Google has this week provided an update on the measures that it's implementing in order to help users in a range of ways amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
First off, there's Google's new COVID-19 education website, which it's developing in partnership with the Trump administration.
"We’re partnering with the U.S. government in developing a website dedicated to COVID-19 education, prevention, and local resources nationwide. This includes best practices on prevention, links to authoritative information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and helpful tips and tools from Google for individuals, teachers and businesses. We’ll be rolling out an initial version of the website late Monday, March 16, and we’ll continue to enhance and update it with more resources on an ongoing basis."
The project became a topic of political discussion last week after President Trump appeared to contradict Google on what was actually being implemented on this front.
The confusion relates to another element of Google's broader response. Verily, a company also owned by Google's parent-company Alphabet, is working to develop its own COVID-19 testing sites, which it aims to launch, initially, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The testing sites will ideally help to speed up the coronavirus testing process, and limit its spread, while Verily's also developing an online tool to improve self-diagnosis for those showing symptoms that they believe could be indicative of the virus. The tool could help to reduce pressure on already overstretched medical facilities.
Both of these elements are in early testing, and it seems that Google was not ready to make any official announcement on such as yet.
But misunderstandings aside, Google is working to get its new information site up and running, which will provide accurate information on COVID-19 symptoms and testing resources in order to help users get helpful tips on what they should do if they believe they may have the virus.
In addition to this, Google's also seeking to promote critical information to users via Google Search, Maps and on YouTube.
"Right now on the Google homepage we’re promoting the “Do the Five” campaign to raise awareness of simple measures people can take to slow the spread of the disease, according to the WHO. In the first 24 hours, these tips have already been seen by millions in the U.S. We’ve added more useful information to our COVID-19 SOS Alerts, including links to national health authority sites and a map of affected areas from the WHO."
Google's also looking to keep users more informed about closures and changes in light of the COVID-19 shutdowns, with new updates to Google Maps and Search to improve its listings. In the coming days, businesses will also be able to mark themselves as “temporarily closed” using Google My Business.
At the same time, Google has also, unfortunately, had to ramp up its efforts to combat misinformation around the outbreak.
"On YouTube, we’ve taken down thousands of videos related to dangerous or misleading coronavirus information, and we continue to remove videos that promote medically unproven methods to prevent coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment. On Google Maps, our automated and manual review systems continue to take down false and harmful content such as fake reviews and misleading information about healthcare locations."
It would seem that, of all times, now we need everyone in the community working together to limit the spread of incorrect information. But opportunism is ever-present, which gives digital platforms another element they need to manage.
Google's also providing resources to educators to assist them in getting their classes up and running online, via G Suite for Education.
This could prove to be a critical area - one of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 lockdowns thus far is that there's no end in sight, we don't know how long it's going to be before we're able to go back to our regular lives and processes.
Schools will be significantly impacted by this, and tools like Google Classroom could become a more essential link as we look for ways to ensure kids are able to continue their studies, despite not being able to physically attend classes.
Over on YouTube, Google has sent out a warning to creators that, due to staffing changes in light of COVID-19 advice, it will need to rely on automated content reviews and removals, with less human intervention in the process.
"As we do this, users and creators may see increased video removals, including some videos that may not violate policies. We won’t issue strikes on this content except in cases where we have high confidence that it’s violative. If creators think that their content was removed in error, they can appeal the decision and our teams will take a look. However, note that our workforce precautions will also result in delayed appeal reviews. We’ll also be more cautious about what content gets promoted, including livestreams. In some cases, unreviewed content may not be available via search, on the homepage, or in recommendations."
YouTube has been working to improve its systems on this front over the last couple of years, and while this is a step-back, ideally, it will only be temporary.
Due to staffing changes, Google has also warned that some users, advertisers, developers and publishers may experience delays in some support response times for non-critical services, "which will now be supported primarily through our chat, email, and self-service channels".
Google is continuing to work through the situation, and its many implications - while at the same time, it's donating millions of dollars to COVID-19 research and support within various communities and organizations.
Some of these changes will be hugely positive, while there will also be frustration at some aspects. But this is an unprecedented situation in modern times - we'll all need to exercise a level of patience and understanding to get through and make the best we can of it.
You can read more about Google's COVID-19 response efforts here.