Alphabet’s (Google’s) life sciences division Verily has launched its public pitch for a massive, multi-year health study it’s leading along with Duke University School of Medicine, Stanford Medicine, and Google proper.
Verily is hoping to recruit some 10,000 Americans to volunteer to share their medical records and have blood and other bodily fluids extracted and linked to a Google account in order for the company and its partners to try to “spur the next generation of medical discoveries”, as it couches it. In exchange, participants will get some of their own health data shared back with them (though it cautions not to expect to get “medical care or advice”), plus a small amount of financial compensation for time lost, and a little early intel on what the ad giant might be learning off of their sensitive health data.
The Project Baseline study has been a long time in the works — it was previously slated to launch in 2015 but has evidently taken rather longer to set up; unsurprisingly so, given the scope and size of the longitudinal study. The four-year study will involve volunteers making annual visits to one of the Baseline study sites for a full one to two days of health tests, including giving blood, saliva and other samples; doing specialized tests such as chest X-rays and echocardiogram; and other tests such as assessing physical strength and answering health-related questionnaires.
Some participants will also be asked to visit a study site quarterly for one to two hours to “gather more frequent information about health profiles that we are especially interested in”, says Verily, and some may also be asked in for appointments at other times “following a significant life event, so that we can see if and how your health changes”.
All volunteers will be required to wear an “investigational wristwatch” daily — aka the Verily study watch announced earlier this month; and sleep with a sensor underneath their mattress (so you can add sex-tracking to this study’s scope — a woman on the Project Baseline question phone line said she’d been asked about the movement tracking mattress coil “a lot!”); as well as have a dedicated wi-fi hub device installed in their home to suck up and send the tracking data from the devices back to Verily’s servers.
There’s also three monthly, half-hour-long online surveys to take, with questions about diet, exercise and well-being; and a mobile app that will push additional questions at participants, perhaps as frequently as daily, such as asking them about their sleep quality or alcohol consumption. Presumably the project researchers want the ability to be able to react to specific tracked activity/events with follow up questions that might shed light on linked factors.
Participants will be compensated $410 per annual site visit; $30 per visit for the shorter quarterly assessments; and $10 a time for the three monthly questionnaires. So no one except Verily and its various academic and commercial partners stands to get rich from being involved in this lengthy medical research project.
Lastly, but by no means least, study participants will be required to share access to their medical records with Verily — so anyone signing up for this study really will be standing naked in front of Mountain View.
On the website where the company is pitching for volunteers, Verily’s marketing is heavy on trying to stir up stirring historic parallels for this “mission” to — as it puts it — “better understand health and prevent disease”, laying it on thickly that participants will be ‘doing good’ and ‘helping humanity’ by contributing their health data to the research effort.
To the brink, frankly, of emotional blackmail. A glossy marketing video showing a series of people smiling into the camera intones: “what if you could impact the health of millions of people, just by sharing your personal health story?” — with the unspoken implication being: how dare you be so selfish NOT to share your medical records with Google.
The website is rather thinner on detail about what will actually be done with all the sensitive personally identifiable health data that will be obtained from study participants. And there’s also very little about the underlying commercial motives driving the effort to gather health data in “incredible depth and detail”, as Verily’s marketing paints it.
For example an FAQ on the website ostensibly answering what the data will actually be used for is decidedly non-specific — saying only:
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