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U.S. states are turning to a private Irish company to help stop the spread of COVID

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Before the coronavirus pandemic, NearForm, an enterprise software company headquartered in the tiny southeastern Irish seaside town of Tramore, helped some of the most recognizable brands in the world—from Uber to Condé Nast—make quick digital transformations.

When COVID-19 hit and the Irish government needed a technology company with a reputation for being quick and nimble to build a contact tracing app in March, NearForm jumped at the chance to help.

The company’s software engineers, who were all used to working remotely even before the pandemic, created COVID Tracker, a decentralized app that keeps users anonymous but alerts them if they’ve crossed paths with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus in the past two weeks. With a 35% adoption rate, it has been such a success story in Ireland that versions are now being used in four U.S. states, with many more expressing interest. 

“From getting back to life as we would like it to be, we have to get the transmission rates down so we can control and ultimately quash the virus. That’s our primary aim,” Larry Breen, NearForm’s chief commercial officer told Fortune. “The sooner we reduce those numbers, we get to open up our economies, our businesses, shops, and sports.”

In the past month, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York launched COVID Alert apps built in partnership with NearForm. The entire process, from building to deploying the app for each new government client, takes less than 30 days, according to the company. 

It’s also relatively cost effective, which has caught the attention of other state governments, according to Breen. New York’s app cost $700,000 to build and deploy. By comparison, the German government spent $22.5 million to fund the development of its own contact tracing app, the Associated Press reported.

How contact tracing apps work

Contact tracing apps use the Bluetooth signal from a person’s smartphone to send anonymized keys to other people who also have exposure notification apps. 

“If another app user spends 10 minutes within six feet of you, your phones swap random codes to remember the contact. These codes don’t say anything about you or your location,” NearForm explained during the setup process for the COVID Alert NY app. 

Those keys, which are randomly generated numbers, are stored in a national server by the Association of Public Health Laboratories. If someone using the New York app reports he tested positive for coronavirus, anyone running the app who was near him recently will receive an alert with guidance to quarantine and get tested. NearForm said each anonymous key deletes itself after 14 days as an added layer of privacy protection.

Each state has had a patchwork of regulations, from reopening timelines to mask mandates, but the technology the app is built on seeks to make contact tracing apps interoperable across state lines.

In April, Google and Apple formed a rare partnership to create an open source API for exposure notifications, allowing companies such as NearForm to build apps using the API that don’t track a person’s movements, but are effective when it comes to breaking the chains of transmission.

Since NearForm’s app runs on the Gapple API, that means it can work with any other app built using the same code, even if a competing company makes it. 

“The actual open source code sits underneath [the app] and the reports and findings and makes it publicly available,” Breen said. “Anybody with concerns is free to look.”

While NearForm initially focused on creating a centralized app, Breen said it pivoted to a decentralized approach using the tech giants’ API so the company could ensure its app would have the most profound impact on public health.

Can NearForm’s success abroad be replicated in the U.S.?

Getting people to wear a mask is still hard enough in some states, but encouraging them to download and use an app that tracks their movements, even if it’s anonymously, is an entirely new obstacle.

“Citizen adoption is one of the biggest barriers. There’s this trepidation of, ‘Am I giving away data?’” Breen said. “The more we can get consistent messaging out there about how this can affect change and save lives and start moving the country or the state back to some level of normality and take away the confusion, we can get people to more actively engage.”

Last week, more than 105,000 people downloaded New Jersey’s app, just days after it launched. In New York, there were at least 500,000 downloads days after the state’s app was available to the public. Pennsylvania reported 300,000 downloads since its app launched on Sept. 24.

“By utilizing this technology, we can quickly notify more people who have been exposed to COVID-19. This innovative solution enhances our COVID-19 response and gives residents another tool to stay calm, stay alert, and stay safe all in the palm of their hands,” Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine told Fortune. “This is a simple, secure way that each and every one of us can unite together to help protect our communities from COVID-19.”

While it’s solid progress, the downloads represent just a small percentage of each state’s population. By comparison, NearForm’s app was downloaded by 25% of the Irish population 36 hours after its launch in July and now has more than 35% adoption across the country’s population of 4.9 million people.

“We have people now who are doubting the advice they hear from public health agencies. Will people trust a contact tracing app?” said Alok Patel, a hospital physician in San Francisco and a medical journalist. “These apps have to be very clear, not just about privacy and data, but by also sharing quality information about why the app is important and how contact tracing can help break the chains of transmission.”

Even if the contact tracing apps are only as good as the portion of a population using them, a study published last month in MedRxiv found they can make a difference. If just 15% of the population of Washington State downloaded contact tracing apps and actively reported their symptoms, digital alerts could reduce COVID infections by 8% and deaths by 6%, according to the study, which was written by tech researchers and a team of academics.

Breen said NearForm has been receiving calls from governments around the world, including more U.S. states, that want to explore the possibility of launching their own contact tracing apps. As of Friday, a review of the app stores found there were just 14 states with contact tracing apps, including pilots from Arizona and California.

“Contact tracing with an app is also one extra part of all the other mitigation strategies we have,” Patel said. “If you have an app, manual contact tracing, masks, physical distancing, testing strategies, all those together will help prevent future outbreaks and ultimately help us reopen our economy, get back to the office and some sense of normalcy.”

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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The Sponsorships That Win You Diehard Customers Now

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Sponsorships and partnerships are evolving to inspire brand loyalty and advocacy.

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The Dow has fallen 7% in the past 9 days. Is that a bad sign for Trump?

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On the face of it, markets tumbling less than a week before the election doesn’t look like a good thing.

The Dow has fallen over 7% in the past nine trading days, with Nov. 3 just around the corner (the S&P 500 has followed suit, dropping roughly 6%). While spiking coronavirus cases and a lack of a stimulus deal are certainly driving some investor angst, does a pre-Election Day sell-off bode ill for Trump’s re-election?

“All else equal, a weaker stock market could certainly help Biden,” LPL’s Jeff Buchbinder tells Fortune. “On the margin [it’s] a little bit worse for President Trump based on history.”

Though pre-election drops of this magnitude aren’t unheard of, they are rare. The S&P 500 and Dow both fell over 3% on Wednesday, and according to LPL’s Ryan Detrick, “Only twice did the S&P 500 fall 3% or more within 6 trading sessions of the presidential election. 1932 and 2008. The incumbent party lost both times,” he wrote in a tweet Wednesday.

Detrick adds, “before [the] 2016 [election], the Dow fell 9 days in a row and the incumbent party obviously lost, so that time played out poorly for the party in power,” he told Fortune via email.

What perhaps has stronger historical precedent is a slightly longer time horizon: Buchbinder notes that in 20 out of the past 23 elections, it boded well for the incumbent when the S&P 500 was up three months before the election, while stocks trading down tended to favor the challenger. Stocks have traded roughly flat since three months ago, but turned lower on Wednesday: The Dow is down around 0.5% since August 3, while the S&P 500 is trading about 0.7% lower.

“Maybe from that perspective you could call it a mixed bag” for Trump, Buchbinder says, though the now-negative three-month trend would suggest a Biden victory.

Buchbinder points out that “stocks that tend to be favored more by Democrats than Republicans continue to do pretty well on a relative basis, potentially signaling Biden.”

Indeed, according to a recent J.P. Morgan report, stocks in a so-called “Biden basket” (names that would do well under his administration) are outperforming those in a “Trump basket” by around 66% since December 2019. “Recently markets have been saying, ‘Biden’s the favorite,’ but we’ll see where it goes from here,” LPL’s Buchbinder adds.  

Still, some argue that the contest between the two candidates is closer than pollsters and perhaps even markets had anticipated in recent weeks: According to some A.I. analysis, the race is tight, and Buchbinder notes “we could get more volatility if the polls tighten and more people start to worry about a contested outcome—that’s something to watch.”

To be sure, there’s hardly anything typical about this year, and some historical patterns have been broken (as a small example, Oct. 28 is historically the best day of the year for stocks—a trend that certainly hasn’t held up in 2020).

Despite the recent selloff, continued virus worries, and overall investor angst, Buchbinder remains optimistic: “The combination of [future] stimulus, getting the pandemic under control and moving past it, and clarity on the election, we think, can push stocks higher between now and year-end and into 2021.”

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4 key moments from the Senate’s showdown with Big Tech CEOs

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For more than three hours on Wednesday, Democrat and Republican senators took jabs at Facebook, Twitter, and Google, saying that they disseminate misinformation, spark violence, and suppress conservative voices.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation explored whether Section 230, a law that protects Internet companies from being held liable for what users post, gives Big Tech companies too much immunity. Lawmakers from both parties agree that the law should be changed or even revoked, though they differ about why.

Democrats repeatedly criticized the companies for failing to remove harmful information on their services. Meanwhile, Republicans hammered the companies for allegedly suppressing conservative views and influencing elections.

“You think that people don’t trust you,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. “I agree with that. We don’t trust you.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey spent the hearing trying to defend themselves from the attacks. Time and again, they said they’re at war against harmful content, that they are politically neutral, and that they’re working to safeguard the presidential election.

Here are the highlights from the hearing:

Heated exchanges

The hearing was marked by intense exchanges between lawmakers expressing their frustration and executives trying to be as inoffensive as possible.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, took Dorsey to task for allowing Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweets questioning the Holocaust to remain untouched on Twitter while the service routinely flags President Trump’s tweets. 

Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticized Twitter for blocking a New York Post article that suggested Biden had ties to corruption in the Ukraine while allowing a New York Times story about Trump’s taxes to remain. One day after the Post article about Biden was published, Twitter reversed its stance on blocking it. But Cruz also asked Dorsey point-blank whether Twitter has the ability to influence elections.

Dorsey responded by saying, “No, we are one part of a spectrum of communication channels people have.” Cruz snapped back, “Mr. Dorsey, I find your opening answers absurd on their face.”

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota, said she was concerned about Google’s “defiant” response to the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against it. She also questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook’s alleged interest in pushing divisive content to users because it provokes them to spend more time on the platform. 

Zuckerberg disagreed with Klobuchar’s characterization, saying Facebook shows users content that it thinks will be meaningful to them like “when your cousin had her baby.” Klobuchar stopped Zuckerberg mid-sentence, saying she’s not talking about cousins and babies but rather the “corrosive” content like conspiracy theories. 

Beyond Section 230

Though the hearing was supposed to focus on Section 230, senators often veered off topic to discuss other issues including data privacy, antitrust, and political ads.

The CEOs of Twitter, Google, and Facebook all said they continue to see foreign and domestic actors trying to interfere with the U.S. election, contrary to President Trump’s minimizing or dismissing the problem. The CEOs added that they have coordinated with the rest of the tech industry and law enforcement to identify and remove such posts. 

“One of the threats the FBI has alerted our companies and the public to was the possibility of a hack-and-leak operation in the days or weeks leading up to this election,” Zuckerberg said. “That if a trove of documents appeared, that we should view that with suspicion that it might be part of a foreign manipulation attempt.” 

Tech troubles

The virtual hearing about the tech industry ended up being marred by tech hiccups. Even the tech CEO had troubles.

Zuckerberg went AWOL from the opening statements because of a technical snafu that ended up delaying the hearing for a few minutes while the CEO tried to fix the problem. After Zuckerberg appeared, and explained he had trouble connecting, Sen. Roger Wicker, the Republican chairman of the committee, joked, “I know the feeling, Mr. Zuckerberg.”

Later, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s audio was muted halfway through a sentence. Wicker alerted Blumenthal to the issue, and the hearing briefly paused until he was unmuted.

Low moments

Some lawmakers used the hearing to go off in odd tangents.

For example, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee asked Pichai if Google still employed software engineer Blake Lemoine. In leaked internal emails, the Google employee likened Blackburn to a “terrorist” and a “violent thug” in her approach to certain political issues. “He has had very unkind things to say about me,” said Blackburn, implying that he should be fired and later suggesting that Internet companies unfairly censor conservative voices.

In another odd moment, Sen. Johnson became frustrated with Dorsey because Twitter did not remove a tweet that contained a lie about Johnson strangling his neighbor’s dog. The author admitted in the tweet that the dog strangling was false, likely to show how misinformation can be spread.

“That could definitely impact my ability to get reelected,” he complained in complete seriousness about the tweet.

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