growing global coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all shared updates regarding some aspects of their company’s ongoing contributions, which range from donations of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, to software projects that help track and analyze the global spread of infection.

Apple CEO Tim Cook shared on Twitter that the company has been attempting to source necessary supplies that are needed for healthcare workers both in the U.S. and Europe, and that the company is joining “millions of masks” for this use. Apple also detailed some of its other updates via earlier releases, including a $15 million donation, along with two-to-one corporate matching for all employee donations that go towards COVID-19 response.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos provided an update on Saturday on the company’s official blog that included details about the change in Amazon’s prioritization for its warehousing and logistics operations, which now focus on essential items including daily household staples, baby and medical supplies. Bezos also reiterated Amazon’s commitment to hiring 100,000 new roles, along with raising hourly wages for fulfilment workers.

Bezos notes that while the company has “placed purchase orders for millions of face masks” that it intends to distribute to its full-time and contract workers who are not able to work from home, “very few of those orders have been filled” to to the global supply shortage. He further notes that these resources are likely to go to frontline healthcare workers first, and that the company will focus on getting them to their staff in order of priority once they become available.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella provided a lengthy update about his company’s various efforts in a LinkedIn post on Saturday, publishing an email he sent to all Microsoft employees for external consumption. Nadella describes some of its telehealth platform software work, as well as a number of collaborative data projects, including the John Hopkins University global COVID-19 confirmed case tracker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a chatbot assessment tool for COVID-19 that uses Microsoft’s health chatbot tech as its underlying framework.

Microsoft is also seeing Teams and Minecraft being used globally for remote learning iniativies designed to supplement in-perosn school closures, and it’s working on machine learning and big data projects to support global research efforts. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz announced that it would be providing an open research data set in partnership with colleagues at academic institutions around the world, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. The data set, called the COVID-19 Open Research Data Set, includes more than 29,000 scholarly articles about the virus, and will grow as more are published.

Lyft to offer medical supply and meal delivery during coronavirus pandemic

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 07:31 AM PDT

Lyft is expanding the types of services it provides through its on-demand transportation network in an effort to boost efforts to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The company announced that it will be offering delivery of critical medical supplies to individuals who need them during this time, including the elderly and those living with chronic diseases, and that it will be delivering meals to students who ordinarily get subsidized lunches through school, as well as seniors.

The new efforts are detailed in a blog post by the ride-hailing company, and also include expanding its existing medical transportation services for anyone that needs to get to critical healthcare appointments and treatments, while dealing with the extra strain put on the healthcare system by the coronavirus pandemic. It had already been offering non-emergency medical transportation, for people (especially those with lower income) who don’t need an ambulance but otherwise benefit from on-demand transportation options for care.

Lyft’s new meal delivery option is beginning with just a small pilot in the San Francisco Bay Area, and will focus on picking up meals from centralized distribution centers facilitated by government agencies to provide food for specific home-bound seniors and low-income students who rely on state-sponsored meal options. This isn’t a meal delivery service like Uber Eats, but rather a triaged means of providing an essential service, and Lyft hopes to eventually scale the program to address more of California, and eventually possibly markets across the U.S.

These measures definitely send like they will increase access to crucial services for the groups and individuals most impacted by the current shelter-in-place, quarantine and isolation measures enacted in light of the coronavirus pandemic. On the driver side, there are naturally concerns that come into play since they’ll be at increased risk due to greater exposure vs. people who are sheltering at home, but Lyft says that it’s taking advanced precautions to help ensure the safety of its driver community, including offering funds to any drivers diagnosed with COVID-19, or put into formal quarantine as a result of their exposure by a public health agency.

Lyft and Uber are continuing to offer their regular ride-hailing services as well, though Uber has said that ride volume is down as much as 70 percent in the cities most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Both companies have also suspended their shared ride options as a way to ensure that their services adhere to CDC guidelines regarding social distancing as much as possible.

A new type of COVID-19 test now approved for use could help with frontline diagnostics

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 06:45 AM PDT

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving much more quickly to grant special ’emergency use authorization’ to equipment and tests that could help increase testing for the novel coronavirus in the U.S., which lags behind most countries in the world when it comes to tests conducted relative to the size of its population. One type of test just approved for use could help expand the availability of frontline testing in hospitals and at clinics where patients are receiving care – without requiring round-tripping to a dedicated diagnostics lab.

Cepheid’s COVID-19 test, which the agency approved this week, also has the advantage of being able to be run either with or without use of a nasal swab, which is key because supplies of nasal swabs are taxed globally in light of the need for testing. It’s also a molecular, PCR-based test, with high rates of accuracy just like the lab-based testing that’s already in place across facilities in the U.S., but it uses the company’s GeneXpert machine (basically a diagnostics kit the size of an inkjet printer cartdrige lab in a box roughly the size of an inkjet printer) to produce results on-site.

Cepheid says that around 23,000 of its GeneXpert micro-labs are already in use around the world, with around 5,000 of those located in the U.S. The company’s hardware has been running tests for the flu for years already, with high reliability rates. The new COVID-19 tests for the system will begin to be shipped out by the Sunnyvale-based molecular diagnostics company starting next week.

Testing in the U.S. has increased over the past week, thanks in large part to widespread efforts to expand availability especially in hard-hit regions like New York State. But the need for more tests is still pressing, as the limits of availability mean that essentially only the most severe cases, often requiring confirmed contact tracing or proof of elevated risk, are being tested. Solutions like Cepheid’s, as well as other potential alternative test methods than can be done entirely at home, like Scanwell’s forthcoming test that looks for antibodies in a person’s blood, are much-needed if we hope to truly expand testing to a degree that it can properly inform any coronavirus mitigation strategy.

Into and after the viral storm

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 06:00 AM PDT

The path forward now seems pretty clear. First we get through the grim month-and-more ahead, supporting health care workers in any way we can. (Tip: findthemasks.com lists where to donate PPE, personal protective equipment, in the U.S. If you have any, do so. We are very literally all in this together, and they need it a lot more than you do.) Then we ramp up massive, pervasive, frequent COVID-19 testing infrastructure everywhere. Then we take stock.

Things will get worse before they get better. Hospitals in some places are already creaking at the seams. The patients entering the ICUs today were infected 3-4 weeks ago. Those infected the day of your local lockdown will reach ICUs 3-4 weeks from that day … and their number doubled every several days between the former batch of infections and the latter. The math is bleak. Many places haven’t locked down yet. They will, hopefully sooner rather than later.

What can we do in tech? Well, here’s an NYC doctor saying “We need our technology friends to be making and testing prototypes to rig the ventilators that we do have to support more than one patient at a time.” Here are the UK government’s specifications for Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems. And here’s a suggestion that people ramp down their Dunning-Kruger armchair epidemiology a little–or a lot. Also:

It’s beyond appalling that the US government is only now realizing that they would more need personal protective equipment, but here we are, beyond appalled. Anything we can do to provide more PPE will be hugely beneficial as well.

Then we need to test, test, test. It is also beyond appalling that America has only recently started testing at scale, and that testing is still hugely restricted, but again, here we are, beyond appalled. We need nationwide, or better yet planetwide, ubiquitous testing.

Ideally we’d want everyone to get tested regularly, maybe weekly, symptomatic or not. Realistically, right now we need to massively expand and expand and expand our testing, and trace the contacts of those who test positive, so we know where the virus is and how many people have it. At the moment we’re all but blind.

Once we know, on a quasi-real-time basis, the numbers of the infected in a given area, we’ll be able to talk about lifting the lockdown. Maybe only for temporary periods, in certain areas, for people who don’t have a fever, lest the virus come roaring back. But the point of pervasive testing-and-tracing is that we’ll know whether that risk exists, and be able to respond appropriately.

Currently we’re making overall progress with testing, but at the same time, in places we’re dialing it back, and we’re limited by test kits, by swabs, by testers, and more. We need much, much more testing capacity to come online in the following months. Once we get there, once the blinding lights of pervasive testing have lit up the virus for us and we can watch it in near real time, then life can slowly begin returning back to normal. Ish.

Maybe then we can start thinking about how, in many places, and in many ways, the pandemic has forced us to start doing the right thing as a temporary emergency measure – everything from housing the homeless, to realizing that it’s grocery workers / janitors / drivers / nurses who are actually essential to our civilization and should be celebrated and rewarded accordingly, to admitting that the liquids limit on airplanes is meaningless, and almost everyone can do their office jobs from home.

Let’s bear that in the back of our minds: but right now, we have a very hard month–and likely months–ahead. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it is already later and worse than you think. Whatever we all can do to help, we should.

Volunteer group develops a COVID-19 testing location database for the U.S.

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 05:53 AM PDT

The effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic globally relies on testing as a core component of the current strategy, which primarily focuses on isolating individuals to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and give researchers time to develop potential treatments and vaccines. The availability and amount of testing can help chart how the virus is moving through a population, to inform and direct necessary quarantine and contact tracing measures, but one key data point might be the spread and availability of testing sites.

A new group of volunteer coders and medical professionals, including Air Force software organization Kessel Run‘s Chief Data Officer Andrew Kemendo, and data-driven doctor and researcher Jorge A. Caballero, have created a new findcovidtesting.com website, which aims to provide up-to date location info for all testing sites in the U.S.

Immediately, please note that a resource like this is not meant as a directory for private individuals who are looking to show up at a test site, expecting to receive diagnostics. Health officials and experts are attempting to roll out testing as far and wide they’re able, but for the safety of frontline workers, and in order to allocate limited supply of testing materials as effectively as possible, you should always only consult with a medical professional via telehealth, or use one of the various official online screening tools in order to get a test. Just showing up somewhere won’t get you a test, and could put a lot of other people in danger.

That said, this database, which was built by a team of around 15 developers working remotely one the course of just one week, should be viewed as a potential resource to inform those working on the country’s emergency response and COVID-19 mitigation strategy, or efforts to ensure that testing is available across the country in a way that accurately addresses population needs, and that can provide a full picture of the extent of the actual virus spread.

It also could be very useful for individuals – provided it’s used in tandem with screening and telehealth guidance to make sure that people are getting tested based on case prioritization, and according to all possible safety guidelines for the health of those doing the testing.

Kemendo also says that the plan is to potentially scale this to cover countries outside the U.S., provided the group can find a scalable way to populate the location data. Right now, the site info is being scraped and validated manually, while the team works on some kind of infrastructure that might help automate the process as more test sites come online.

The effort and its resulting data will not be monetized at all, Kemendo says, and while it has no single sponsor, the company is working with credits from both Google Cloud Platform and AWS for running the backend. The team is currently looking for suggestions on how best to scale, and reduce the manual workload involved with maintaining an up-to-date listing, and their GitHub project is available here.

Voi, the European e-scooter rentals startup, ‘pauses’ operations in several countries

Posted: 22 Mar 2020 05:04 AM PDT

Following similar moves by Lime, Bird, Tier and others, Voi Technology, the European e-scooter rentals and so-called micro-mobility startup, says it has “paused” operations in several countries due to the Coronvirus pandemic. This sees the company suspend operations in all but nine key cities.

In a short statement issued to media on Friday, Voi said it had regrettably been “forced” to pause operations in the majority of cities it operates in, with only a handful of its largest cities being serviced.

The cities where Voi is continuing to operate in are: Copenhagen, Helsinki, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Oslo in the Nordics, and Berlin, Hamburg, Nuremberg and Munich in Germany.

More broadly, the Coronavirus outbreak is a major blow to e-scooter companies as cities around the world are restricting movement and social distancing and isolation is, to varying degrees, being practiced. This is seeing many companies putting in place work-from-home policies and negating the need for daily commutes, where e-scooters are often favoured. The world economy is also taking a hit and therefore recreational spending and travel is on an escalating downwards trend too.

More broadly, the business plans of e-scooter rental startups factor in seasonal demand and sources told me a few months ago that runway across the industry was based on deep enough pockets and operational smarts to get through Winter and be in a strong position to capitalise on peak Spring and Summer season demand. Coronavirus inevitably means “Winter” could now last for a very long time indeed.

The rest of the statement from Voi — which raised $85 million in Series B funding in November — follows below:

In the cities we keep open we will drastically reduce our fleet size but will continue to serve our communities and wherever possible we will keep capacity at important hubs, like major transport interchanges and hospitals.

We have been forced to make this hard decision as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. People are working from home and no longer visiting restaurants, pubs, theatres and friends and consequently have stopped using Voi e-scooters to get around.

We plan to kick start our operations again when the situation allows.

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