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The best investment every digital brand can make during the COVID-19 pandemic

Intuitively, stores that sell online should be making a killing during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, everyone is stuck at home — and understandably more willing to shop online instead of at a traditional retailer to avoid putting themselves and others at medical risk. But the truth is, most smaller online stores have seen better days.

The primary challenge is that smaller shops often don’t have the logistics networks that companies like Amazon do. Consequently, they’re seeing substantially delayed delivery timelines, especially if they ship internationally. Customers obviously aren’t thrilled about that reality. And in many cases, they’re requesting refunds at a staggering rate.

I saw this play out firsthand in April. At that point, my stores were down 20% or in some cases even 30% in revenue. Needless to say, my team was freaking out. But there’s one thing we did that helped us increase our revenue over 200% since the pandemic, decrease refund requests and even strengthen our existing customer relationships.

We implemented a 24-hour live chat in all of our stores. Here’s why it worked for us and why every digital brand should be doing it too.

Avoid the common ‘unreachability’ frustration

When I started my first online store in 2006, challenges that bogged my team down often meant that my team’s first priority became resolving those challenges so that we could serve our customers faster. But admittedly, when these challenges came up, it became more difficult to balance communicating with our customers and resolving the issues that prevented us from fulfilling their orders quickly.

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TinyML is giving hardware new life

The latest embedded software technology moves hardware into an almost magical realm

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

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3 bearish takes on the current edtech boom

Edtech is booming, but a short while ago, many companies in the category were struggling to break through as mainstream offerings. Now, it seems like everyone is clamoring to get into the next seed-stage startup that has the phrase “remote learning” on its About page.

And so begins the normal cycle that occurs when a sector gets overheated — boom, bust and a reckoning. While we’re still in the early days of edtech’s revitalization, it isn’t a gold mine all around the world. Today, in the spirit of balance and history, I’ll present three bearish takes I’ve heard on edtech’s future.

Quizlet’s CEO Matthew Glotzbach says that when students go back to school, the technology that “sticks” during this time of massive experimentation might not be bountiful.

“I think the dividing line there will be there are companies that have been around, that are a little more entrenched, and have good financial runway and can probably survive this cycle,” he said. “They have credibility and will probably get picked [by schools].” The newer companies, he said, might get stuck with adoption because they are at a high degree of risk, and might be giving out free licenses beyond their financial runway right now.

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How Grab adapted after COVID-19 hit its ride-hailing business

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft. Grab, Southeast Asia’s largest ride-hailing company, has also been impacted, but the company has adapted by quickly transitioning many of its ride-hailing drivers to its on-demand delivery verticals and expanding services needed by customers during social distancing measures.

The company told TechCrunch that its ride-hailing drivers saw their incomes decrease by about a double-digit percentage in April 2020, compared to October 2019, in line with a double-digit drop in gross merchandise volume for Grab’s ride-hailing business in some markets. Between March and April, more than 149,000 Grab ride-hailing drivers switched to performing on-demand deliveries. In some markets, the transition was done very quickly. For example, in Malaysia, 18,000 drivers moved to delivery in a single day. The platform also saw an influx of new driver requests, many from people who had been laid off or furloughed, as well as merchants who needed a new way to make income.

Russell Cohen, Grab’s regional head of operations, told Extra Crunch that to redeploy driver capacity to delivery verticals, the company worked with governments in its eight markets to understand how different COVID-19 responses, including stay-at-home orders, affected on-demand logistics. Anticipating shifts in consumer behavior, it also started adding new services that will continue after the pandemic.

Quickly moving driver capacity from ride-hailing to on-demand delivery

Grab currently has about nine million “micro-entrepreneurs,” or what it calls the drivers, delivery, merchants and agents on its platform. Cohen says the company began to see an effect on ride-hailing and transportation patterns in January and February as flights out of China, and air travel in general, began to decrease. Then COVID-19 started to have a material impact on its ride-hailing business in March, with a sharp drop after countries began implementing stay-at-home orders.

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Fintech regulations in Latin America could fuel growth or freeze out startups

It may have entered the game later than other leading regions such as Europe and North America, but Latin America’s fintech industry is dynamic and growing fast. The sector was recently given a valuation of more than $150 billion and continues to expand year-on-year.

And while the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on the sector is yet to be determined, there’s no doubt that the demand for certain fintech solutions is on the rise. As smaller financial institutions across the region are under pressure to digitize, many are calling on fintechs to help them along this journey. In addition, a number of SMEs are seeking out digital loan services to help them get through the crisis.

The sector’s speedy expansion has meant that regulators in LatAm are under increasing pressure to enact legislation that addresses the murky waters of fintech activity, providing confidence to consumers and investors alike. However, regulation across the region must be careful to not quash innovation, while startups must figure out how to be agile in an environment which is becoming increasingly regulated. Let’s take a closer look at what impact regulation has had so far in LatAm, and what needs to happen to strike a balance between sector growth and public trust.

The development of fintech regulation across LatAm

Mexico is currently leading the way when it comes to fintech regulation in LatAm, thanks to its comprehensive 2018 fintech Law. The law covers most fintech activities, including crowdfunding, virtual wallet, transactions carried out with cryptocurrencies and open banking. In addition, Mexico has certain financial laws that regulate financial entities in their execution of transactions using fintech. The law also provides a regulatory sandbox for both licensed and non-licensed companies.

Brazil is the furthest ahead after Mexico, as it individually legislates crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending, while a special congressional commission is working on a broader legislative strategy. Brazil’s Central Bank also endeavors to make open banking legislation effective by the third quarter of 2020, which will pave the way for a thriving open banking ecosystem.

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French contact-tracing app StopCovid passes first vote

Following a debate in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament, deputies have voted in favor of the release of contact-tracing app StopCovid and the decree related to the app.

While a vote in the parliament wasn’t a mandatory step, the government wants to rally as many people as possible around the contact-tracing app. At first, French President Emmanuel Macron said there would be a debate, but not necessarily followed by a vote. The government then reversed its stance and said deputies would vote.

“If members of the parliament vote against the release of the application, we won’t release StopCovid,” France’s digital minister Cédric O said in a radio interview earlier today.

It’s still unclear whether a contact-tracing app is efficient. But there’s one thing for sure — the app would be inefficient if only a small fraction of people living in France choose to download it. Hence today’s debate.

There were two important points discussed in the National Assembly. First, is StopCovid a surveillance app and is there a risk when it comes to privacy? Second, is StopCovid useful and efficient?

Privacy

“Tomorrow, I want to be free to download or not to download the application. I want to be free to protect myself,” France’s minister of health Olivier Véran said. It doesn’t really answer the privacy risks of a contact-tracing app but it’s true that the government changed the decree at the last minute to say that there won’t be any negative consequence if you’re not using StopCovid, nor any privilege if you’re using it.

“StopCovid isn’t a project for peacetime. It’s a project for a historical crisis — it wouldn’t exist without it and it’s not going to exist after it,” Cédric O said.

StopCovid relies on Bluetooth like most contact-tracing app. But a group of research institutes and private companies have worked on a homemade solution that doesn’t rely on Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API. It is based on a centralized contact-tracing protocol that computes matches on a central server. It isn’t anonymous but pseudonymous.

It has been a controversial topic over the past few weeks. Cédric O defended France’s centralized solution by saying it guarantees the digital sovereignty of the country.

“22 countries have chosen to develop a contact-tracing app that relies on the interface developed by Apple and Google. 22 countries, but not France and the U.K. And it’s not a coincidence because those two countries also have nuclear weapons,” Cédric O said.

Paula Forteza, a deputy from the same party who recently created a separate parliamentary group due to recent disagreements, rightfully said that isn’t as straightforward as that.

“No, the debates on the centralized and decentralized design of the protocol don’t overlap with debates on digital sovereignty and reliance on tech giants,” Forteza said.

Effectiveness

Once again, the government and opponents didn’t have the same take on the potential effectiveness on an optional contact-tracing app.

“The app is systematically and linearly efficient as soon as a few percentage points activate it,” Cédric O said.

“It’s inefficient because 50 to 60% of French people have to install the application. It’s inefficient because 25% of French people don’t have a smartphone, unless you have decided to offer them one,” leader of far-left party La France Insoumise Jean-Luc Mélenchon said.

On this point, nobody really had a clear answer. Contact-tracing using Bluetooth is still uncharted territory. Moreover, on iOS, you’ll have to leave the app open to enable Bluetooth.

“The only ones who are able to decide whether this applications is efficient, useful or not useful, are epidemiologists,” Cédric O concluded after the debate.

Next steps

Later today, the upper house of the French parliament, the Senate, will also discuss the pros and cons of StopCovid and vote. After that, StopCovid will be released on the App Store and Play Store early next week.

Here’s what it looks like:

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Uber cuts 600 jobs in India

Uber is cutting 600 jobs in India, or 25% of its workforce in the country, it said on Tuesday as it looks to cut costs to steer through the coronavirus pandemic.

The job cuts, which affect teams across customer and driver support, business development, legal, policy, marketing, and finance, are part of the company’s global restructuring that eliminated 6,700 jobs this month.

The American giant, which claimed to be the top cab hailing service in India earlier this year, said it was providing 10 to 12 weeks of salary to the employees who were being let go, in addition to offering them medical insurance for the next six months.

“The impact of Covid-19 and the unpredictable nature of the recovery has left Uber India with no choice but to reduce the size of its workforce. Around 600 full time positions across driver and rider support, as well as other functions, are being impacted. These reductions are part of previously announced global job cuts this month. Today is an incredibly sad day for colleagues leaving the Uber family and all of us at the company. We made the decision now so that we can look to the future with confidence,” said Pradeep Parameswaran, President for Uber’s India and South Asia businesses, in a statement shared through a spokesperson.

“I want to apologise to departing colleagues and extend my heartfelt thanks to them for their contributions to Uber, the riders, and the driver partners we serve in India,” he added.

Uber’s announcement follows a similar cost cutting measures enforced by its local rival Ola, which eliminated 1,400 jobs, or 35% of its workforce last week.

India announced a lockdown in late March that shut down all public transportation services across the country. In recent weeks, New Delhi has eased some restrictions, however, that has enabled both Ola and Uber to resume several of their services — excluding pool rides — in most parts of the country except those where concentration of coronavirus cases is very high.

As in most other parts of the world, the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted several industries in India including food delivery, hospitality and travel. Food delivery startups Swiggy and Zomato have together eliminated about 2,600 jobs (with 2,100 at Swiggy alone) as many of their existing customers attempt to avoid exposure to the world. Uber sold its Indian food delivery business to Zomato earlier this year.

Travel and hospital firms such as MakeMyTrip and Oyo have also cut several jobs or furloughed thousands of employees in recent months as their revenues drop significantly.

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This Week in Apps: Facebook takes on Shopify, Tinder considers its future, contact-tracing tech goes live

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications. Notably, we saw the launch of the Apple/Google exposure-notification API with the latest version of iOS out this week. The pandemic is also inspiring other new apps and features, including upcoming additions to Apple’s Schoolwork, which focus on distance learning, as well as Facebook’s new Shops feature designed to help small business shift their operations online in the wake of physical retail closures.

Tinder, meanwhile, seems to be toying with the idea of pivoting to a global friend finder and online hangout in the wake of social distancing, with its test of a feature that allows users to match with others worldwide — meaning, with no intention of in-person dating.

COVID-19 apps in the news

  • Fitbit app: The fitness tracker app launched a COVID-19 early detection study aimed at determining whether wearables can help detect COVID-19 or the flu. The study will ask volunteers questions about their health, including whether they had COVID-19, then pair that with activity data to see if there are any clues that could be used to build an early warning algorithm of sorts.
  • U.K. contact-tracing app: The app won’t be ready in mid-May as promised, as the government mulls the use of the Apple/Google API. In testing, the existing app drains the phone battery too quickly. In addition, researchers have recently identified seven security flaws in the app, which is currently being trialed on the Isle of Wight.

Apple launches iOS/iPadOS 13.5 with Face ID tweak and contact-tracing API

Apple this week released the latest version of iOS/iPadOS with two new features related to the pandemic. The first is an update to Face ID which will now be able to tell when the user is wearing a mask. In those cases, Face ID will instead switch to the Passcode field so you can type in your code to unlock your phone, or authenticate with apps like the App Store, Apple Books, Apple Pay, iTunes and others.

The other new feature is the launch of the exposure-notification API jointly developed by Apple and Google. The API allows for the development of apps from public health organizations and governments that can help determine if someone has been exposed by COVID-19. The apps that support the API have yet to launch, but some 22 countries have requested API access.

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An eighth Amazon warehouse employee has died from COVID-19

An eighth Amazon employee has died of COVID-19. The news comes as the company is under scrutiny for failing to be more transparent about the wider number of infections among its warehouse workers.

A spokesperson confirmed the reports of the death, telling TechCrunch, “We are saddened by the loss of an associate who had worked at our site in Randall, Ohio. “Her family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting her fellow colleagues.”

According to the company, the worker in North Randall, a village outside of Cleveland, was sent home from work on April 30. She received a positive test a little over a week later, on May 8. Amazon says it notified fellow employees of the death and has provided counseling to colleagues.

The overall number of Amazon workers who have tested positive for the virus remains a mystery. The company stands by its decision not to disclose such information. “We don’t think that number is super valuable,” it has said previously. In a statement provided to TechCrunch, it added: 

Our rates of infection are at or below the rates of the communities where we operate. We see that in our quarantine rates as well. Quarantine rates are a critical part to understanding what’s happening in the workplace – it shows that our hard work around social distancing is paying off. Unlike others who hide beyond HIPAA, we alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis. This alert to employees is a direct text message noting when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.

The lack of transparency is one of a number of sources of criticism surrounding Amazon’s COVID-19 response.

While the company has repeatedly maintained that it has done all it can to protect the employees in its fulfillment centers, potential exposure to the virus among warehouse workers is difficult to avoid, even with the proper PPE. Earlier this month, a letter from 13 state attorneys general demanded that Amazon disclose the number of workers who have been impacted by the virus.

“We have requested but not received information on how many of the Companies’ workers have been infected with COVID-19, and how many have died from it,” the letter reads. “Please provide a state-by-state breakdown for each Company with this information.”

Earlier this week, The New York Times noted one particularly hard hit warehouse in northeastern Pennsylvania, where more than 100 workers have apparently tested positive for the virus. The exact figure is unknown, as Amazon will not disclose it. Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that at least 30 workers at the nearby Kenosha warehouse have tested positive for the virus.

As more housebound Americans rely on Amazon for deliveries, workers have largely fallen under the “essential services” guidelines issued by many states. In mid-May, the company extended its $2 an hour “hazard pay bonuses” through the end of the month. Amazon confirmed that it will return to standard salaries, come June, stating: 

To thank employees and help meet increased demand, we’ve paid our team and partners nearly $800 million extra since COVID-19 started while continuing to offer full benefits from day one of employment. With demand stabilized, next month we’ll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour.

The company has been subject to additional scrutiny over the firing of several employees that have raised public concerns over its treatment of workers during the crisis. While Amazon has repeatedly denied the firings were retaliation, the reports were enough to warrant another letter, this time from a number of high-profile senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

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New York Auto Show canceled for 2020, pushed to spring 2021

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event in August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday.

The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

The New York Auto Show, which is organized by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, was scheduled to begin April 10 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. The event was rescheduled for late August after COVID-19 swept into Europe and North America.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the traditional location for the show, was set up as a field hospital for COVID-19 cases. The center doesn’t have any patients. However, it is still set up as an active hospital and is in standby mode for the foreseeable future, according to organizers.

Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, noted that “immense planning” is needed for automakers and their exhibit partners to construct a show.

“Because of the uncertainty caused by the virus, we feel it would not be prudent to continue with the 2020 Show and instead are preparing for an even greater 2021,” Schienberg said.

“As representatives of automobile retailers, we know when this crisis passes there will be enormous pent-up demand for new vehicles in this region and across the country,” he added. “We also know how important the Show is for consumers navigating the process.”

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