Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet — and it has been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member, Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the How We Feel app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social science and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well — and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re in self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info like name, phone number or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of differential privacy, and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to nonprofit Feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, nonprofit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far from a 100% accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

Bird is testing Bird Pay, which lets users purchase items from local businesses using its main app

Another on-demand transport app is making a move into payments to expand the existing relationship with its customers (and subsequent margins that it makes from serving them). Bird today announced the launch of Bird Pay, a service that will let people use its app to purchase items from local participating businesses alongside renting scooters. The service is being tested first in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, the company said.

Bird Pay will work by way of a QR code, which can be read via your app at the point of sale at participating businesses to make cashless purchases. (After scanning the code, you enter the amount you are charging and swipe up to complete the purchase.)

The company said that Bird Pay was created directly in response to requests from businesses themselves — who will be using the app to promote deals near to where Bird users pick up or drop off scooters. The link between local businesses and scooter rides is a strong one: Bird says it found that 58% of all the rides through its app start or end at a local business, and claims that businesses in all of its areas of operation — it’s now live in some 100 cities — say that the presence of Bird scooters outside their establishments have increased footfall.

“An early insight that emerged shortly after introducing Bird in Santa Monica was that it had the potential to not only allow people to avoid the chore of circling a block to find parking resulting in congestion and frustration, but it could also foster a more direct connection between people and local businesses,” said Travis VanderZanden, CEO and founder, Bird, in a statement. “Store owners in the community often tell me, ‘Birds outside bring business inside.’ This phenomenon paired with our commitment to community resulted in Bird Pay which helps drive even more customers to local businesses.”

Adding in payments to on-demand transport apps has become something of a tested and successful formula. In Asia, companies like Grab have built rather extensive payments operations on top of their transportation apps — businesses big enough to be raising hundreds of millions of dollars in their own right to expand. And several months ago, Uber also started to test the waters in this area with the launch of Uber Money.

Of course, services like Grab’s have a slightly bigger greenfield when it comes to winning business: in many of the regions where Grab operates, cash is often still king; therefore, having a relationship with a user, where a mobile app is already being identified with “virtual money” (with money either being preloaded into an app or linked to a payment card), gives the app publisher an easy opening to expanding that relationship, such as payments for local goods and services.

The challenge in the U.S., where Bird is based and operates primarily, is somewhat different: people are already used to plastic cards, and their phones may already have one or more payments apps active already. Both Apple Pay and Google’s Android-based offering have had strong take-up, as have alternatives from Samsung, PayPal and many others. That means a much more crowded playing field for Bird or any other new entrant.

On the other hand, we are creatures of convenience, and if we already have the Bird app open to open or close off a ride, that could just be the lower friction we need to use it to buy something. Time will tell if this particular bird will, indeed, fly.

Bird last October raised some $275 million at a $2.5 billion valuation.