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Yesterday — April 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

By Natasha Lomas

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.

— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

ImmunityBio and Microsoft team up to precisely model how key COVID-19 protein leads to infection

By Darrell Etherington

An undertaking that involved combining massive amounts of graphics processing power could provide key leverage for researchers looking to develop potential cures and treatments for the novel coronavirus behind the current global pandemic. Immunotherapy startup ImmunityBio is working with Microsoft’s Azure to deliver a combined 24 petaflops of GPU computing capability for the purposes of modelling, in a very high degree of detail, the structure o the so-called “spike protein” that allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 to enter human cells.

This new partnership means that they were able to produce a model of the spike protein within just days, instead of the months it would’ve taken previously. That time savings means that the model can get in the virtual hands of researchers and scientists working on potential vaccines and treatments even faster, and that they’ll be able to gear their work towards a detailed replication of the very protein they’re trying to prevent from attaching to the human ACE-2 proteins’ receptor, which is what sets up the viral infection process to begin with.

The main way that scientists working on treatments look to prevent or minimize the spread of the virus within the body is to block the attachment of the virus to these proteins, and the simplest way to do that is to ensure that the spike protein can’t connect with the receptor it targets. Naturally-occurring antibodies in patients who have recovered from the novel coronavirus do exactly that, and the vaccines under development are focused on doing the same thing pre-emptively, while many treatments are looking at lessening the ability of the virus to latch on to new cells as it replicates within the body.

In practical terms, the partnership between the two companies included a complement of 1,250 NVIDIA V100 Tensor Core GPUs designed for use in machine learning applications from a Microsoft Azure cluster, working with ImmunityBio’s existing 320 GPU cluster that is tuned specifically to molecular modeling work. The results of the collaboration will now be made available to researchers working on COVID-19 mitigation and prevention therapies, in the hopes that they will enable them to work more quickly and effectively towards a solution.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

It looks like Brandon Middaugh is heading up the $1B Microsoft climate fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Earlier this year, Microsoft made waves in the corporate community by coming out with one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging strategies to reduce carbon emissions from the company’s operations.

Part of that plan was a $1 billion fund that would invest in climate change mitigation technologies — specifically focused on decarbonization. At the time, details were scarce, but it looks like the strategy is becoming a little more clear, with details beginning to emerge about who will be running the show.

According to sources — and a LinkedIn profile search — it appears that Brandon Middaugh is taking point on the investment fund.

Middaugh has been at Microsoft for more than four years and worked as one of the architects of the company’s climate strategy during her tenure at the company. In her previous role as part of the company’s Cloud Energy and Sustainability team, Middaugh led the distributed energy strategy and was a part of the partnership Microsoft initiated with the East Coast regional transmission organization, the PJM — which manages the power grid for a large swath of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

It appears that Middaugh is going to be taking point on the deployment of that $1 billion fund Microsoft announced in January, according to people who have discussed the company’s investments.

At the January event, Microsoft committed to going “carbon negative” by 2030 and said that it would remove by 2050 the equivalent of all the carbon it had emitted into the atmosphere since its founding in 1975. Those commitments are far more aggressive than any made by any other corporation in any industry.

Part of the plan involves expanding the carbon fee the company has imposed internally on its direct emission across its supply and value chains. The $1 billion fund is part of that effort to reduce emissions from suppliers and customers by financing projects and technologies that can reduce emissions with new generation or efficiency technologies, or capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Equity and debt investments have to meet four criteria, including: the ability to drive meaningful decarbonization, climate resilience or other sustainability-related goals; have additional market impacts for future climate solutions; can address Microsoft’s own climate debt; and have implications for the unequal distribution of climate impacts.

Late last year, Amazon committed that it would move to 100% renewable energy powering its operations by 2030 and that it would achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040. Meanwhile, Alphabet has been developing renewable energy projects under its moonshot division and has long been an investor in climate mitigation technologies, including the use of renewables to power its operations.

All of these efforts will need to be met by additional work from corporations and financial institutions across every industry if the world is to reduce the most dire effects of dramatic climate change. Already forest fires, flooding and other climate-related catastrophes have led financial investors and insurers to push for better mitigation strategies and to bring climate impacts front and center within corporate strategies.

Microsoft had not replied to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Inside Udaan’s push to digitize India’s B2B retail market

By Manish Singh

During a recent visit, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella reiterated his company’s commitment to India and revealed a new fund to help SaaS startups in the country.

And then Nadella and Anant Maheshwari, president of Microsoft India, discussed the success story of B2B platform Udaan in three separate onstage public appearances.

Headquartered in Bangalore, Udaan is a business-to-business e-commerce marketplace founded by former Flipkart executives Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar. The startup used Microsoft’s free Azure credits to scale in its early days; as in some other markets, Microsoft, Amazon and Google offer free cloud credits in bulk to early, promising Indian startups in a bid to onboard them and see if their solutions could be relevant to other clients down the road.

More often than not, these bets don’t work, but sometimes they pay off. Udaan, valued at about $2.7 billion after raising nearly $900 million from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital, has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients in the last three years.

Udaan was founded in 2016 at the tail end of India’s e-commerce frenzy, when scores of startups that had attempted to build business-to-consumer online shopping platforms were conceding defeat.

At the time, very few players — like Power2SME and Moglix (industrial products) and Bizongo (packaging for businesses) — were looking at the business-to-business market in India.

Udaan is valued at about $2.7B after raising nearly $900M from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital and has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients.

But despite venturing into a road less traveled, Udaan had ambitious dreams. The startup was building its own logistics network, a herculean task that even Flipkart and Amazon avoided to a certain measure for years, yet it was reaching an audience that had never sold online.

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

By Josh Constine

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed had raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition and the company’s over 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G with its promise of new and expanded markets makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are, we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and President, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post once we hear more.

Zindi taps 12,000 African data scientists for solutions to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Since its inception, Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi has been building a database of data scientists across Africa.

It now has 12,000 registered on its its platform that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems and will offer them cash-prizes to find solutions to curb COVID-19.

Zindi has an open challenge focused on stemming the spread and havoc of coronavirus and will introduce a hackathon in April. The current competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months.

The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5000.

The competition fits with Zindi’s business model of building a platform that can aggregate pressing private or public-sector challenges and match the solution seekers to problem solvers.

Founded in 2018, the early-stage venture allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data oriented issues.

Zindi’s model has gained the attention of some notable corporate names in and outside of Africa. Those who have hosted competitions include Microsoft, IBM and Liquid Telecom. Public sector actors — such as the government of South Africa and UNICEF — have also tapped Zindi for challenges as varied as traffic safety and disruptions in agriculture.

Zindi Team in Cape Town 1

Image Credits: Zindi

The startup’s CEO didn’t imagine a COVID-19 situation precisely, but sees it as one of the reasons she co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Duker.

The ability to apply Africa’s data science expertise, to solve problems around a complex health crisis such as COVID-19 is what Zindi was meant for, Lee explained to TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

“As an online platform, Zindi is well-positioned to mobilize data scientists at scale, across Africa and around the world, from the safety of their homes,” she said.

Lee explained that perception leads many to believe Africa is the victim or source of epidemics and disease. “We wanted to show Africa can actually also contribute to the solution for the globe.”

With COVID-19, Zindi is being employed to alleviate a problem that is also impacting its founder, staff and the world.

Lee spoke to TechCrunch while sheltering in place in Cape Town, as South Africa went into lockdown Friday due to coronavirus. Zindi’s founder explained she also has in-laws in New York and family in San Francisco living under similar circumstances due to the global spread of COVID-19.

Lee believes the startup’s competitions can produce solutions that nations in Africa could tap as the coronavirus spreads. “The government of Kenya just started a task force where they’re including companies from the ICT sector. So I think there could be interest,” she said.

Starting April, Zindi will launch six weekend hackathons focused on COVID-19.

That could be timely given the trend of COVID-19 in Africa. The continent’s cases by country were in the single digits in early March, but those numbers spiked last week — prompting the World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti to sound an alarm on the rapid evolution of the virus on the continent.

By the WHO’s stats Wednesday there were 1691 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 29 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa has prompted countries and startups, such as Zindi, to include the continent’s tech sector as part of a broader response. Central banks and fintech companies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya have employed measures to encourage more mobile-money usage, vs. cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the virus.

The continent’s largest incubator, CcHub, launched a fund and open call for tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia has offered African governments use of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Zindi’s CEO Celina Lee anticipates the startup’s COVID-19 related competitions can provide additional means for policy-makers to combat the spread of the virus.

“The one that’s open right now should hopefully go into informing governments to be able to anticipate the spread of the disease and to more accurately predict the high risk areas in a country,” she said.

Game downloads will be throttled to manage internet congestion

By Devin Coldewey

For the billions stuck at home during the global effort to flatten the curve, gaming is a welcome escape. But it’s also a bandwidth-heavy one, and Microsoft, Sony and others are working to make sure that millions of people downloading enormous games don’t suck up all the bandwidth. Don’t worry, though, it won’t affect your ping.

A blog post by content delivery network Akamai explained a few things it is doing to help mitigate the tidal wave of traffic that the internet’s infrastructure is experiencing. Although streaming video is of course a major contributor, games are a huge, if more intermittent, burden on the network.

Akamai is “working with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. This is very important for gaming software downloads which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” the post reads.

Take the new Call of Duty: Warzone battle royale game, released last week for free and seeing major engagement. If you didn’t already own the latest CoD title, Warzone was a more than 80 gigabyte download, equivalent to dozens of movies on Netflix . And what’s more, that 80 gigs was likely downloaded at the maximum bandwidth home connections provided; Streaming video is limited to a handful of megabits over the duration of the media, nowhere close to saturating your connection.

And Warzone isn’t alone — there are tons of high-profile games being released at a time when many people have nothing to do but sit at home and play games — PC game platform Steam posted a record 20 million concurrent players the other day, and one analysis saw a 400 percent increase in gaming traffic. So gaming is bigger than ever, while games are bigger than ever themselves.

As a result, gaming downloads will be throttled for the foreseeable future, at least in some markets. “Players may experience somewhat slower or delayed game downloads,” wrote Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan in a brief blog post. I’ve asked Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve for comment on their approach as well.

It’s important to note that this should not apply to the rest of the gaming experience. Unlike downloading games, playing games is a remarkably low-bandwidth task — it’s important for packets to be traded quickly so players are in sync, but there aren’t a lot of them compared with even a low-resolution streaming video.

The best thing to do is to set your games to be downloaded overnight, since local infrastructure will be less taxed while everyone in your region is asleep. If you have downloads or updates coming during the day, don’t be surprised if they take longer than usual or are queued elsewhere.

Using 25% lower bandwidth, Disney+ launches in UK, Ireland and 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

By Ingrid Lunden

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching across 7 markets in Europe — but doing so using reduced bandwidth given the strain on broadband networks as more people are staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic. From today, it will be live in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland; Disney also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7. It’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.

“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”

Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.

The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

Caught in the crossfire of Covid-19

The expansion of Disney+ has been caught in the crossfire of world events.

The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming media. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home, and many people are turning to their televisions and other screens for diversion and information.

That means huge demand for new services to entertain or distract people who are now sheltering in place. And that has put a huge strain on broadband networks. So, to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) that it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.”

There are now dozens of places to get an online video fix, but Disney has a lot of valuable cards in its hand, specifically in the form of a gigantic catalog of famous, premium content, and the facilities to produce significantly more at scale, dwarfing the efforts (valiant or great as they are) from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple .

Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.

Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).

With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years.

In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.

Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Microsoft says hackers are attacking Windows users with a new unpatched bug

By Zack Whittaker

Microsoft says attackers are exploiting a previously undisclosed security vulnerability found in all supported versions of Windows, including Windows 10.

But the software giant said there is currently no patch for the vulnerability.

The security flaw, which Microsoft deems “critical” — its highest severity rating — is found in how Windows handles and renders fonts, according to the advisory posted Monday. The bug can be exploited by tricking a victim into opening a malicious document. Once the document is opened — or viewed in Windows Preview — an attacker can remotely run malware, such as ransomware, on a vulnerable device.

The advisory said that Microsoft was aware of hackers launching “limited, targeted attacks,” but did not say who was launching the attacks or at what scale.

Microsoft said it was working on a fix but that the advisory should serve as a warning until a patch is released. In the meantime, the advisory offered a temporary workaround for affected Windows users to mitigate the flaw until a fix is available.

The software giant typically releases its security fixes on the second Tuesday of each month, but occasionally issues out-of-band patches in severe cases.

A spokesperson for Microsoft did not immediately comment on the timing of a patch.

Daily Crunch: Tech giants take steps to fight coronavirus

By Anthony Ha

Tech companies are donating supplies and adjusting priorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an activist investor takes three seats on the Box board and aircraft taxi company Lilium raises $240 million. Here’s your Daily Crunch for March 23, 2020.

1. Amazon, Apple and Microsoft CEOs detail their companies’ efforts to combat coronavirus pandemic

Over the weekend, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all shared updates regarding some aspects of their companies’ ongoing COVID-19 efforts, which range from donations of medical supplies and personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers to software projects that help track and analyze the global spread.

For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook shared on Twitter that the company has been attempting to source necessary supplies that are needed for healthcare workers both in the U.S. and Europe, and that the company is providing “millions of masks” for this purpose. Meanwhile, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said the company’s warehouse and logistics operations will now focus on essential items, including daily household staples, baby and medical supplies.

2. Activist investor Starboard Value taking three Box board seats as involvement deepens

At the same time, two long-time Box investors and allies, Rory O’Driscoll from Scale Venture Partners and Josh Stein from DFJ, will be retiring from the board and not seeking re-election at the annual stockholder’s meeting in June.

3. Lilium raises another $240M to design, test and run an electric aircraft taxi service

Lilium, a Munich-based startup that is designing and building vertical take-off and landing aircraft with speeds of up to 100 km/h, eventually plans to run in its own taxi fleet. It is deploying its latest round of funding to continue developing its aircraft and to start building manufacturing facilities for an expected launch date in 2025.

4. Uber, Ola suspend all rides in India’s capital

The companies have suspended all ride operations in Delhi until March 31. They said the move was in compliance with the local state government’s lockdown order in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

5. Corporate venture business strategies that work

Bill Taranto, president at Merck Global Health Innovation Fund, lays out four business strategies that he says have ensured the firm’s scale and staying power. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. The CDC launches a ‘coronavirus self-checker’ bot called Clara for people in the United States

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention introduced a bot over the weekend to help people make decisions about what to do if they have potential symptoms of COVID-19. Called Clara, the “coronavirus self-checker” was created in partnership with CDC Foundation and — speaking of Microsoft — the Azure Healthcare Bot service.

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

Social distancing isn’t stopping the TechCrunch team from cranking out podcasts. Equity has a full episode about fundraising during a recession and a Monday news roundup that discusses a new $116 million funding round for Cazoo. And on Original Content, we’ve got episodes reviewing Hulu’s “Hillary” documentary and the Apple TV+ reboot of “Amazing Stories.”

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

The CDC launches a ‘coronavirus self-checker’ bot called Clara for people in the United States

By Catherine Shu

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention introduced a bot over the weekend to help people make decisions about what to do if they have potential symptoms of COVID-19. Called Clara, the “coronavirus self-checker” was created in partnership with CDC Foundation and Microsoft Azure’s Healthcare Bot service.

While COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, Clara is intended for use by people currently in the United States. According to the CDC, as of March 22, there were more than 15,200 cases in the United States and 200 deaths.

In a statement, Microsoft said screening patients who have cold or flu-like symptoms to determine who needs “access to limited medical resources” creates a “bottleneck that threatens to overwhelm health systems coping with the crisis.” Its Healthcare Bot uses AI and is intended to help the CDC answer more queries, enabling medical professionals to look after patients who need critical care, the company said.

Clara, however, is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment purposes. The questions walk users through symptoms and then gives recommendations if they need medical care.

In its statement, Microsoft said that customized versions of its Healthcare Bot, across all providers who use it, are now “fielding more than 1 million messages per day from members of the public who are concerned about COVID-19 infections—a number we expect to escalate quickly to meet growing needs.”

IBM, Amazon, Google and Microsoft partner with White House to provide compute resources for COVID-19 research

By Frederic Lardinois

During today’s White House coronavirus task force press conference, President Trump announced the launch of a new public/private consortium to “unleash the power of American supercomputing resources.” The members of this consortium are the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM . Other companies, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as a number of academic institutions, are also “contributing lots of different things,” the president said.

While Trump’s comments were characteristically unclear, IBM provided more details, noting that it is working with a number of national labs and other institutions to offer a total of 330 petaflops of compute to various projects in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also part of the consortium, which is being led by IBM, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Department of Energy.

IBM and its partners will coordinate the efforts to evaluate proposals and provide access to high-performance computing resources to those that are most likely to have an immediate impact.

“How can supercomputers help us fight this virus? These high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics, and molecular modeling. These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms,” writes Dario Gil, IBM’s Director of Research.

AWS has already dedicated $20 million to support COVID-19 research while Microsoft has already announced a number of different initiatives, though mostly around helping businesses cope with the fallout of this crisis. Google has now launched its own coronavirus website (though it’s very different from the one Trump once promised) and Alphabet’s Verily is helping Bay Area residents find testing sites if needed. It’s unclear what exactly Google and Microsoft will contribute to these current efforts, though.

“Today I’m also announcing the launch of a new public/private consortium organized by the White House, the Department of Energy and IBM to unleash the power of American supercomputing resources to fight the Chinese virus,” Trump, who continues to insist on calling COVID-19 ‘the Chinese virus,’ said in today’s press briefing. “The following leaders from private industries, academia and government will be contributing and they are gonna be contributing a lot of different things, but compute primarily — computing resources to help researchers discover new treatments and vaccine. They will be working along with NIH and all of the people working on this. But tremendous help from IBM, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Department of Energy’s, the National Science Foundation and NASA. They are all contributing to this effort.”

Amazon, Apple and Microsoft CEOs detail their companies’ efforts to combat coronavirus pandemic

By Darrell Etherington

The tech industry is mobilizing its considerable resources to attempt to support efforts against the growing global coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all shared updates regarding some aspects of their company’s ongoing contributions, which range from donations of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, to software projects that help track and analyze the global spread of infection.

Apple CEO Tim Cook shared on Twitter that the company has been attempting to source necessary supplies that are needed for healthcare workers both in the U.S. and Europe, and that the company is joining “millions of masks” for this use. Apple also detailed some of its other updates via earlier releases, including a $15 million donation, along with two-to-one corporate matching for all employee donations that go towards COVID-19 response.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos provided an update on Saturday on the company’s official blog that included details about the change in Amazon’s prioritization for its warehousing and logistics operations, which now focus on essential items including daily household staples, baby and medical supplies. Bezos also reiterated Amazon’s commitment to hiring 100,000 new roles, along with raising hourly wages for fulfilment workers.

Bezos notes that while the company has “placed purchase orders for millions of face masks” that it intends to distribute to its full-time and contract workers who are not able to work from home, “very few of those orders have been filled” to to the global supply shortage. He further notes that these resources are likely to go to frontline healthcare workers first, and that the company will focus on getting them to their staff in order of priority once they become available.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella provided a lengthy update about his company’s various efforts in a LinkedIn post on Saturday, publishing an email he sent to all Microsoft employees for external consumption. Nadella describes some of its telehealth platform software work, as well as a number of collaborative data projects, including the John Hopkins University global COVID-19 confirmed case tracker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a chatbot assessment tool for COVID-19 that uses Microsoft’s health chatbot tech as its underlying framework.

Microsoft is also seeing Teams and Minecraft being used globally for remote learning iniativies designed to supplement in-perosn school closures, and it’s working on machine learning and big data projects to support global research efforts. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz announced that it would be providing an open research data set in partnership with colleagues at academic institutions around the world, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. The data set, called the COVID-19 Open Research Data Set, includes more than 29,000 scholarly articles about the virus, and will grow as more are published.

What to consider when employees need to start working remotely

By Ron Miller

The COVID-19 crisis is touching all aspects of society, including how we work. In response, many companies are considering asking some percentage of their workforce to work remotely until the crisis abates.

If your organization doesn’t have a great deal of experience with remote work, there are a number of key things to think about as you set up a program. You are going to be under time constraints when it comes to enacting an action plan, so think about ways to leverage the tools, procedures and technologies you already have in place. You won’t have the luxury of conducting a six-month study.

We spoke to a few people who have been looking at the remote working space for more than a decade and asked about the issues companies should bear in mind when a large number of employees suddenly need to work from home.

The lay of the land

Alan Lepofsky, currently VP of Salesforce Quip, has studied the remote work market for more than a decade. He says there are three main pieces to building a remote working strategy. First, managers need to evaluate which tools they’ll be using to allow employees to continue collaborating when they aren’t together.

Big tech commits to paying wages for hourly employees affected by coronavirus plans

By Jonathan Shieber

Following Microsoft’s lead from late last night, some the biggest technology companies in the U.S. have agreed to page wages for hourly employees impacted by the ongoing corporate response to the coronavirus.

It’s the right thing for companies to do, from both a health and safety perspective, and to ensure that the hourly workers who are most impacted by work stoppages and shortages are not adversely affected by events that are beyond their control.

As we reported earlier today, Facebook committed to pay its “contingent” workers. And according to a report in Axios, Amazon, Google, and Twitter are joining them. We’ve reached out to Apple but have yet to receive a comment.

In a statement to Axios, Amazon made the same commitment for its employees.

“We will continue to pay all hourly employees that support our campus in Seattle and Bellevue – from food service, to security guards to janitorial staff – during the time our employees are asked to work from home,” the company said in a statement. “In addition, we will subsidize one month of rent for the local small businesses that operate inside our owned buildings to help support them during this period.”

Google and Twitter have reportedly made the same commitments.

Tech companies have taken a lead on the issue and received praise from labor organizations for the stance. But organizers in the Bay Area and beyond are encouraging companies to cushion the blow hourly workers will face from lost wages due to office closures.

Good news: @Facebook, @Twitter, @Microsoft & @Google commit that service workers will be fully paid during coronavirus disruptions. Here’s our statement: pic.twitter.com/S5RIl7Targ

— SiliconValleyRising (@SVRising) March 6, 2020

The issue has even caught the attention of the Democratic Senator Mark Warner from Virginia, who is pressuring gig economy companies Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and Doordash to provide compensation for workers impacted by the coronavirus.

“I strongly urge that you attempt to address the potential financial hardship for your workers if they are sick or have to self-quarantine during this time,” Warner wrote. “In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that platform companies lead by example by committing that economic uncertainty will not be deterrents to their workers following public health guidance during the response.”

Microsoft will pay hourly workers regular wages even if their hours are reduced because of COVID-19 concerns

By Catherine Shu

As more COVID-19 cases are identified in the United States, some companies are asking employees to work from home if possible. But that impacts the jobs of people who work in on-site operations, including many who are paid by the hour. Today Microsoft said that it will continue paying all vendor hourly service providers in Puget Sound and Northern California their usual wage, even if their work hour are reduced.

The announcement specifically refers to Microsoft workers in the Puget Sound region and Northern California, but the company said it will “[explore] how to best move forward in a similar way in other parts of the country and the world that are impacted by COVID-19.”

In a blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote that employees in those regions who can work from home have been asked to do so.

“As a result, we have reduced need in those regions for the on-site presence of many of the hourly workers who are vital to our daily operations, such as individuals who work for our vendors and staff our cafes, drive our shuttles and support our on-site tech and audio-visual needs,” he said. “We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.”

Smith added, “While the work to protect public health needs to speed up, the economy can’t afford to slow down. We’re committed as a company to making pubic health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and social impact of COVID-19. We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.”

Microsoft is among several tech companies that have asked employees in places where COVID-19 cases have been identified to work from home, like Washington state and California, including Google, Lyft and Square. Concerns about the COVID-19 have also led to the cancellations of major events, like Mobile World Congress and Google’s I/O developer conference.

Africa Roundup: TLcom closes $71M fund, Jumo raises $55M, AWS partners with Safaricom

By Jake Bright

VC firm TLcom Capital closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million in February, and announced plans to invest in 12 startup over the next 18 months.

The group —  with offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi — is looking for tech-enabled, revenue-driven ventures in Africa from seed-stage to Series B, according to TLcom Managing Partner Maurizio Caio.

He told TechCrunch the fund was somewhat agnostic on startup sectors, but was leaning toward infrastructure, logistics ventures vs. consumer finance companies.

On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya,  South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.

TLcom’s current Africa portfolio includes Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, Kenya’s Twiga Foods,  a B2B food supply-chain company and tech-talent accelerator Andela.

Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .

For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

One $50 million round wasn’t enough for South Africa’s Jumo, so the fintech firm raised another — $55 million — in February, backed by

Goldman Sachs led the Cape Town based company’s $52 million round back in 2018.

“This fresh investment comes from new and existing…investors including Goldman Sachs,  Odey Asset Management and LeapFrog Investments,” Jumo said in a statement —  though Goldman told TechCrunch its participation in this week’s round isn’t confirmed.

After the latest haul, Jumo has raised $146 million in capital, according to Crunchbase.

Founded in 2015, the venture offers a full tech stack for partners to build savings, lending, and insurance products for customers in emerging markets.

Jumo is active in six markets and plans to expand to two new countries in Africa (Nigeria and Ivory Coast) and two in Asia (Bangladesh and India).

The company’s products have disbursed over $1 billion loans and served over 15 million people and small businesses, according to Jumo data.

Jumo joins a growing list of African digital-finance startups raising big money from outside investors and expanding abroad. A $200 million investment by Visa in 2019 catapulted Nigerian payments firm Interswitch  to unicorn status, the same year the company launched its Verge card product on Discover’s global network.

Amazon Web Services  has entered a partnership with Safaricom — Kenya’s largest telco, ISP and mobile payment provider — in a collaboration that could spell competition between American cloud providers in Africa.

In a statement to TechCrunch,  the East African company framed the arrangement as a “strategic agreement” whereby Safaricom  will sell AWS services (primarily cloud) to its East Africa customer network.

Safaricom — whose products include the famed M-Pesa  mobile money product — will also become the first Advanced Consulting Partner for the AWS partner network in East Africa.

Partnering with Safaricom plugs AWS into the network of one East Africa’s most prominent digital companies.

Safaricom, led primarily by its M-Pesa mobile money product, holds remarkable dominance in Kenya, Africa’s 6th largest economy. M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents and generates around one-fourth of Safaricom’s ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018).

safaricomM-Pesa has 80% of Kenya’s mobile money agent network, 82% of the country’s active mobile-money subscribers and transfers 80% of Kenya’s mobile-money transactions, per the latest sector statistics.

A number of Safaricom’s clients (including those it provides payments and internet services to) are companies, SMEs and startups.

The Safaricom-AWS partnership points to an emerging competition between American cloud service providers to scale in Africa by leveraging networks of local partners.

The most obvious rival to the AWS-Safaricom strategic agreement is the Microsoft -Liquid Telecom collaboration. Since 2017, MS has partnered with the Southern African digital infrastructure company to grow Microsoft’s AWS competitor product — Azure — and offer cloud services to the continent’s startups and established businesses.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Stack Overflow expands its Teams service with new integrations

By Frederic Lardinois

Most developers think of Stack Overflow as a question and answer site for their programming questions. But over the last few years, the company has also built a successful business in its Stack Overflow for Teams product, which essentially offers companies a private version of its Q&A product. Indeed, the Teams product now brings in a significant amount of revenue for the company and the new executive team at Stack Overflow is betting that it can help the company grow rapidly in the years to come.

To make Teams even more attractive to businesses, the company today launched a number of new integrations with Jira (Enterprise and Business), GitHub (Enterprise and Business) and Microsoft Teams (Enterprise). These join existing integrations with Slack, Okta and the Business tier of Microsoft Teams.

“I think the integrations that we have been building are reflective of that developer workflow and all of the number of tools that someone who is building and leveraging technology has to interact with,” Stack Overflow Chief Product Officer Teresa Dietrich told me. “When we think about integrations, we think about the vertical right and I think that ‘developer workflow’ is one of those industry verticals that we’re thinking about. ChatOps is obviously another one, as you can see from our Slack and Teams integration. And the JIRA and GitHub [integrations] that we’re building are really at the core of a developer workflow.”

Current Stack Overflow for Teams customers include the likes of Microsoft, Expensify and Wix. As the company noted, 65 percent of its existing Teams customers use GitHub, so it’s no surprise that it is building out this integration.

Honeywell says it will soon launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer

By Frederic Lardinois

“The best-kept secret in quantum computing.” That’s what Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) CEO Ilyas Khan called Honeywell‘s efforts in building the world’s most powerful quantum computer. In a race where most of the major players are vying for attention, Honeywell has quietly worked on its efforts for the last few years (and under strict NDA’s, it seems). But today, the company announced a major breakthrough that it claims will allow it to launch the world’s most powerful quantum computer within the next three months.

In addition, Honeywell also today announced that it has made strategic investments in CQC and Zapata Computing, both of which focus on the software side of quantum computing. The company has also partnered with JPMorgan Chase to develop quantum algorithms using Honeywell’s quantum computer. The company also recently announced a partnership with Microsoft.

Honeywell has long built the kind of complex control systems that power many of the world’s largest industrial sites. It’s that kind of experience, be that that has now allowed it to build an advanced ion trap that is at the core of its efforts.

This ion trap, the company claims in a paper that accompanies today’s announcement, has allowed the team to achieve decoherence times that are significantly longer than those of its competitors.

“It starts really with the heritage that Honeywell had to work from,” Tony Uttley, the president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, told me. “And we, because of our businesses within aerospace and defense and our business in oil and gas — with solutions that have to do with the integration of complex control systems because of our chemicals and materials businesses — we had all of the underlying pieces for quantum computing, which are just fabulously different from classical computing. You need to have ultra-high vacuum system capabilities. You need to have cryogenic capabilities. You need to have precision control. You need to have lasers and photonic capabilities. You have to have magnetic and vibrational stability capabilities. And for us, we had our own foundry and so we are able to literally design our architecture from the trap up.”

The result of this is a quantum computer that promises to achieve a quantum Volume of 64. Quantum Volume (QV), it’s worth mentioning, is a metric that takes into account both the number of qubits in a system as well as decoherence times. IBM and others have championed this metric as a way to, at least for now, compare the power of various quantum computers.

So far, IBM’s own machines have achieved QV 32, which would make Honeywell’s machine significantly more powerful.

Khan, whose company provides software tools for quantum computing and was one of the first to work with Honeywell on this project, also noted that the focus on the ion trap is giving Honeywell a bit of an advantage. “I think that the choice of the ion trap approach by Honeywell is a reflection of a very deliberate focus on the quality of qubit rather than the number of qubits, which I think is fairly sophisticated,” he said. “Until recently, the headline was always growth, the number of qubits running.”

The Honeywell team noted that many of its current customers are also likely users of its quantum solutions. These customers, after all, are working on exactly the kind of problems in chemistry or material science that quantum computing, at least in its earliest forms, is uniquely suited for.

Currently, Honeywell has about 100 scientists, engineers and developers dedicated to its quantum project.

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