Google Assistant Can Now Give Users Local COVID-19 News
Google Assistant will now provide local COVID-19 news in 21 metropolitan markets in the U.S. and may present a video on a smart display or read you text-based stories using a synthetic voice or text-to-speech (TTS) technology. Use on a smart speaker only offers the latter option. In Voicebot testing today, a request for coronavirus information in Boston through a smart display returned three text-based stories. The first was read using TTS and after it was finished indicated other stories were shared in the app and offered to read the second story. There were three articles in all.
A similar request on a smart display or coronavirus news in New Orleans returned a single YouTube video from a Today Show report. No additional information appeared to be available. The request about Richmond, Virginia offered a single story read back using TTS.
Daniel Rocha, director of engineering for Google’s News product outlined the intent for the service in a blog post today.
“Finding consolidated and trustworthy COVID-19 guidance can be challenging. To help each community be prepared for what’s next, the Google News app is piloting a new feature in partnership with local news publishers. We will test this in a few geographic areas in the COVID-19 special section of the app, where users can view community reopening timelines, plus updates around business and school openings. They can also see the status of the local healthcare infrastructure, public transportation, events and sections with resources for residents looking for or wanting to help families in need.”
Rocha indicated that Google is piloting this program with several local news sources including, “The Raleigh News & Observer, NOLA.com, CBS Chicago, Oregon Live and Gothamist.” He also said Google has plans to expand this feature to other locations across the U.S. and Canada.
Targeted Rollout but Other Locations Available as Well
TechCrunch is reporting the 21 markets with availability as, “Raleigh, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Columbus, Portland, Cleveland, Myrtle Beach, Albany, Sarasota, Cap Girardeau, Richmond, Memphis, Cincinnati, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.” Attempts to get information today related to Raleigh and Baton Rouge did not return results. It is not clear whether that is because there was no recent news to source or if those markets still are not activated.
With that said, when clicking on the COVID-19 link in Google News, it identified my location and provided local news despite my area not being represented on the list above. That suggests you can expect this to be nationwide soon. A similar request to Google Assistant through Google Home said it didn’t have that information while a similar request about Syracuse, New York provided data from today about Onondaga County, New York where the city is located.
It is also interesting that Google doesn’t appear to have access to radio clips related to local coronavirus news which might be a better fit than TTS for smart speaker users. Rocha’s blog post mentions local radio stations as good sources coronavirus news and says that users can ask for the stations by name, but it doesn’t actually bring up specific coronavirus radio stories. It just plays some recent story from that station based on Voicebot testing.
The reason for this limitation is likely the primary source information ties back to Google News which doesn’t provide radio news but Google Assistant does offer access to some local radio stations. However, this link with Google News is also likely the reason that requests for information about Syracuse, New York, a city not on the launch list for the service, returned a useful result.
Extending Google Assistant’s News Features
Google introduced a news personalization feature Your News Update in November 2019. However, that program was focused on national and international news sources. Those sources can be useful but when it comes to coronavirus, local news is increasingly more important than what is happening nationally. I expect that coronavirus local news could eventually make it into Your News Update so it becomes part of a user’s news diet if that is among their interests. A way to express those interests is to ask Google Assistant about coronavirus news in your area.
Regardless, this is an example about how voice assistants are continually looking to provide more value to users. Information is a common use case for voice assistants and Google has access to more news than any other source at this point. It is an advantage that will be difficult for Amazon and Apple to match. Even after coronavirus fades in importance, there will be more of these information needs where Google will be uniquely positioned to assist users. This is one reason why every big voice assistant provider is interested in building their own knowledge graph.