Citing revenue declines, Airbnb cuts 1,900 jobs, or around 25% of its global workforce

This afternoon Airbnb, a well-known private company that connects travelers with places to stay, announced that it was laying off around a quarter of its workforce. The company cited revenue declines and a need to curtail costs in a memo that TechCrunch viewed.

In the note, written by Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky, the company said that 1,900 employees will be laid off, or 25.3% of its 7,500 workers. The layoffs will impact a number of internal product groups, including Transportation and Airbnb Studios, efforts that will be placed on hold, and its Hotels and Lux work, which will be “scale[d] back.”

The company declined to break down per-country totals for the layoffs in a phone call with TechCrunch, but its memo did note that its staffing cuts are “mapped to a more focused business.” The former startup appears to be narrowing its efforts, targeting core operations and shedding more experimental and costly endeavours.

According to Chesky’s missive, Airbnb anticipates its 2020 revenue coming in under 50% of 2019’s total; Airbnb saw around $4.8 billion in revenue last year, according to reports.

Airbnb had previously admitted that layoffs were a possibility in light of the COVID-19 pandemic impacting tourism and travel. The company has rapidly added capital in recent weeks including two $1 billion tranches of debt, providing extra liquidity as the world came to a standstill, freezing travelers in-place and decimating global travel spend. Airbnb couldn’t dodge a trend that hits its world directly.

In an effort to keep both the demand and supply sides of its marketplace healthy enough to survive hibernation, Airbnb has allowed users to cancel some reservations without penalty, and provided financial succor to its hosts. Presumably part of its new capital went to fund those efforts, along with providing the firm with enough cash to reach 2021 in reasonable shape.

The company had previously promised a 2020 IPO; many expected the previously wealthy and occasionally profitable firm to pursue a direct listing instead of a traditional IPO as it had a sufficiently strong financial footing heading into 2020. While those days are now behind it, the company did state plainly in its note that it expects that its business “will fully recover” in time.

The question now is when. Airbnb was a long-touted example in Silicon Valley of a highly-valued, lavishly-funded unicorn that could make money and go public on its own terms. None of those expectations had a pandemic written into them.

Separated employees will receive 14 weeks of pay, and one more week for each year served at the company (rounding partial years up). The firm is also dropping its one-year equity cliff so that employees who are laid off with under 12 months of tenure can buy their vested options; Airbnb will also provide 12 months of health insurance through COBRA in the United States, and health care coverage through 2020 in the rest of the world.

Source: Tech Crunch

Twitter runs a test prompting users to revise ‘harmful’ replies

In its latest effort to deal with rampant harassment on its platform, Twitter will look into giving users a second chance before they tweet. In a new feature the company is testing, users who use “harmful” language will see a prompt suggesting that they self-edit before posting a reply.

The framing here is a bit disingenuous — harassment on Twitter certainly doesn’t just happen in the “heat of the moment” by otherwise well-meaning individuals — but anything that can reduce toxicity on the platform is probably better than what we’ve got now.

Last year at F8, Instagram rolled out a similar test for its users that would “nudge” them with a warning before they post a potentially offensive comment. In December, the company offered an update on its efforts. “Results have been promising, and we’ve found that these types of nudges can encourage people to reconsider their words when given a chance,” the company wrote in a blog post.

This kind of thing is particularly relevant right now, as companies conduct moderation across their massive platforms with relative skeleton crews. All of the major social networks have announced an increased reliance on AI detection as the pandemic keeps tech workers away from the office. In Facebook’s case, content moderators are among the employees they’d like to bring back first.

We’ve reached out to Twitter for more information about the kind of language that triggers the new test feature and if the company will also consider the prompt for regular tweets that aren’t replies. We’ll update the story if we receive additional info about what this experiment will look like.

Source: Tech Crunch

Lyft’s virtual internship gets further slimmed down: less pay, shorter program

Lyft has slimmed down its internship program from 12 weeks to eight weeks, cut some intern salaries by half and rescinded its housing stipend, TechCrunch has learned. The company confirmed that it has shortened the internship and that it only cut some intern salaries. It did not define which roles and departments were specifically affected.

The internship change comes after Lyft cut nearly 1,000 employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic last week. Uber, which reportedly is doing layoffs as well, declined to comment when asked if new graduate offers have been rescinded.

Tech’s coveted, and oftentimes glamorous, internships have been largely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with companies across the country canceling their programs altogether. Big companies have a unique privilege in this situation, as they can often afford to virtualize the program to some degree. In March, Lyft, like other big tech companies such as Twitter and Google, told TechCrunch that they would move their internship programs to be completely remote. Now we’re seeing an even more conservative approach as Lyft faces greater struggles. Now it’s not a question of if there will be snacks, but more along the lines of if there will be job offers.

Internships are important because they pipeline in new, diverse talent. Cancellations challenge the makeup of the future workforces of our companies, and are yet another blow to a graduating class entering a harsh job market.

Source: Tech Crunch

Google Meet shows up in Gmail inboxes, a few years too late

Google Meet — the video call service formerly known as Hangouts Meet, which itself was an offshoot from Hangouts, not to be confused with Google Chat, Duo, Allo or any of the company’s other communications products — is finally making its debut on Gmail accounts, where it probably should have been since 2010.

Everyone with a Google account has access to Meet as of a few days ago, when Google removed most of the restrictions that made the product a go-to for many business customers but a non-starter for everyone else.

As they announced then, anyone with a Google account can make calls with up to 100 people, for up to an hour. The option to do so will appear on the sidebar, where one can start a meeting and invite participants in a pop-up browser window — it’s quite fast and a dial-in and PIN are provided immediately — or join an existing meeting using a code.

It’s a welcome improvement, to be sure. But it’s also something that on reflection one wonders why Google hasn’t had there for years.

Despite running one of the world’s largest communications platforms and owning its most popular operating system, person to person communication has always been something of a puzzler for Google. Every couple of years the company debuts a new and ill-advised app or service that’s confusingly branded, competes with its existing offerings and isn’t even available for most people to use. Sometimes they even do two at once!

This experimental approach (unsuccessfully aping the old, weird Google) wasn’t a problem when the only pressure was the usual trickle of enterprise and startup innovations that Google could easily bat down from its high seat. But the coronavirus pandemic produced a tsunami of demand for video calling that suddenly threw the competition into gear.

As we have seen, Zoom emerged as the dark-horse winner, despite serious security issues and other general murkiness.

The secret was, of course, simplicity: one or two clicks and it “just works.” While Microsoft, Google, Facebook and other major tech companies have seen huge gains, and startup efforts like Houseparty and Discord have also spiked, Zoom’s ubiquity is such that people speak of “doing a Zoom call on Google” or “we can do a Zoom meeting on Skype.” It’s the ultimate insult.

As a strategy by Google to acquire users, this expansion of Meet is months too late, and as an attempt to salvage its dignity, years too late. After the execution of Reader and the utter boondoggle that was Google+, the company will forever be considered as having a gun in each hand, one pointed at users and one at its own foot. Sorry, do I seem bitter?

At the same time, it’s quite clear that Google has the capability to create a simple, cross-platform, universal video calling service. After all, it offered one for years: GChat.

It’s not really clear what happened to this popular, practical service, which unsurprisingly lived exactly where Meet now lives, and provided a similar (if simpler) service. Now is not the time to reopen the case of GChat or the dozens of other beloved products Google has sent to the big data center in the sky, but it’s worth considering what might have been the case had the company simply, as it said it wanted to, “put more wood behind fewer arrows” and made that service the one, developing and adding to it as it has with Maps and Search.

GChat would be open in every browser (in the omnipresent Gmail tab), able to launch personal or business meetings instantly (as Meet can now), and it would be on every phone as well, the way Google’s most popular apps, like Maps, are. As a (mostly) trusted, presumably encrypted chat and occasional multimedia app, it could have taken the wind out of WhatsApp and Messenger’s sails, rivaled iMessage and perhaps even given rise to the more decentralized social network the company seemed to want to build some years back.

Ah well. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’ ”

Enjoy Meet, if you can, and while it lasts.

Source: Tech Crunch

Max Q: Countdown to a return to US astronaut launches

Last week was a fairly busy week in space news, but the dominating story was preparation for the first-ever Commercial Crew launch that will actually carry human astronauts to space. This is, in many ways, the culmination of years of work and billions of dollars spent by partners NASA and SpaceX on their part of the Commercial Crew Program.

On May 27, SpaceX will launch two NASA astronauts on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station, and this week saw a flurry of activity to get ready for that milestone, including a full day of press briefings by both the agency and SpaceX.

Here’s how SpaceX’s first astronaut launch will go

This is what will happen during that historic first SpaceX astronaut launch, which has been expanded to include not just a quick trip up and back to the ISS, but also a small tour of duty for Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as temporary space station staff. It could last anywhere from one to more than three months, depending on NASA’s needs.

NASA awarded human lander contracts

NASA announced who it would be contracting to develop and build human landers for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the surface of the Moon. They actually picked three companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, each of which will be taking very different approaches to building human-rated landers that can transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface.

Blue Origin’s winning lander bid in action

Here’s a concept animation of what Blue Origin’s winning lander will look like in practice, complete with transfer and ascent vehicles built by top-tier aerospace industry partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Jeff Bezos’ space company went with an all-star lineup, which has to have reassured the agency about its chances of success.

SpaceX’s Starship passes a key development test

SpaceX’s winning bid was actually for Starship, the fully reusable multi-purpose spacecraft that it’s in the process of developing and testing. So far, the full-scale starship prototypes have not held up well to high-pressure fuel tank testing, but the latest version did ace that test, and is now getting ready for engine fire and low-altitude flight tests. There’s still a lot of work before it gets to the Moon, but now NASA is counting on SpaceX making that happen.

NASA taps small satellite maker for solar sail test

NASA wants to develop and certify solar sail technology for use in deep space missions that don’t necessarily involve transporting humans, since it’s a very cost-effective way to propel small satellites over long distances (mainly because you don’t need to take any fuel with you). The agency has now signed up NanoAvionics to build the spacecraft that will test its solar sail prototype in space.

SpaceX is using flip-up sunshades to help out Earth astronomers

SpaceX has a new, hardware-based potential solution to the phenomenon where its Starlink satellites appear very visibly in the night sky, potentially blocking out Earth-based observation of stars and other stellar bodies. The company has designed a system of hardware shades that flip out and block the sun, preventing it from reflecting off the antennas on the satellite that broadcast internet signals back to Earth. It’ll test these soon and then they could become a permanent part of Starlink’s design.

Lidar from space could make for much better maps

Devin checked in on a project at MIT that is looking to supplement road maps with lidar in order to improve even the best, machine learning-based-inferred maps of roadways and transit paths. (Extra Crunch subscription required.)

Source: Tech Crunch

UK’s coronavirus tracing app strategy faces fresh questions over transparency and interoperability

The UK’s data protection watchdog confirmed today the government still hasn’t given it sight of a key legal document attached to the coronavirus contacts tracing app which is being developed by the NHSX, the digital transformation branch of the country’s National Health Service .

Under UK and EU law, a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) can be a legal requirement in instances where there are high rights risks related to the processing of people’s information.

Last month the European Data Protection Board strongly recommended publication of DPIAs in the context of coronavirus contacts tracing apps. “The EDPB considers that a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) must be carried out before implementing such tool as the processing is considered likely high risk (health data anticipated large-scale adoption, systematic monitoring, use of new technological solution). The EDPB strongly recommends the publication of DPIAs,” the pan-EU data protection steerage body wrote in the guidance.

Giving evidence to the human rights committee today, UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirmed that her department, the ICO, is involved in advising the government on the data protection elements of the app’s design. She said the agency has been provided with some technical documents for review thus far. But, under committee questioning, she reserved any firmer assessment of the rights impacts’ of the government’s choice of app design and architecture — saying the ICO still hasn’t seen the DPIA.

“I think that is on the verge of happening,” she said when asked if she had any idea when the document would be published or provided to the ICO for review.

“Having that key document — and the requirement for the NHXS to do that, and provide that to me and to the public — is a really important protection,” Denham added. “Especially when everything’s happening at pace and we want the public to take up such an app, to help with proximity and notification.

“The privacy notice and the DPIA will both need to be shared with us and I do know that NHSX plans to also publish that so that they can show the public — be transparent and accountable for what they’re doing.”

The NHSX has given a green light for the ICO to audit the app in future, she also told the committee.

Coronavirus contacts tracing applications are a new technology which, in the UK case, entail repurposing the Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones to measure device proximity as a proxy for calculating infection risk. The digital tracing process opens a veritable pandora’s box of rights risks, with health data, social graph and potentially location information all in the mix — alongside overarching questions about how effective such a tech will prove in battling the coronavirus.

Yesterday the BBC reported that the NHSX will trial the tracing app in the Isle of Wight this week.

“As we see the trial in the Isle of Wight we’ll all be very interested to see the results of that trial and see if it’s working the way that the developers have intended,” added Denham.

At a separate parliamentary committee hearing last week NHSX CEO, Matthew Gould, told MPs that the app could be “technically” ready to deploy nationally within two to three weeks, following the limited geographical trial.

He also said the app will iterate — with future versions potentially asking users to share location data. So while the NHSX has maintained that only pseudonymized data will be collected and held centrally — where it could be used for public health “research” purposes — there remains a possibility that data could be linked to individual identities, such as if different pieces of data are combined by state agencies and/or if the centralized store of data is hacked and/or improperly accessed.

Privacy experts have also warned of the risk of ‘mission creep’ down the tracing line.

Today the Guardian reported that the government is in talks with digital identity startups about building technology to power so called ‘immunity passports’, as another plank of its digital response to the coronavirus. Per the report, such a system could combine facial recognition technology with individual coronavirus test results so a worker could verify their COVID-19 status prior to entrance to a workplace, for example. (A spokeswomen for Onfido confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s in discussions with the government but added: “As you’d expect these are confidential until publicly shared.”)

Returning to the coronavirus tracing app, the key point is that the government has opted for a system design that centralizes proximity events on an NHSX-controlled server — when or if a user elects to self-report themselves suffering from COVID-19 symptoms (or does so after getting a confirmed diagnosis).

This choice to centralize proximity event processing elevates not just privacy and security questions but also wider human rights risks, as the committee highlighted in a series of questions to Denham and Gould today — pointing out, for example, that Denham and the ICO have previously suggested that decentralized architectures would be preferable for such high rights risk technology.

On that Denham said: “Because I’m the information commissioner, if I were to start with a blank sheet of paper [it] would start with a decentralized system — and you can understand, from a privacy and security perspective, why that would be so. But that does not, in any way, mean that a centralized system can’t have the same kind of privacy and security protections. And it’s up to the government — it’s up to NHSX — to determine what kind of design specifications the system needs.

“It’s up to government to identify what those functions and needs are and if those lead to a centralized system then the question that the DPIA has to answer is why centralized? And my next question would be how are the privacy and security concerns addressed?  That’s what a DPIA is. It’s about the mitigation of concerns.”

Apple and Google are also collaborating on a cross-platform API that will support the technical functioning of decentralized national tracing apps, as well as baking a decentralized and opt-in system-wide contacts tracing into their own platforms.

The tech giants’ backing for decentralized tracing apps raises interoperability questions and technical concerns for governments that choose to go the other way and pool data.

In additional details for the forthcoming Exposure Notification API, released today, the tech giants stipulate that apps must gain user consent to get access to the API; should only gather the minimum info necessary for the purposes of exposure notification, and only use it for a COVID-19 response; and can’t access or even seek permission to access a device’s Location Services — meaning no uploading location data (something the NHSX app may ask users to do in future, per Gould’s testimony to a different parliamentary committee last week. He also confirmed today that users will be asked to input the first three letters of their postcode).

A number of European governments have now said they will use decentralized systems for digital contacts tracing — including Germany, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland.

The European Commission has also urged the use of privacy preserving technologies — such as decentralization — in a COVID-19 contacts tracing context.

Currently, France and the UK remain the highest profile backers of centralized systems in Europe.

But, interestingly, Gould gave the first sign today of a UK government ‘wobble’ — saying it’s not “locked” to a centralization app architecture and could change its mind if evidence emerged that a different choice would make more sense.

Though he also made a point of laying out a number of reasons that he said explained the design choice, and — in response to a question from the committee — denied the decision had been influenced by the involvement of a cyber security arm of the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, GCHQ .

“We are working phenomenally closely with both [Apple and Google],” he said. “We are trying very hard in the context of a situation where we’re all dealing with a new technology and a new situation to try and work out what the right approach is — so we’re not in competition, we’re all trying to get this right. We are constantly reassessing which approach is the right one — and if it becomes clear that the balance of advantage lies in a different approach then we will take that different approach. We’re not irredeemably wedded to one approach; if we need to shift then we will… It’s a very pragmatic decision about what approach is likely to get the results that we need to get.”

Gould claimed the (current) choice of a centralized architecture was taken because the NHSX is balancing privacy needs against the need for public health authorities to “get insight” — such as about which symptoms subsequently lead to people subsequently testing positive; or what contacts are more risky (“what the changes are between a contact, for example, three days before symptoms develop and one day before symptoms develop”).

“It was our view that a centralized approach gave us… even on the basis of the system I explained where you’re not giving personal data over — to collect some very important data that gives serious insight into the virus that will help us,” he said. “So we thought that in that context, having a system that both provided that potential for insight but which also, we believe provided serious protections on the privacy front… was an appropriate balance. And as the information commissioner has said that’s really a question for us to work out where that balance is but be able to demonstrate that we have mitigations in place and we’ve really thought about the privacy side as well, which I genuinely believe we have.”

“We won’t lock ourselves in. It may be that if we want to take a different approach we have to do some heavy duty engineering work to take the different approach but what I wanted to do was provide some reassurance that just because we’ve started down one route doesn’t mean we’re locked into it,” Gould added, in response to concern from committee chair, Harriet Harman, that there might only be a small window of time for any change of architecture to be executed.

In recent days the UK has faced criticism from academic experts related to the choice of app architecture, and the government risks looking increasingly isolated in choosing such a bespoke system — which includes allowing users to self report having COVID-19 symptoms; something the French system will not allow, per a blog post by the digital minister.

Concerns have also been raised about how well the UK app will function technically, as it will be unable to plug directly into the Apple-Google API.

While international interoperability is emerging as a priority issue for the UK — in light of the Republic of Ireland’s choice to go for a decentralized system. 

Committee MP Joanna Cherry pressed Gould on that latter point today. “It is going to be a particular problem on the island of Ireland, isn’t it?” she said.

“It raises a further question of interoperability that we’ll have to work through,” admitted Gould.

Cherry also pressed Denham on whether there should be specific legislation and a dedicated oversight body and commissioner, to focus on digital coronavirus contacts tracing — to put in place clear legal bounds and safeguards and ensure wider human rights impacts are considered alongside privacy and security issues.

Denham said: “That’s one for parliamentarians and one for government to look at. My focus right now is making sure that I do a fulsome job when it comes to data protection and security of the data.”

Returning to the DPIA point, the government may not have a legal requirement to provide the document to the ICO in advance of launching the app, according to one UK-based data protection expert we spoke to. Although he agreed there’s a risk of ministers looking hypocritical if, on the one hand, they’re claiming to be very ‘open and transparent’ in the development of the app — a claim Gould repeated in his evidence to the committee today — yet, at the same time, aren’t fully involving the ICO (given it hasn’t had access to the DPIA); and also given what he called the government’s wider “dismal” record on transparency.

Asked whether he’d expect a DPIA to have been shared with the ICO in this context and at this point, Tim Turner, a UK based data protection trainer and consultant, told us: “It’s a tricky one. NHSX have no obligation to share the DPIA with the ICO unless it’s under prior consultation where they have identified a high risk and cannot properly manage or prevent it. If NHSX are confident that they’ve assessed and managed the risks effectively, even though that’s a subjective judgement, ICO has no right to demand it. There’s also no obligation to publish DPIAs in any circumstances. So it comes down to issues of right and wrong rather than legality.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t expect NHSX to publish it because they don’t have to,” he added. “If they think they’ve done it properly, they’ve done what’s required. That’s not to say they haven’t done it properly, I have no idea. I think it’s an example of where the concept of data ethics bumps into reality — it would be a breach of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] not to do a DPIA, but as long as that’s happened and we don’t have an obvious personal data breach, ICO has nothing to complain about. Denham might expect organisations to behave in a certain way or give her information that she wants to see, but if an organisation’s leadership wants to stick rigidly to what the law says, her expectations don’t have any powers to back them up.”

On the government’s claim to openness and transparency, Turner added: “This isn’t a transparent government. Their record on FOI [Freedom of Information] is dismal (and ICO’s record on enforcing to do something about that is also dismal). It’s definitely hypocritical of them to claim to be transparent on this or indeed other important issues. I’m just saying that NHSX can fall back on not having an obligation to do it. They should be more honest about the fact that ICO isn’t involved and not use them as a shield.”

Source: Tech Crunch

AWS launches the $995 Elemental Link for streaming video to its cloud

AWS today announced the launch of the Elemental Link, a small hardware device that makes it easy to connect a live video source to the AWS Elemental Media Live service for broadcast-grade live video processing in the cloud. The $995 Link, which weighs in at less than a pound, is meant to allow Media Live users to connect a camera or video production setup to the AWS cloud.

The fanless Link has an Ethernet port and inputs for either an HD-SDI or HDMI cable. In the AWS Management Console, it’ll show up as a media source for MediaLive and it’ll automatically adapt the streaming video based on available bandwidth.

In sophisticated environments, dedicated hardware and an associated A/V team can capture, encode, and stream or store video that meets these expectations,” explains AWS’s Jeff Barr in today’s announcement. “However, cost and operational complexity have prevented others from delivering a similar experience. Classrooms, local sporting events, enterprise events, and small performance spaces do not have the budget or the specialized expertise needed to install, configure, and run the hardware and software needed to reliably deliver video to the cloud for processing, storage, and on-demand delivery or live streaming.”

Amazon obviously has quite a bit of experience with streaming video, not only because of the broadcast networks it partners with but also thanks to Twitch.

The Link devices aren’t meant for Twitch streamers, though. AWS is clearly targeting these devices at more sophisticated organizations that are already using the AWS cloud for their broadcast infrastructure. And while the Link takes away some of the complexities of managing the streaming hardware, the MediaLive cloud piece isn’t exactly as trivial to manage as the more consumer-grade live-streaming platforms available today. For those platforms, OBS Studio and a maybe a prosumer switcher like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini is all you need to get started with a multi-camera setup.

Barr says AWS is working on a CloudFormation-powered solution that can take care of setting up the output from MediaLive and make a bit easier actually doing something with the video that’s coming from the Link devices.

Source: Tech Crunch

Let housing rise from the empty offices and malls

It’s hard to work out just how different the covid and post-covid world will be, because it’s changing so comprehensively. Consider movie theaters. The first-order effect seems obvious: they’re doomed! Even after they reopen, they can’t make money with 50% of their capacity. How will they pay their rents?

Wrong question … or, more accurately, right question, but wrong scale. Yes, AMC and co. will probably go bankrupt, and in a just world their shareholders will get wiped out and their bondholders will take a haircut — that’s capitalism, baby, or at least it should be —

— but let’s consider the second-order effects. Inability to pay rent is only catastrophic if your landlord can rent your space to someone else. Who’s going to rent massive theater spaces during a pandemic? Who’s going to rent them during the recession which follows the pandemic? It’s not just movies; it’s basically every retail and theatrical space.

As the old joke goes, “if you owe the bank a million dollars, then you have a problem; but if you owe the bank a billion dollars, then the bank has a problem.” You may think it’s bad to be a movie theater, a restaurant, or a retail store, and it is … but the second-order effect is that it’s even worse to be in commercial real estate. One struggling tenant is a headache. All struggling tenants is a catastrophe.

But hey, at least you’ve got office space, right? Except that we just might find that a lot of companies forced to try out working from home might discover it’s actually highly cost-effective:

The same is true of retail space everywhere. Remember, “retailpocalypse” was headline fodder even before the virus prompted everyone to start getting everything delivered from the Internet. The same is true of restaurants, who were struggling to come to terms with food delivery services (please, stop using GrubHub and Seamless) even before the virus hit.

So, the first-order hit is to the obvious suspects: theaters, stadiums, restaurants, retail, gyms. The second-order hits are to owners of commercial real estate. wholesalers, service providers, etc. The third-order hit is to taxes paid to, and therefore budgets of, governments. We’ll see comparable effects elsewhere, too — e.g. first-order to airlines and buses, second-order to hotels and rental cars and events and cargo shippers, third-order to airports and governments again.

But let’s focus on one particular interesting question. What happens next?

Consider San Francisco, everyone’s favorite overpriced, overcrowded, inequality poster child. It has roughly 150 million square feet of combined office and retail space at the moment. If the covid lockdown-then-recession eventually eats 20% of that — which seems at least plausible, between the retailpocalypse and what I will christen the “officepocalypse,” i.e. the revealed cost savings of working from home — that’s 30 million square feet of empty space.

If converted to housing, this could increase the city’s total housing stock by well over 10%. That would drive prices and rents, already pressured by the recession, way down — while presumably still remaining simultaneously profitable, since current prices are so high. Needless to say this conversion would also create a lot of jobs. (Although in some cases no conversion will be required.)

While you’re at it, you could take a couple million feet of those space and convert them to 200 sq. ft. mini-apartments to house every homeless person in San Francisco. (It’s not that crazy a notion. New York City has been legally required to house every homeless person in its five boroughs, and has plenty of apartments that small which people pay good money for.)

This is no panacea, of course. Nothing will be. Converting retail and office to residential will be very expensive … although not as expensive as letting them lie there worthless without collecting any rent at all. But if our post-covid world is one in which demand for office and retail space plummets, which seems likely, let’s take advantage of that space to help deal with the housing crisis which has plagued wealthy cities across the world.

Ultimately, tech companies, long blamed for gentrification and spiraling prices in San Francisco and many other cities, could become a major part of the solution to that problem, by making the tools (and setting the examples) for freeing up office space by working from home. Sadly, we can preemptively rely on this dark irony being lost on the usual outraged suspects.

Source: Tech Crunch

Intel to buy smart urban transit startup Moovit for $1B to boost its autonomous car division

Some big M&A is afoot in Israel in the world of smart transportation. According to multiple reports and sources that have contacted TechCrunch, chip giant Intel is in the final stages of a deal to acquire Moovit, a startup that applies AI and big data analytics to track traffic and provide transit recommendations to some 800 million people globally. The deal is expected to close in the coming days at a price believed to be in the region of $1 billion.

We have contacted Nir Erez, the founder and CEO of Moovit, as well as Intel spokespeople for a comment on the reports and will update this story as we learn more. For now, Moovit’s spokesperson has not denied the reports and what we have been told directly.

“At this time we have no comment, but if anything changes I’ll definitely let you know,” Moovit’s spokesperson.

Sources tell TechCrunch that the startup — which had previously been backed by Intel Capital in a strategic investment — will become part of Intel’s Israeli automotive hub, which is anchored by Mobileye, the autonomous driving company that Intel acquired for $15.3 billion in 2017.

It’s not clear yet what Moovit would be doing in that hub, but as a rule, ingesting and actioning reliable, real-time traffic data and intelligent routing — the crux of what Moovit does — are some of the most challenging aspects of getting autonomous vehicle services up and running.

And in fact, Moovit had already been working with Mobileye and Intel: the latter led Moovit’s last round of funding, a Series D of $50 million in 2018, and as part of that, Professor Amnon Shashua, Senior Vice President of Intel and CEO / CTO of Mobileye, joined Moovit’s Board of Directors as an observer.

Bringing on talent and integrating it into Intel’s bigger strategy appears to be a big part of the deal. Of the $1 billion, employees will get about 10% of the final amount as part of a retention package, a detail both reported by Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper The Marker and passed to us by David Bedussa, an analyst with Wadi Ventures.

At the time of Moovit’s last funding round, the startup was valued at over $500 million, but it has grown a lot in the last two years.

It produces a popular, standalone app that people use to figure out the best way to navigate around cities, and it also integrates with the likes of Uber in its efforts to provide multi-modal routes using different forms of transportation from Uber cars and bikes to using public transport and walking.

In 2018, Moovit said its iOS, Android and Web apps were used by 120 million people globally across 2,000 cities in 80 countries. Now in 2020, that figure is over 800 million riders across 3,100 cities in 102 countries and 45 languages.

Other investors in Moovit in addition to Intel include BMW, Sound Ventures, Gemini Israel, Sequoia Israel and LVMH.

The acquisition (if it goes through, but also the M&A interest) comes at a critical moment in the world of transportation. Currently, many people around the world are being asked to curtail their movement to slow down the spread of COVID-19 cases in what has become a global pandemic; and partly as a result of that same public health crisis, the global economy has been in a major downswing. Both have had a direct impact on the automotive world, which is seeing a slowdown in production and some changing courses in ambitious next-generation strategies.

At the same time, those in the world of tech have been working on leveraging their assets in as optimised a way as possible to help keep things moving (so to speak).

So, while consumer usage of Moovit’s app will have drastically dropped off with people moving around less, the company has launched a series of COVID-19 services to help those that still need to keep things operational, and still need to get from A to B.

These have included a special service for transit data managers (which it’s offering for free, unlike its normal B2B products) to both receive updated transit and traffic data and subsequently put in place “thousands of  short-term changes quickly, enabling riders to plan their trips with only updated, valid routes.”

It has also started a real-time service for Moovit app users to make sure that they are getting those alerts. Thirdly, it has launched an “emergency mobilisation on-demand” service that lets transportation managers redeploy buses on routes more quickly to better serve essential workers that are still using public transport. 

It’s not clear if Moovit had been working on raising more money, or if it had been feeling the same pinch that so many other startups have felt when it comes to closing deals, or if this was just an offer too good to refuse, or even if it was on the table before COVID-19. Given Moovit’s existing size and scope, it’s a business that looks like it will be worth running for some time to come.

Source: Tech Crunch

Security lapse at India’s Jio exposed coronavirus symptom checker results

Since the start of the outbreak, governments and companies have scrambled to develop apps and websites that can help users identify COVID-19 symptoms.

India’s largest cell network Jio, a subsidiary of Reliance, launched its coronavirus self-test symptom checker in late March, just before the Indian government imposed a strict nationwide lockdown to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. The symptom checker allows anyone to check their symptoms from their phone or Jio’s website to see if they may have become infected with COVID-19.

But a security lapse exposed one of the symptom checker’s core databases to the internet without a password, TechCrunch has found.

Jio’s coronavirus symptom checker. One of its databases exposed users’ responses. (Image: TechCrunch)

Security researcher Anurag Sen found the database on May 1, just after it was first exposed, and informed TechCrunch to notify the company. Jio quickly pulled the system offline after TechCrunch made contact. It’s not known if anyone else accessed the database.

“We have taken immediate action,” said Jio spokesperson Tushar Pania. “The logging server was for monitoring performance of our website, intended for the limited purpose of people doing a self-check to see if they have any COVID-19 symptoms.”

The database contains millions of logs and records starting April 17 through to the time that the database was pulled offline. Although the server contained a running log of website errors and other system messages, it also ingested vast numbers of user-generated self-test data. Each self-test was logged in the database and included a record of who took the test — such as “self” or a relative, their age, and their gender.

The data also included the person’s user agent, a small snippet of information about the user’s browser version and the operating system, often used to load the website properly but can also be used to track a user’s online activity.

The database also contains individual records of those who signed up to create a profile, allowing users to update their symptoms over time. These records contained the answers to each question asked by the symptom checker, including what symptoms they are experiencing, who they have been in contact with, and what health conditions they may have.

Some of the records also contained the user’s precise location, but only if the user allowed the symptom checker access to their browser or phone’s location data.

We’ve posted a redacted portion of one of the records below.

A redacted portion of the exposed database. (Image: TechCrunch)

From one sample of data we obtained, we found thousands of users’ precise geolocation from across India. TechCrunch was able to identify people’s homes using the latitude and longitude records found in the database.

Most of the location data is clustered around major cities, like Mumbai and Pune. TechCrunch also found users in the United Kingdom and North America.

The exposure could not come at a more critical time for the Indian telecoms giant. Last week Facebook invested $5.7 billion for a near-10% stake in Jio’s Platforms, valuing the Reliance subsidiary at about $66 billion.

Jio did not answer our follow-up questions, and the company did not say if it will inform those who used the symptom tracker of the security lapse.

Source: Tech Crunch