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The Technology 202: State and local governments are asking technologists to aid coronavirus response

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With Tonya Riley

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The coronavirus crisis is already overwhelming city and state governments’ digital services. They’re looking for volunteers from the tech industry for help.  

New York yesterday launched a “Technology SWAT team” to support the state’s response. A state official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk candidly, told me New York needs help with digital tools directly related to the virus, such as building infrastructure for testing and scheduling. But officials also need to improve remote access to government services that could see a spike, such as unemployment services.  

The state hit hardest by the virus is seeking tech workers with experience in product management, software development, data science and other similar areas.

New York invited technology companies, universities, nonprofits, research labs, and other organizations with technology expertise to submit an online form if they’re interested in supporting the initiative.

Earlier this week, former Obama administration tech leaders and a former executive from payments company Stripe launched the U.S. Digital Response to match volunteers from the industry with impacted local and state governments. The group has already received requests from governments that need help collecting data from coronavirus testing facilities, building systems to better track data from hospitals about their bed and ventilator capacity, as well as modeling and mapping infection data, according to its website.

The race to galvanize volunteers underscores the significant toll that covid-19 stands to take on state and local governments with limited tech resources. Industry workers eager to lend a hand could have the most impact by working with governors, mayors and local officials as they emerge as key leaders in the country’s response. 

Julie Samuels, the head of Tech:NYC, tells me she is trying to connect workers at the 800 companies her nonprofit represents with the SWAT team. 

“We anticipate these needs will continue to shift and we fully expect to bring our network of companies to bear to meet them,” she said. 

Jennifer Pahlka, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and Code For America founder who helped launch the U.S. Digital Response, said Monday the group already had 40 requests from governments for services, and more than 1,400 volunteers.

But some are skeptical of local governments moving too quickly to borrow talent and tactics from the tech industry which has come under fire for abusing user data without greater transparency around the efforts. Countries including China and South Korea culled user data from smartphones to limit the virus’s spread, but proposals to use location data in the U.S. have already raised privacy concerns.

Albert Fox Cahn, the founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told me there needs to be greater oversight and transparency around these efforts, especially as state officials in New York wield broad powers to respond to the emergency. As of last night, nearly 33,000 covid-19 cases had been confirmed in New York. At least 366 people have died. 

“We haven’t gotten any clear indication from the [New York] governor on what role technology will be playing as part of the disease response,” Cahn said. 

“When we’re giving the governor extraordinary powers, it’s even more important than normal times to understand how those tools are being used,” he added. 

 Samuels said the New York SWAT team was focused on staffing, not on data sharing. 

“That said, people should absolutely be mindful of how the government might be using sensitive data, but that does not mean the government and private sector should not come together during these unprecedented times to do whatever they can to save lives,” she said.

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: The Senate passed a $2 trillion emergency relief bill last night that expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to gig workers and gives laid-off workers an additional $600 a week for four months on top of state payments, my colleagues Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane report.  A record 3.3 million unemployment claims were filed last week, the Labor Department reported this morning.

Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi praised the Senate’s action. Both Uber and rideshare competitor Lyft pushed for the inclusion of gig workers in the bill.

The bill also made Airbnb hosts eligible for small-business loans and unemployment insurance under the package, according to a company news release. 

“We are deeply appreciative of bipartisan Senate and House leadership for recognizing there is a new sector of the workforce who depend on Airbnb for their monthly economic needs,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s vice president of policy and communications, wrote in a statement. Airbnb said hosts sent nearly 100,000 emails to Congress advocating for legislative relief. The company also lobbied lawmakers. 

The bill is expected to be approved by the House on Friday. President Trump intends to sign the bill, my colleagues report. 

NIBBLES: State attorneys general called on Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos to increase paid sick leave for workers at the e-commerce company and its subsidiary Whole Foods. Members of Congress and worker advocacy groups are pressuring Amazon to expand its benefits for warehouse and delivery workers in light of the public-health crisis.

Amazon offers 14 days of paid sick leave to employees diagnosed with covid-19 or quarantined by a medical professional, but Bezos should expand paid sick leave to all warehouse workers, the 15 attorneys general urged in a letter yesterday. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But that policy “seriously undercut efforts to promote ‘social distancing’ in order to ‘flatten the curve’ of infections and to avoid overloading our already strained health care system,” the group led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote. Amazon’s plans to add 100,000 new workers would further increase the risk of “possible transmission of the virus both from worker to worker, and to the general public in homes across our states.”

The disease has spread to at least 10 Amazon warehouses in the United States, my colleague Jay Greene reports. Workers tell Jay tAmazon hasn’t provided them with necessary information about the infections or taken proper safety measures to prevent the disease from spreading. Whole Foods employees in New York have also tested positive, Lauren Kaori Gurley at Vice reports.

The attorneys general also urged Bezos to set aside funds for independent contractors who fulfill deliveries for Amazon and Whole Foods. Amazon launched a $25 million relief fund for delivery partners but it’s unclear how much of that money has been distributed.

BYTES: A surge in Zoom conferencing, Netflix streaming, Facebook calls and video gaming is putting a strain on the Internet in the United States and Europe as people adapt to stay-at-home orders, Cecilia Kang, Davey Alba and Adam Satariano report for the New York Times. 

The average download time for videos, emails and documents increased as broadband speeds declined 4.9 percent from the previous week, according to Ookla, a broadband speed testing service. Median download speeds dropped 38 percent in San Jose, Calif., and 24 percent in New York, according to a consumer broadband research website, Broadband Now.

“This is totally unprecedented,” Thierry Breton, a European Union commissioner who oversees digital policy and was a chief executive of France Télécom, told the Times. “We have to be proactive.”

European regulators like Breton have pressured streaming companies such as Netflix and YouTube to reduce streaming quality so their files don’t take as much bandwidth. U.S. regulators have provided wireless carriers with more spectrum access to bolster the capacity of their networks.

PUBLIC CLOUD

– Russia is using facial recognition and phone location data to monitor people ordered into self-isolation in an effort to limit the coronavirus, my colleague Robyn Dixon reports. It’s an extreme example of how authoritarian governments are using their surveillance apparatus to catch those violating quarantine orders, she reports.  

Moscow alone has more than 178,000 facial-recognition cameras and has caught at least 200 people violating mandatory self-isolation. More than 90,000 individuals are under observation for possible contact, Robyn reports. Russian authorities are also threatening those spreading disinformation about the disease on social media with fines of up to $37,500. 

The technologies could further sow public distrust during an increasingly confusing and chaotic time. “It looks more like a police operation, not a medical one,” Kirill Koroteev of the legal and human rights group Agora told Robyn.“I think people are reluctant to accept that they will be facially controlled each time they need to throw out the garbage or buy some bread and buckwheat. Now Muscovites are realizing the potential for abuse.”

The European Union has also pushed for increased surveillance, taking a less-extreme route by asking telecommunications carriers to share anonymized cellphone data to better track the disease.

— News from the public sector:

PRIVATE CLOUD

Twitter yesterday blocked an article suggesting that the medical community should consider intentionally infecting people with the coronavirus at “chickenpox parties” to help slow the spread of the virus, Michael Levenson reports. The social network also temporarily locked the account of the conservative website that posted it. Tech companies are racing to crack down on public health misinformation as the health crisis intensifies. 

— News from the private sector:

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— Tech news trending around the Web:

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Startups demand liquidity lifeline to stay afloat, Technology News, ETtech

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Illustration: Rahul Awasthi
Illustration: Rahul Awasthi

India’s startups are lobbying the government for a lifeline as they cope with an existential liquidity crisis amid a disruption of their ecosystem due to Covid-19, the national lockdown and a spiraling global market. Half of them may be forced to close if no support is forthcoming, according to one of the letters sent to the finance minister.

Startups sought loans free of interest or linked to income tax and goods and service tax (GST) refunds to meet funding needs in a March 30 letter to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman signed by the Confederation of Indian Industry, Nasscom, Indian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association as well as leading entrepreneurs and venture capital investors. Among the 75 signatories are Kris Gopalakrishnan, Rajan Anandan, TV Mohandas Pai, Arihant Patni and Mukesh Bansal.

The startups want public sector banks and state-controlled Small Industries Development Bank of India (Sidbi), the implementing agency of the ₹10,000 crore Fund-of-Funds, to offer loans up to the full extent of the refunds they’re due.

“These refunds are undisputed… but are yet to get transferred to the startups due to various reasons,” said Siddarth Pai, founding partner of 3one4 Capital and a signatory to the March 30 joint letter.

“While these are assets on the balance sheet of the startups, what’s needed now is the translation of this to cash,” said the letter.

This will provide startups with liquidity for the near-to-short-term without stressing government resources, the note said.

“Covid crisis threatens to destroy all of the progress and future potential of our startup ecosystem in a few short months,” the letter stated. “We seek your urgent intervention to help ensure India’s startup ecosystem survives… We need the startup ecosystem to survive in order to help the economy bounce back.”

Another communication from LocalCircles, an online community platform that represents 29,000 startups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), to the finance minster said “startups want that some or all of CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds be permitted into startups as grants”.

Companies should be allowed to invest in startups and avail CSR benefits and claim it’s CSR, the letter said. “The startup and SME community is hopeful that the government will consider these asks with the highest importance,” said the March 31 LocalCircles note. “It is critical for startups and SMEs to survive… and if nothing is done, at least 50% of them will soon be shut.” ET has seen both the letters.

Venture capital firms have issued warnings to portfolio companies and the broader ecosystem to conserve cash and tighten spending, given the worsening macroeconomic climate and meltdown of global indices. Ecommerce and food delivery unicorn startups have been struggling because of the lockdown. Some of the top startups in the country are reported to have started cutting staff costs.

“The government’s focus rightfully seems to be on health and like in the past it will come to the rescue of the startup ecosystem soon,” said Sanjay Mehta, founder, 100X. “Also, the corporate venture capitalist as an asset class has gone away due to the current situation, and any access to fresh capital in small businesses will be the only way growth will come.”

Multiple ongoing deals talks have been shelved or put on hold citing force majeure, threatening companies that don’t have adequate funding to last out the crisis, ET has reported.



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Larsen Motorsports In the News For Virtual Field Trips Initiative

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Larsen Motorsports co-owner and world champion jet dragster driver Elaine Larsen speaks to Spectrum News 13 about the virtual field trip program the organization has launched for homebound students to vividly illustrate how STEM disciplines guide many aspects of their operation.

Larsen Motorsports is helping to ensure homebound students keep their minds fired up, just like the flame-blasting jet dragsters the Florida Tech partner is known for.

Working from their equipment- and display-filled facility at Florida Tech’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design in Palm Bay, Larsen Motorsports owners Chris and Elaine Larsen and their team, including several Florida Tech students and alumni, have begun producing videos and worksheets highlighting the STEM-based work involved in operating a business based around jet-powered vehicles.

“There is a lot of science all around you and we are able to take the science that’s in our race shop and apply it what these students are learning in the classroom,” Elaine Larsen said. “We are able to engage the students in a new way. They need to be engaged, they need to be challenged.”

These virtual field trips kicked off with Chris Larsen’s extensive tour of the Larsen Motorsports facility. The new one features NASA astronaut and Florida Tech executive Winston Scott speaking about his experience on multiple space shuttle missions, on space walks and how he built and achieved his remarkable career.

“It is important for us to utilize this time in the best way and be able to go out and reach these kids in Brevard County and across America and give them something that is relevant,” Elaine Larsen told Spectrum New 13’s Greg Pallone. “One of them could be the next Winston Scott.”

The story is available here through May 5.

Future editions of the virtual field trips will center on other STEM topics such as computer numeric controlled machining, engines and high-tech fabrication.

For more on this program, visit www.blazingtrails.info.

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Girl Scout Cookies Are Now Available Online…And Other Small Business Tech News

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Here are five things in technology that happened this past week and how they affect your business. Did you miss them?

1 — Girl Scout cookies are now available online so you can drown your quarantine sorrows in thin mints.  

All varieties of Girl Scout cookies are now available for purchase online, allowing cookie lovers in quarantine to have their favorite boxes delivered right to their door. In the past, cookies were able to be purchased online—however—the only way to receive a link was through a face-to-face interaction with a Girl Scout. Now, all you need to do is visit the official Girl Scout website and put in your zip code in order to see what options you have local to you. The price of each box is $5 and—once you order through their site—boxes will be delivered right to your doorstep. (Source: News Week)

Why this is important for your business:

The Coronavirus is changing a lot of distribution and other business models – including the Girl Scouts. What about your business?

2 — Microsoft 365 is bundling Office 365 with AI and cloud-powered features.

Microsoft announced this past week that Office 365 will be making some changes toward end of the month to Microsoft 365. The newest version of the suite will include Office 365 features while adding on robust templates and content, cloud-powered elements, and newer AI. Office 365 will now be known as Microsoft 365 Personal, while Office 365 Home will go by Microsoft 365 Family. (Source: Venture Beat)

Why this is important for your business:

The subscription costs won’t change—however, —with Microsoft 365 Personal costing $7 a month and Microsoft 365 Family $10 a month. The plans laid out for Microsoft 365 will contain all of the newest features detailed this week as well as the older favorites such as 60 Skype minutes, technical support, security features, and 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage for each user. This may be all that you need for your home workers to use if you don’t have other licenses available.

3 —The bartering economy has exploded on Nextdoor.  

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, people are avoiding stores more and more and—instead—turning to Nextdoor to trade items or supplies of theirs for items they need. Nextdoor is an app that allows users from the same community or neighborhood to interact and share information. While trading through the popular app is not a new concept, the app has seen a rise in these types of exchanges. Hand sanitizer has been traded for sugar, potatoes for toilet paper, activities for children in exchange for vegetables are only some of the ways that people are getting creative in how to manage without going out to stores in order to avoid exposing themselves to the virus. (Source: One Zero)

Why this is important for your business:

Nextdoor has been growing significantly over the past year and with the Coronavirus pandemic it’s become an even more popular way for communities – including business owners – to share information, news…and products. Given the number of people that are using the platform during these shelter-in-place days, it could be a great way to build relationships for when you re-open your doors.

4 — Now you can get the most out of your old laptop by turning it into a Chromebook if you’re working from home.

With more and more people working from home due to COVID-19, some are finding that their laptops may not be equipped to handle the amount of work they need to get done in their home office. Employees who have the ability to complete all of their tasks within a browser could potentially capitalize on being able to transform their older macOS or Windows machine into a more efficient Chromebook. Neverware— a company that helps schools and businesses refurbish their aging devices—can transform nearly any laptop into a Chromebook through their CloudReady branch and is now offering a free version of the software to individual users. (Source: Android Police)

Why this is important for your business:

Have a lot of employees working from home that need devices? Don’t have the budget to go out and buy a new laptop? Or do you just want to have better control over the devices your work-from-home people are using when they access your network? A Chromebook checks those boxes and this method of conversion may be a big help to your precious cash flow.

5— Researchers are finding that AI is bad at predicting GPA, grit, eviction, job training, layoffs, and material.

Recently developed research has shown that AI misses the mark—overall—when trying to predict social outcomes for children, families, and entire households. The study—titled the Fragile Families Study— contained data which included information about a child’s parent, teacher, other caregivers, as well as the actual child involved in the study. Out of the 1,617 variables considered in the study, the main focus was on items like job training, eviction, grit, layoffs, material hardship, and GPA. With more than 3,000 models studied, many using sophisticated AI,  most were not accurate and—additionally—only slightly better than predictions conducted through non-machine learning methods. (Venture Beat)

Why this is important for your business:

The takeaway is that with all the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, the technology is still in its infancy. 

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