Sundar Pichai (Wikimedia Commons/Maurizio Pesce)

Google’s COVID-19 Tech Playbook

Published on September 2, 2020

Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, has been proactive in the COVID-19 crisis, leveraging search and telecom tools to combat its spread.

The coronavirus gives Alphabet an opportunity to remove doubts about its corporate character and reinforce its brand purpose. Google’s effort to enable mobile contact tracing has magnified concerns that have been brewing for years about data privacy and search engine integrity.

As we found in the extensive survey at the heart of The Purpose Report, there is still widespread optimism among consumers that technology is changing life and society for the better (82%), but also general agreement that tech companies, especially social media companies, need to work together to ensure data privacy (84%) and to protect the integrity of public discourse by controlling fake news, fake accounts and factual inaccuracies (81%) through their platforms.

Google has continued to build partnerships and develop technology solutions in its efforts to combat the spread and impact of COVID-19. Over the past few months, the online search giant launched a number of new initiatives, campaigns and technologies to this end:

  • COVID Symptons Database. On Sep. 2, Google announced it would allow researchers to analyze county-level data on symptom searches nationwide to help them better track the spread and virology of COVID-19.
  • Exposure Notification Express. Announced on Aug. 31, this built-in smartphone app is designed to help governments notify individuals if they have been exposed to the virus. Developed in partnership with Apple.
  • AI and ML Partnership. On Aug. 24, Google and Johns Hopkins University released a presentation on their year-long collaboration to develop better artificial intelligence and machine learning for the healthcare industry. The partnership was inked in September last year with the aim of developing AI and ML tools and protocols for healthcare and medicine, but this has pivoted to the more urgent needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Mask-Wearing Google Doodle. On Aug. 5, Google released its latest homepage “Google Doodle” featuring each letter of the company’s logo doing its part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and obey CDC guidelines. Google Doodles are often used to highlight historic or topical events, achievements and people. Leveraging this popular tool to promote responsible behavior is a natural extension of Google’s purpose brand.
  • COVID-19 Public Forecasts. On Aug. 3, Google released a set of COVID-19 prediction models to the public. Developed in partnership with the Harvard Global Health Institute, the models “provide projections of COVID-19 cases, deaths, ICU utilization, ventilator availability, and other metrics over the next 14 days for U.S. counties and states.”

Leading With Purpose

Alphabet was one of the fastest corporations to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. On March 10, it sent home more than 100,000 North American workers. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, expressed concerns for all employees in a companywide internal email sent in early March, as well as a call to action on Google’s business purpose to make information accessible and useful: “It’s important that we contribute to fulfill our mission and be helpful to people in these uncertain times. Because of the work we do every day, Google has an important role to play right now.”

Pichai has also been at the forefront of Alphabet’s public response to COVID-19. During Alphabet’s first quarter earnings call on April 28, Pichai’s comments melded an emotional message with a data-focused response to the crisis, as well as looking to the future: “Ultimately, we’ll see a long-term acceleration of movement from businesses to digital services, including increased online work, education, medicine, shopping and entertainment. These changes will be significant and lasting.” Pichai also detailed Alphabet’s three core contributions to the fight against COVID-19:

  • “First, we’ve been working with healthcare providers, researchers, authorities and communities to help combat the virus.”
  • “Second, we are working hard to provide accurate and authoritative information to people using our services.”
  • “Third, we are playing a role in supporting businesses and workers that are hurting because of the downturn.”

In a departure from most industry leaders, Pichai has also addressed how Big Tech as a whole should respond to COVID-19. He helped orchestrate a rare partnership with Apple on technology sharing and, in an interview with Time magazine, trumpeted the need for tech companies to collaborate: “When I talk to other leaders, there is a clear sense that this is something larger than all of us.”

Operating With Purpose

Google is the core of Alphabet’s business and Google is, first and foremost a search engine. Providing useful, accurate information is its bedrock corporate purpose, and it has moved to modify its search functionality to support the fight against COVID-19:

  • Established a COVID-19 SOS Alert page with regularly updated links to information on COVID-19 and to national and local public health organizations websites and pages.
  • Google Homepage has incorporated a permalink to the World Health Organization’s “Do the Five” campaign, which details things people can do both to avoid COVID-19 infection, and prevent its spread.
  • Google Flights provides a regularly updated list of airlines with flexible cancellation policies.
  • Google Search, Google Maps and Google My Business allow businesses and schools to display modified hours.
  • YouTube homepage now features links to, and prompts for, videos and content produced by public health organizations, especially the CDC.

Google has also partnered with fellow tech giant Apple to facilitate greater platform interoperability to support easier communication and search in this time of crisis:

  • A contact tracing interface for apps from public health authorities.
  • Bluetooth-based contact tracing for Android and iOS systems.

Supporting Communities

Alphabet and its subsidiaries have undertaken initiatives to support communities and pledged significant financial resources to people and communities impacted by COVID-19:

Alphabet and its subsidiaries have also undertaken a number of initiatives to facilitate the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and support testing efforts:

  • Working to produce 2-3 million face masks for distribution to the CDC.
  • Bringing engineering, supply chain and healthcare expertise to facilitate increased production of ventilators, working with equipment manufacturers, distributors and the government in this effort.
  • Virus testing and screening programs from Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences subsidiary; more than 1,000 Google employees have volunteered to help with these programs.

Through Google and YouTube, Alphabet has addressed disruption to the educational system, providing several free distance learning resources:

  • A COVID-19 webpage featuring articles on how to manage effective remote learning, as well as tutorials for various Google features, tools and apps that can be applied to a distance learning educational setting.
  • A YouTube learning hub with advice for home learning, as well as a small but growing library of videos on a range of subject areas, including math, physics and history.

Protecting Employees

Google was quick to adopt protocols to protect workers in the office and facilitate work from home to maintain social distance and effective quarantine:

  • Incident response: Setting up a 24-hour team in sync with the World Health Organization.
  • Remote work: Recommending everyone who can work from home should do so; increasing the ability for employees, temporary staff and vendors to work from home by rolling out remote access and equipment.
  • Critical workflows: Prioritizing account recovery, security and certain advertising-related reviews.
  • Increased automation: Temporarily increasing reliance on automated systems to reduce the need for people to come into the office.
  • Facilitating social distancing: Changing staffing and timing of shifts.

Pichai recently started discussing plans for bringing people back to work. In an April 27 email to employees  Pichai discussed Alphabet’s approach to returning to the office: “Not everyone at a site will go back at once … guidance will vary from location to location.”

Serving Customers

Alphabet has  informational tools to help users better educate and inform themselves about COVID-19 and what they can do to keep themselves, their loved ones, and their communities safe:

  • Informational web pages are dedicated to COVID-19 education, prevention and local resources nationwide (best practices on prevention, links to authoritative information and helpful tips and tools for individuals, teachers and businesses).
  • An SOS Alert in search connects people with the latest news plus safety tips and links to information from the World Health Organization.
  • YouTube’s homepage directs users to the WHO and locally public health organizations.

Alphabet as a whole and Google in particular have worked to protect users from false and misleading information, a vital function for a company whose business purpose is to provide accurate information to everyone, and which has explicitly adopted “Don’t be evil” and “Do the right thing” as purpose-driven mottos.

  • Content policies strictly prohibit apps that feature misleading or harmful medical or health-related content or functionalities.
  • COVID-19 related Google ads, for real or fake products, have been banned since January, and all ads for respirators, masks and other personal protective equipment since March.
  • Google Maps has removed potentially false or misleading content, including false reviews of hospitals or pharmacies and inaccurate location information.
  • YouTube has removed thousands of videos containing “dangerous or misleading coronavirus information.”
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