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Tech pitches in to help address the coronavirus crisis

March 12, 2020, 12:51 PM UTC

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There’s a long tradition in times of crisis for American businesses to chip in, whether it be converting their factories to wartime production or lending their executives to the national effort. 

The White House convened a call of the tech behemoths on Wednesday to ask for their help. Some of it plays to their strengths. It wants the big companies, for example, to use their artificial intelligence expertise to analyze databases of medical reports on the coronavirus crisis. Companies like Google and Facebook have been preparing for this moment, so fingers are crossed. 

In other instances, the government simply wants the big tech companies to accelerate efforts to stop the spread of misinformation. That’s a sad commentary on what these tech companies have wrought. At a time when trust is everything, the crisis over the untrustworthiness of the “social media” platforms is sickening. If they were regulated like the media companies they are, no one would have to ask them, again, to clean up their acts. 

On the other hand, the tech industry’s unprecedented ability to connect people during an unprecedented health scare is commendable. So much of face-to-face business will be irreparably interrupted by this disease, from basketball games to meals at restaurants. But the power of the Internet will make it possible for workers to work and for loved ones to visit. 

It’s only Thursday. 

Adam Lashinsky

@adamlashinsky

adam.lashinsky@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.

NEWSWORTHY

Don't poke the bear. The continued spread of the COVID-19 outbreak has led to the quickest call of a bear market in stocks in history. Major indices have lost more than 20% since hitting record highs just last month. Tech stocks have also been crushed. For example, Apple closed at $327.20 on Feb. 12. It closed at $275.43, a 16% drop, on Wednesday. And after President Trump's less-than-inspiring speech, Apple is down another 6%, along with the rest of the market, in early trading on Thursday. Thought maybe cryptocurrencies would be a safe haven? Bitcoin is off 40% over the past month.

Nobody goes to the mall anymore. In other outbreak related news, Apple decided to close all of its stores in Italy for the time being. And Google ordered all of its workers in Europe and North America to leave their offices, along with many other tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook.

Nothing up my sleeve. I was oh-so-impressed with their technology, but struggling virtual and augmented reality startup Magic Leap may not make it on its own. Despite having raised $2 billion already, the company is exploring options for further financing up to and including a sale, Bloomberg reports.

Pounding the keys. I have been less impressed with Apple's revised "scissor switch" keyboard on last year's 16-inch MacBook Pro, though it's still a big improvement over the terrible "butterfly switch" models of prior years. I went ahead and bought a ThinkPad instead. But if you are more of an Apple fan, good news: the better keyboard is coming to the smaller MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops in the second quarter, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says.

Undo by undo. Two fixes from Tuesday's newsletter. Amazon's "Just Walk Out" system of cashierless checkout for other retailers requires shoppers to scan a credit card to enter (not an app). And Tracey Travis, who is joining Facebook's board, is the current CFO of Estee Lauder.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Employees at most large tech companies have been in the headlines over the past year for protesting various policies and decisions of their employers. For example, Amazon workers walked out to protest the company's failure to address climate change and the company has since pledged $10 billion to address the crisis. Bloomberg columnist Kate MacKenzie uses the case of the Amazon employees in an essay to make the point that more employees should take up such causes.

Many people—myself included—thought the fossil fuel divestment campaigns that kicked off in 2012 and 2013 were naive and would never actually move the needle in terms of reducing capital costs. Just a few years later, however, it’s clear that thermal coal companies are struggling to get financing. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the economics of alternative sources of energy, rather than any campaigns or moral imperative, but there’s more to it than that. Many investment professionals have told me over the years that divestment campaigns got the attention of more senior executives, which in turn led to a more serious examination of the losses fossil fuel investments might sustain as markets opted for lower-emission alternatives. Once those “transition risks” had been assessed, they were hard to ignore.

That’s why employees should consider following the example of the Amazon group.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

5 tech tips that may keep you safer from coronavirus By Jonathan Vanian

3M has more N95 face-mask orders than it can handle By Alan Murray and David Meyer

75% of companies report coronavirus has disrupted their supply chains By Lance Lambert

Filling in the gender gap on Wikipedia By Kate Jacobson

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

I, for one, would really like to see the new documentary called The Donut King. That was one of many films that was supposed to debut at the now-cancelled South by Southwest festival. Fortune's Aric Jenkins spoke to Donut King director Alice Gu and several other filmmakers about their plans now. With many other festival opportunities also being cancelled, perhaps some sort of online or virtual film fest is in order?

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com