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Google rolls back SameSite cookie changes to keep essential online services from breaking

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced that it will temporarily roll back the changes it recently made to how its Chrome browser handles cookies in order to ensure that sites that perform essential services like banking, online grocery, government services and healthcare won’t become inaccessible to Chrome users during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The new SameSite rules, which the company started rolling out to a growing number of Chrome users in recent months, are meant to make it harder for sites to access cookies from third-party sites and hence track a user’s online activity. These new rules are also meant to prevent cross-site request forgery attacks.

Under Google’s new guidance, developers have to explicitly allow their cookies to be read by third-party sites, otherwise, the browser will prevent these third-party sites from accessing them.

Since this is a pretty major change, Google gave developers quite a bit of time to adapt their applications to it. Still, not every site is ready yet and so the Chrome team decided to halt the gradual rollout and stop enforcing these new rules for the time being.

“While most of the web ecosystem was prepared for this change, we want to ensure stability for websites providing essential services including banking, online groceries, government services and healthcare that facilitate our daily life during this time,” writes Google Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh. “As we roll back enforcement, organizations, users and sites should see no disruption.”

A Google spokesperson also told us that the team saw some breakage in sites “that would not normally be considered essential, but with COVID-19 having become more important, we made this decision in an effort to ensure stability during this time.”

The company says it plans to resume its SameSite enforcement over the summer, though the exact timing isn’t yet clear.

Visa’s Africa strategy banks on startup partnerships

By Jake Bright

Visa has prioritized growth in Africa, and partnering with startups is central to its strategy.

This became obvious in 2019 after the global financial services giant entered a series of collaborations on the continent, but Visa confirmed it in their 2020 Investor Day presentation.

On the company’s annual call, participants mentioned Africa 28 times and featured regional startups prominently in the accompanying deck. Visa’s regional president for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), Andrew Torre, detailed the region’s payments potential and his company’s plans to tap it. “We’re partnering with non-conventional players to realize this potential — fintechs, neobanks and digital wallets — to reach the one billion consumer opportunity,” he said.

Africa strategy and team

TechCrunch has covered a number of Visa’s Africa collaborations and spoke to two execs driving the company’s engagement with startups from Nigeria to South Africa.

Visa’s head of Strategic Partnerships, Fintech and Ventures for Africa, Otto Williams, has been out front, traveling the continent and engaging fintech founders.

Located in Cape Town, Visa’s group general manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Aida Diarra, oversees the company’s operations in 48 countries. Visa has a long track record working with the region’s large banking entities, but that’s shifted to smaller ventures.

visa africa

Image Credits: Visa

Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically for curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be co-located at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing — in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person — at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide-band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this — we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone — something Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

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.

Operation COVID-19 will allow self-reporting of cases, to get ahead of official figures

By Mike Butcher

The Canadian founder of a startup who caught COVID-19 from Justin Trudeau’s wife has launched an initiative to allow anyone to self-report their own case of the disease and publish the results, helping authorities to get ahead of the pandemic.

Operation COVID-19 will visualize both official and suspected cases of the Coronavirus in data lists and on a map, with the aim of saving lives and improving global public health systems. People will be able to self-report the case via an anonymous questionnaire.

The site aims to demonstrate how many official tests — compared to suspected COVID-19 cases — there are.

“The more people who can contribute their COVID-19 experiences, we can turn the table on this pandemic and build more intelligence to save lives,” said co-founder Jillian Kowalchuk.

Kowalchuk is cofounder of “street-smart” safety app Safe & The City, but fell ill with COVID-19 symptoms after meeting the Prime Minister of Canada’s wife, Sophie Trudeau — who later tested positive for the disease — on March 5th at Canada House in London, as she Instagrammed.

She was later dismayed to learn she was refused a test for COVID-19 in a UK hospital and was instead told to go home and self-isolate, making her concerned about the lack of testing and public awareness of the scale of the problem.

“First-hand experiences like this are becoming more common throughout the world as more are refused testing, leaving the majority of COVID-19 cases unknown, under-estimating the severity of the problem, limiting preventative measures and resource mobilization into other needed public health monitoring systems,” she told TechCrunch .

The initiative will collect insights from people who have contracted COVID-19 to provide back to the medical and public health authorities.

In doing so it will create a map visualization of both official and self-reported COVID-19 cases, recovered and deaths to support best practices globally, including more testing.

To contribute software development to the project you can access its Github here or volunteer by emailing operationcovid19@gmail.com or joining the Facebook group.

Africa Roundup: Africa’s tech ecosystem responds to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

In March, the virus gripping the world — COVID-19 — started to spread in Africa. In short order, actors across the continent’s tech ecosystem began to step up to stem the spread.

Early in March, Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on March 19. “It has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s stats Tuesday there were 3,671 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 87 confirmed deaths related to the virus, up from 463 cases and 8 deaths on March 18.

As COVID-19 began to grow in major economies, governments and startups in Africa started measures to shift a greater volume of transactions toward digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

Kenya, Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption, turned to mobile money as a public-health tool.

At the urging of the Central Bank and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s largest telecom, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world — largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa  in the country — with 32 million of its 53 million population subscribed to mobile-money accounts, according to Kenya’s Communications Authority.

On March 20, Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

In March, Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, announced funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website to provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects.

CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani expressed concern for Africa’s ability to combat a coronavirus outbreak. “Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system… is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform.

The 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 $5,000.

Zindi will also sponsor a hackathon in April to find solutions to coronavirus related problems.

Image Credits: Sam Masikini via Zindi

On the digital retail front, Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia announced measures it would take on its network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — said it would donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has also offered African governments use of of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” CEO Sacha Poignonnec told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Private tech companies mobilize to address shortages for medical supplies, masks and sanitizer

By Jonathan Shieber

Startups across the nation and around the world are looking for ways to relieve shortages of much-needed personal protective equipment and sanitizers used to halt the spread of COVID-19.

While some of the largest privately held technology companies, like SpaceX and Tesla, have shifted to manufacturing ventilators, smaller companies are also trying to pitch in and relieve scarcity locally.

Supplies have been difficult to come by in some of the areas hardest hit by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the shortfalls have been made worse by a lack of coordination from the federal government. In some instances local governments have been bidding for supplies against each other and the federal government to acquire needed personal protective equipment.

On Sunday, New York’s governor Mario Cuomo pleaded with local governments to not engage in a bidding war. In fact, Kentucky was outbid by the Federal government for personal protective equipment.

“FEMA came out and bought it all out from under us,” Kentucky governor Andy Beshear told a local newspaper. “It is a challenge that the federal government says, ‘States, you need to go and find your supply chain,’ and then the federal government ends up buying from that supply chain.”

Against this backdrop local startups and maker spaces are stepping up to do what they can to fill the gap.

Alcohol brands are turning their attention to making hand sanitizer to distribute in communities experiencing shortages. 3D printing companies are working on new ways to manufacture personal protective equipment and swabs for COVID-19 testing. And one fast fashion retail startup is teaching its tailors and seamstresses how to make cloth masks for consumer protection.

AirCo, a New York-based startup that developed a process to use captured carbon dioxide to make liquor, shifted its efforts to making hand sanitizer for donations in communities in New York City.

Now, new alcohol brands Bev and Endless West are joining the manufacturing push.

Endless West announced this morning that it would shift production away from its distillery to begin making hand sanitizers. The World Health Organization approved their sanitizers, which the company will produce in its warehouse in San Francisco.

The 2-ounce bottles will be donated to local restaurants and bars that remain open for delivery, so that employees can use them and distribute them to customers. Bulk quantities will be distributed to healthcare organizations and facilities that need them.

Endless West also put out a call for other companies to provide supplies to hospitals and health organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We felt it was imperative to do our part and dedicate what resources we have to assist with shortages in the healthcare and food & beverage industries who keep the engine running and provide such important functions in this time of immense need throughout the community.” said Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West, in a statement.

Los Angeles-based Bev is no different.

“As an alcoholic beverage company, Bev is very lucky in that we are licensed to purchase ethanol directly from our suppliers, who are doing their part by discounting the product to anyone licensed to purchase it,” said Bev chief executive, Alix Peabody. “Community underscores everything we do here at Bev, and as such, we will be producing hand sanitizer and distributing it free of charge to the homeless and elderly communities here in Venice, populations who largely have insufficient access to healthcare and essential goods like sanitizer.”

Hand sanitizer is one sorely needed item in short supply, but there are others — including face masks, surgical masks, face shields, swabs and ventilator equipment that other startups are now switching gears to produce.

(Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

In Canada, INKSmith, a startup that was making design and tech tools accessible for kids, has now moved to making face shields and is hiring up to 100 new employees to meet demand.

“I think in the short term, we’re going to scale up to meet the needs of the province soon. After that, we’re going to meet the demands of Canada,” INKSmith CEO Jeremy Hedges told the Canadian news outlet Global News.

3D printing companies like Massachusetts-based Markforged and Formlabs are both making personal protective equipment like face shields, as well as nasal swabs to use for COVID-19 testing.

Markforged is pushing ahead with a number of efforts to focus some of the benefits of 3D printing on the immediate problem of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers most exposed to COVID-19.

“We have about 20 people working on this pretty much as much as they can,” said Markforged chief executive, Gregory Mark. “We break it up into three different programs. The first stage is prototyping validation and getting first pass to doctors. The second is clinical trials and the third is production. We are in clinical trials with two. One is the nasal swab and two is the face shield.”

The ability to spin up manufacturing more quickly than traditional production lines using 3D printing means that both companies are in some ways better positioned to address a thousandfold increase in demand for supplies that no one anticipated.

“3D printing is the fastest way to make anything in the world up to a certain number of days, weeks, months or years,” says Mark. “As soon as we get the green light from hospitals, 10,000 printers around the world can be printing face shields and nose swabs.”

FormLabs, which already has a robust business supplying custom-printed surgical-grade healthcare products, is pushing to bring its swabs to market quickly.

“Not only can we help in the development of the swabs, but we can manufacture them ourselves,” says FormLabs chief product officer, David Lakatos.

Swabs for testing are in short supply in part because there are only a few manufacturers in the world who made them — and one of those primary manufacturers is in Italy, which means supplies and staff are in short supply. “There’s a shortage of them and nobody was expecting that we would need to test millions of people in short order,” says Lakatos.

FormLabs is also working on another piece of personal protective equipment — looking at converting snorkeling masks into respirators and face masks. “Our goal is to make one that is reusable,” says Lakatos. “A patient can use it as a respirator and you can put it in an autoclave and reuse it.”

In Brooklyn, Voodoo Manufacturing has repurposed its 5,000 square foot facility to mass-produce personal protective equipment. The company has set up a website, CombatingCovid.com, where organizations in need of supplies can place orders. Voodoo aims to print at least 2,500 protective face shields weekly and can scale to larger production volumes based on demand, the company said.

STAMFORD, CT – MARCH 23: Nurse Hannah Sutherland, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) awaits new patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station at Cummings Park on March 23, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Availability of protective clothing for medical workers has become a major issue as COVID-19 cases surge throughout the United States. The Stamford site is run by Murphy Medical Associates. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Finally, Resonance, the fast fashion startup launched by the founder of FirstMark Capital, Lawrence Lenihan, is using its factory in the Dominican Republic to make face masks for consumers on the island and beyond.

“To contribute to the Dominican health efforts, Resonance is acting to utilize their resources to manufacture safety masks for distribution to local hospitals, nursing homes, and other high-risk facilities as quickly as possible. They have provided user-friendly instructions and material and will pay their sewers who can to make these masks from the security of their homes,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Resonance is currently working to share this downloadable platform and simple instructions to their website, so anyone in the world can contribute to their own local communities.”

All of these efforts — and countless others too numerous to mention — point to the ways small companies are hoping to do something to help their communities stay safe and healthy in the midst of this global outbreak.

But many of these extreme measures may not have been necessary had governments around the world actively coordinated their response and engaged in better preparation before the situation became so dire.

There are a litany of errors that governments made — and are still making — in their efforts to respond to the pandemic, even as the private sector steps in and steps up to address them.

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.

The future of collectibles is digital

By Walter Thompson
Ryoma Ito Contributor
Ryoma Ito is co-founder of MakersPlace, a community empowering the world's digital creators. In prior roles, he co-founded a B2B e-commerce subscription business servicing 100k+ online merchants, was VP of Product at Specialdeals and was employee No. 1 at two venture-backed startups, one of which was acquired by Groupon.

The estimated size of the global collectibles market is $370 billion.

People have an innate propensity to collect, which drives purchases of collectible goods like art, games, sports memorabilia, toys and more. But given that the world is rapidly adopting digital each day, how likely is it that this market can continue to grow as is?

Won’t this primarily physical market have little choice but to evolve with the times?

With an increase in digital adoption, a step-function innovation is emerging; digital collectibles. The new medium is gaining in popularity and its influence is spreading relatively quickly.

The potential impact on the cryptocurrency landscape, while seemingly unrelated, is quite profound. Businesses already present in the collectibles market have new offerings, demographics and economic impacts to take into account. Even household brands are acknowledging their significance and building strategies around them.

Image by Christian Braun via hobbyDB

Digital collectibles have taken a foothold and are well on their way to increase their presence in our daily lives.

What is a digital collectible?

Africa turns to mobile payments as a tool to curb COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Africa is using digital finance as a means to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Governments and startups on the continent are implementing measures to shift a greater volume of payment transactions toward mobile money and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s an option facilitated by the boom in fintech that’s occurred in Africa over the last decade. By several estimates, the continent is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

But because of that, fintech — and startups focused on financial inclusion — now receive the majority of VC funding annually in Africa, according to recent data.

As COVID-19 cases began to grow in the continent’s major economies last week, the continent’s leader in digital payment adoption — Kenya — turned to mobile-money as a public-health tool.

The country’s largest teleco, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency in response to COVID-19.

Image Credits: Flickr

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

The move came after Safaricom met with the country’s Central Bank and per a directive from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta “to explore ways of deepening mobile-money usage to reduce risk of spreading the virus through physical handling of cash,” according to a release provided to TechCrunch from Safaricom.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of mobile-money adoption in the world, largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which stands as Africa’s 6th largest economy. Across Kenya’s population of 53 million, M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

M-PESA Sector Stats 4Q 2019 per Kenya’s Communications Authority

With all major providers in Kenya there are 32 million subscribers, which means roughly 60% of the country’s population has access to mobile-money.

Ghana is also using digital finance as a monetary policy lever to reduce the spread of COVID-19

On March 20, the West African country’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa is prompting more countries and tech companies to include mobile finance as part of a broader response. The continent’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

Source; World Health Organization

By the World Health Organization’s stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The country with 40% of the region’s cases is South Africa, which declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Unlike Ghana and Kenya, the government in Africa’s second largest economy hasn’t issued directives toward mobile payments, but the situation with COVID-19 is pushing fintech startups to act, according to Yoco CEO Katlego Maphai.

The Series B stage venture develops and sells digital payment hardware and services for small businesses on a network of 80,000 clients that processes roughly $500 million annually.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

With the growth in coronavirus cases in South Africa, Yoco has issued a directive to clients to encourage customers to use the contactless payment option on its point of sale machines. The startup has also accelerated its development of a remote payment product, that would enable transfers on its client network via a weblink.

“This is an opportunity to start driving contactless adoption,” Maphai told TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

In Nigeria — home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million — the growth of COVID-19 cases has shifted the country toward electronic payments and prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

Parts of Lagos — which is connected to Nigeria’s largest commercial hub of Lagos State — have begun to require digital payments in response to COVID-19, according to Paga’s CEO Tayo Oviosu .

“We’re seeing some stores that are saying they are not accepting cash anymore,” he told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.

Cash only Nigeria Paga

Image Credits: Paga

Paga already offers free P2P transfers on its multi-channel network of 24,840 agents and 14 million customers. The startup, that recently expanded to Mexico and partnered with Visa, will also allow free transfers up to roughly 5000 Naira (≈ $15) from customer accounts to bank accounts, to encourage more digital payments use in Nigeria.

Paga’s CEO believes the current COVID-19 crisis will encourage more digital finance adoption in Nigeria, which has shown a cash-is-king reluctance by parts of the population to use mobile payments.

“I think it will help move the needle, but it won’t be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

Time and research will determine if efforts of African governments and tech companies to encourage digital payments over physical currency yield results in halting the spread of COVID-19 on the continent.

It is a unique case-study of mobile finance in Africa being employed to impact human behavior during a public health emergency.

IBM and The Weather Channel launch detailed local COVID-19 maps and data tracking

By Darrell Etherington

There are already a number of resources available for mapping the spread of confirmed COVID-19 cases both in the U.S. and globally, but IBM and its subsidiary The Weather Company have launched new tools that bring COVID-19 mapping and analysis to more people via their Weather Channel mobile app and weather.com.

Existing tools are useful, but come from fairly specialized sources including the World Health Organization (WHO) and Johns Hopkins University. This new initiative combines data fro these same sources, including global confirmed reported COVID-19 cases, as well as reported data from sources at both the state and county level. This is collected on a so-called “incident map” that displays color-coded reported case data for states and counties, as well as on state-wide trend graphs and through reporting of stats including relative percentage increase of cases week-over-week.

On top of these sections built into the core, consumer-facing Weather.com products, IBM has also launched a more in-depth analytics reporting dashboard, providing views of global reported COVID-19 cases, as well as rate of spread based on available data, county-by-county stats and more.

This information from IBM, which runs on its Watson and Cognos Analytics tools, are intended for use by both researchers and public officials – but they’re also meant for general public consumption. IBM is also providing resources including fact-checking resources and practical guidance for both COVID-19 patients and the general public, to help not only inform people about the spread of the virus, but also the steps they can take to protect themselves and others.

One of the key elements of COVID-19 mitigation is making sure that the average American has access to reliable and accurate information, including the most up-to-date guidelines about social distancing and isolation from trusted experts including the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That makes this a key resource in the ongoing efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, since it resides in an app that is among the most popular pieces of software available for smartphones. There are around 45 million or so monthly active users of the Weather Channel app, which means that this information will now be readily accessible by a large percentage of the U.S. population.

New crowdsourced COVID-19 symptom map could build a more complete pandemic picture

By Darrell Etherington

A new initiative by the Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School could provide a new kind of signal for those studying the spread of the coronavirus pandemic across the U.S. The ‘Covid Near You’ map developed by researchers at both organizations, asks individuals to self-report any potential COVID-19 symptoms, as well as if they’ve taken a test, and then maps that activity on a rolling two week basis.

This isn’t a map of confirmed COVID-19 cases – other sources for that information already exist, including Google’s coronavirus map, which uses case numbers and figures provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the John Hopkins coronavirus resource center map. These are useful resources, but only reflect confirmed cases based on approved testing, which, especially in the U.S., is limited by testing availability and drastically under-represents the actual spread according to most experts.

New ways of tracking the spread of the virus are needed in order to supplement testing efforts, and while self-reported symptoms are hardly a reliable indicator of actual COVID-19 spread, they are a potential signal or leading indicator that, combined with other data included confirmed cases, can help researchers and medical professionals focus their efforts and gauge the effectiveness of strategies like social distancing meant to slow or stop the spread.

Another recent project, Kinsa’s U.S. health weather map, also relies on crowdsourced data to try to provide a different view of the potential spread of COVID-19. Their information is body temperature, as recorded by their connected smart thermometer hardware, however, which provides a reliable measure of one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 patients.

Like the ‘Covid Near You’ map, Kinsa’s is not a reliable indicator of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but it is a strong signal that can provide information not available when relying on certified testing. Taken together, self-reported symptoms (especially as more people self-report using this new map), temperature data tied to geolocation, and confirmed cases could provide a much more complete picture of where hotspots are occurring, and the patterns of spread beyond those communities known to be most affected, and those that could be next in the chain of transmission.

Coordinated response required to optimize telehealth during COVID-19 pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Eric Perakslis Contributor
Eric Perakslis, PhD is a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University, Lecturer, Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School and Innovation Advisor to Médecins Sans Frontières. He has significant experience leading technology efforts in infectious disease outbreaks.

As the COVID-19 epidemic scales exponentially across the United States, calls for expended use of telehealth, innovative technology solutions and optimization of life-saving critical care hospital beds clearly highlight unmet needs in the American healthcare system.

Based on lessons from both recent Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), those of us who are experienced in outbreak response know that the difference between success and failure in responding to the current pandemic will depend equally on what is done and how it is done.

As a nation that prides itself on independence, innovation and ingenuity, the United States must understand that ill-considered heroics can cost lives and that a coordinated response is the best response. That is, if the measure of success is the number of lives saved.

Solutions must be conceived, built and deployed on the ground

One of the first rules of humanitarian and disaster response is that the boots on the ground (BOTG) must be in control. When it comes to technology delivery, this has multiple essential implications. First, the ultimate arbiter of requirements is the field team. The last thing patients or front-line responders need is programmers sitting at home writing code and arguing with health workers in the trenches about functions and features. It never works. Even when agreement is perceived via remote conversations, the reality on the ground may be different or may change instantly, negating previously agreed-upon specifications.

My own personal experience with these hard facts occurred toward the end of the West African EVD outbreak.

In May of 2015, as the case count was trending toward zero and our efforts turned to rebuilding local health systems that had been devastated early in the outbreak, I was writing apps that would enable the proper triage of a possible Ebola patient. These apps were somewhat complex algorithmically but had to be presented graphically to make this process as easy as taking a fast-food order.

This is not difficult—the apps are menu-driven and graphical. Workers simply input symptoms by selecting pictures and the menu walks them through the process. I spent several weeks building and testing the apps based on forms that had been emailed to me directly from the clinic.

When I arrived a week later, however, the people who had emailed me the material I used to develop the apps told me that that the forms were incorrect and they had never seen them before. Having anticipated this possibility, I spent the next 36 hours completely re-writing the apps and the project was highly successful.

My lesson? The time I spent coding apps remotely from emailed specs was wasted; I should have traveled earlier and built the apps on the ground. They would have been correct the first time and the project could have started at least two weeks earlier.

Use privacy-preserving technologies at the outset

The humanitarian response sector operates with a deep understanding that all interventions in crisis settings have corresponding risks to the immediate victims as well as to the responders. Key to mitigating these risks are ethical frameworks that protect all parties from immediate and longer-term consequences. As new procedures and technologies are quickly deployed against COVID-19, there is neither reason nor excuse to jeopardize patient privacy or expose healthcare workers and institutions to additional liability risk.

Because data sharing is essential to combating this pandemic, privacy-preserving technologies should be employed at the outset of implementing any technical solutions. For example, tokenization is a well-understood privacy-preserving technique for facilitating data sharing. A good start would be to automatically tokenize every COVID-19 test result, thereby enabling detailed data sharing across various response capabilities.

Importantly, digital health tools contain the inherent capacity to ensure ethical medical intervention. In light of this, any calls to weaken patient protections for the sake of technological priorities must be viewed both skeptically and critically.

Focus on consistent, automated and standardized data collection

Even in a public health emergency, consistent if not fully standardized data collection is a necessity, not a luxury.

The West African EVD outbreak that struck Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone outpaced the ability of any one government to stop it. This necessitated that the World Health Organization (WHO) play a coordinating role — one that proved highly beneficial. Although the WHO’s response was not perfect, it nevertheless included the publication of a strategic plan that included communications strategies, training on personal protective equipment, case definitions and medical and epidemiological data collection and management standards.

Activities were coordinated across 60 specialized Ebola treatment units that were capable of providing approximately 3,000 beds for Ebola care in the three countries most affected by the outbreak. Further, more than 40 organizations and 58 foreign medical teams deployed an estimated 2,500 international personnel as well as thousands of local staff.

The United States is already at this scale of response for the COVID-19 pandemic, and we anticipate continued exponential growth. Given the magnitude of current and future challenges to healthcare and public health systems and resources, adopting a common approach to data collection and sharing is essential. Such a step need not be difficult: a simple digital questionnaire comprising 5-10 questions and employed during every telehealth session would afford substantial insights into the presentation, triage, treatment and follow-up of the disease.

In Sierra Leone we did this with inexpensive Android apps that ensured high-quality data collection and availability. The key to the success of this effort was that the coordinated response effort provided standard definitions, questionnaires and data management requirements that were employed with surprising efficacy and consistency across a decentralized multinational response.

If we standardize data collection via a simple triage app or case report form, people will use them, regardless of the format—especially if data collection can be done by nonclinical staff, thus allowing doctors and nurses to devote more of their precious time to patient care.

Make use of all “free” metadata and technology capabilities

Another essential lesson from the experience of responding to outbreaks in low-resource settings is to “use all parts of the animal.” For example: when we replaced or supplemented paper contract tracing with digital data collection, accuracy and reliability were improved thanks to the other “free” capabilities already available with the mobile devices. The global positioning system (GPS) capabilities of the cheap Android phones we used provided exact geolocation coordinates.

Video recording captured and documented complex consent discussions in multiple languages with village chieftains. Training videos could be reviewed on-demand and repeatedly by rapidly-trained workers who were rushing into complex and potentially dangerous situations.

As we spin up our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to apply this type of thinking about the exploitation of native technology features and metadata to telehealth capabilities. Starting with the foundation of privacy-preserving tools and techniques, the IP addresses, duration, and timestamps of telehealth sessions could be used to establish a real-time dashboard of medical consults for every state, region, and town.

Overlaying tokenized COVID-19 test results could provide a view of disease incidence at a city-block level of detail that would improve the certainty of risk determination and treatment recommendations. In low-resource settings, which the United States is quickly becoming, taking a “waste not, want not” approach to technologies and metadata is essential.

Use pre-existing, purpose-built toolsets

Among the most painful lessons from the West African Ebola outbreak were the importance of time and the understanding that smaller interventions deployed earlier would have prevented major systemic stresses later. Many efforts to deliver technology solutions started from scratch and took too long to build and deploy. Amid the demands of the current pandemic, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting these lessons.

There are already specialized, fit-for-purpose toolsets available for infectious disease outbreaks. CommCare by Dimagi, for example, is an open-source Android platform that has COVID-19-specific contact tracing applications and other toolsets ready to deploy. All parties seeking to obtain or deliver technology solutions should consult experts and seek off-the-shelf solutions BEFORE anyone writes a single line of code.

Patients are waiting, and the “when” may be more important than the “how.” Or, in other words: smaller solutions delivered when needed beat grand solutions delivered after the need has passed.

The battle with the current pandemic is being fought in clinics, doctor’s offices, hospitals and via telehealth sessions as I write this, and there is no time to waste. The people on the front lines are our “boots on the ground.” Let’s get them every tool they need as quickly and effectively as we can.

Non-profit launches COVID-19 treatment and vaccine tracker with daily updates

By Darrell Etherington

There are a lot of global efforts underway to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, including repurposing of existing drugs approved for use in treating other forms of coronavirus and respiratory diseases. Many of these efforts are just entering into the formal clinical study phase, which will be required before any treatment is certified for widespread use in patients diagnosed with the illness. Vaccines are still likely at least a year out from approvals, though some have already entered into clinical human trials at unprecedented speed owing to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic.

It’s definitely a challenge to keep up with all the existing efforts to pursue effective treatments and develop vaccines, but public health non-profit the Milken Institute has a new resource that aims to keep track of at least the efforts from leading research institutions and drug makers. Their COVID-19 treatment and vaccine tracker currently offers a list of nearly 60 treatments, as well as 43 vaccines in development.

This list details the type of treatment or vaccine being studied or developed, as well as their FDA-approved status (for other conditions – none have been approved specifically for treating COVID-19 to date). They also indicate who is doing the drug development or research, and what stage the research project is at (either pre-clinical or clinical). The table lists the source of funding, if available, as well as the anticipated timetable for the phases of the project if known. It provides sourcing for each, as well, including credible media sources, journals and the World Health Organization.

This kind of tracker is a good resource for anyone looking to keep tabs on the ongoing work that people are doing to take on COVID-19, though it’s a high-level view that is probably of most interest to other ongoing projects, as well as health and research professionals who might be able to assist in the development of these solutions, or to collaborate with partners. The Milken Institute says that it’s going to be updating the tracker daily at noon eastern with any additional fresh info from reliable sources.

As mentioned, even vaccines that are already in development, like the mRNA-based immune therapy that began human trials last week in the U.S., will take many months to come to market, and they still have to demonstrate their effectiveness, too. In the meantime, people should do everything they can to isolate and remain indoors in order to help buy time for the healthcare system to develop treatments that can mitigate the impact of the disease, and eventually, ways to introduce immunity in order to block its transmission.

Jumia adapts Pan-African e-commerce network in response to COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia is adapting its digital retail network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — announced a series of measures on Friday. Jumia will donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has offered African governments use of of its last mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers. Jumia will also reduce fees on its JumiaPay finance product to encourage digital payments over cash, which can be a conduit for the spread of coronavirus.

Governments in Jumia’s operating countries have started to engage the private sector on a possible COVID-19 outbreak on the continent, according to Jumia CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“I don’t have a crystal ball and no one knows what’s gonna happen,” he told TechCrunch on a call. But in the event the virus spreads rapidly on the continent, Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” Poignonnec said.

Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm. “About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s latest stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

Dr. Moeti noted that many socioeconomic factors in Africa — from housing to access to running water — make common measures to curb COVID-19, such as social-distancing or frequent hand washing, challenging. She went on to explain that the World Health Organization is looking for solutions that are adoptable to Africa’s circumstances, including working with partners and governments to get sanitizing materials to hospitals and families.

As coronavirus cases and related deaths grow, governments in Africa are responding. South Africa, which has the second highest COVID-19 numbers on the continent, declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Kenya has imposed its own travel and crowd restrictions and the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta urged citizens and businesses to opt for digital-payments as a safer means for transactions.

Across Africa’s tech ecosystem — which has seen significant growth in startups and now receives $2 billion in VC annually — a number of actors are stepping up.

Jumia Nigeria Fleet

Image Credit: Jumia

In addition to offering its logistics and supply-chain network, Jumia is collaborating with health ministries in several countries to use its website and mobile platforms to share COVID-19 related public service messages.

Heeding President Kenyatta’s call, last week Kenya’s largest telecom Safaricom waived fees on its M-Pesa mobile-money product (with over 20 million users) to increase digital payments use and lower the risk of spreading the COVID-19 through handling of cash.

Africa’s largest innovation incubator CcHub announced funding and a call for tech projects aimed at reducing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

A looming question for Africa’s tech scene is how startups in major markets such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa will weather major drops in revenue that could occur from a wider coronavirus outbreak.

Jumia is well capitalized, after going public in a 2019 IPO on the New York stock exchange, but still has losses exceeding its 2019 revenue of €160 million.

On managing business through a possible COVID-19 Africa downturn, “We’re very long-term oriented so it’s about doing what’s right with the governments and thinking about how we can help,” said Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“Revenue wise, it’s really to early to tell. We do believe that e-commerce in Africa is a trend that goes beyond this particular situation.”

Justice Dept. files its first coronavirus takedown: a bogus vaccine website

By Zack Whittaker

U.S. federal prosecutors have filed and won a temporary restraining order against a website offering a fraudulent coronavirus vaccine, which the Justice Department said is its first enforcement action related to the pandemic.

In a statement, the Justice Dept. said the action was taken against a website, said to be engaging in a wire fraud scheme, seeking “to profit from the confusion and widespread fear” surrounding the coronavirus strain, known as COVID-19.

The website, seen by TechCrunch, claims the World Health Organization is “giving away vaccine kits,” if unsuspecting victims pay a small fee for shipping. The website asks for a victim’s credit card information.

“In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine,” the Justice Department’s statement said.

A federal judge issued the temporary restraining order against the website’s owners, whose names are not known. The order also demanded that Namecheap, the site’s domain host, of the fraudulent statements, pull the site offline.

Although the Justice Dept. names the website, we are not. The website remains accessible at the time of writing.

A spokesperson for Namecheap  did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Assistant attorney general Jody Hunt said: “The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain. We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware.”

As it stands, there are more than 300,000 confirmed cases around the world. But as government authorities continue to lack testing equipment, the global number of infections is said to be far higher.

Some 80 million Americans are under lockdown, including California, New York, and Illinois as of Friday, in an effort to limit the spread of the respiratory illness.

The spread of the virus also prompted the U.S. and Canada to mutually agree to close the northern border, and the U.S. to close its southern border with Mexico to all but essential travel.

On Thursday, the U.S. ordered an unprecedented “do not travel” warning to all Americans.

With kids and adults staying at home, are virtual worlds ready for primetime?

By Eric Peckham

We’ve been diligently following the development of virtual worlds, also known as the “metaverse,” on TechCrunch.

Hanging out within the virtual worlds of games has become more popular in recent years with the growth of platforms like Roblox and open-world games like Fortnite, but it still isn’t a mainstream way to socialize outside of the young-adult demographic.

Three weeks ago, TechCrunch media columnist Eric Peckham published an in-depth report that positioned virtual worlds as the next era of social media. In an eight-part series, he looked at the history of virtual worlds and why games are already social networkswhy social networks want more gamingwhat the next few years looks like for the industry and why isn’t it mainstream alreadyhow these virtual worlds will lead to healthier social relationswhat the future of virtual economies will be and which companies are poised for success in this new market.

Given all that has changed in just the last three weeks — who would have thought that large swaths of the knowledge economy would suddenly find themselves entirely interacting virtually? — I wanted to get a sense of what the rising popularity of virtual worlds looks like in the midst of the outbreak of novel coronavirus. Eric and I had a call to discuss this and decided to share our conversation publicly.

Danny Crichton: So let’s talk about timing a bit. You wrote this eight-article series around virtual worlds and then all of a sudden post-publication there is this massive event — the novel coronavirus pandemic — causing a large portion of the human population to stay at home and interact only online. What’s happening now in the space?

Eric Peckham: I wrote my series on the multiverse because I was already seeing a surge of interest, both in terms of consumer demand for open-world MMO games and in terms of social media giants like Facebook and Snap trying to incorporate virtual worlds and social games into their platforms. Large companies are planning for virtual worlds in a way that is actionable and not just a futuristic vision. Over the last couple of years there has also been a lot of VC investment into a handful of startups focused on building next-generation virtual worlds for people to spend time in, virtual worlds with complex societies shaped by users’ contributions.

Talking to founders and investors in the gaming space, there has been a huge increase in usage over the last few weeks as more people hang out at home playing games, whether it’s on the adult side or the kid side.

Most of these next-generation virtual worlds are still in private beta but already popular platforms like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite are getting substantially more use than normal. A large portion of people stuck at home are escaping via the virtual worlds of games.

You wrote this whole analysis before you knew the extent of the pandemic — how has the outlook changed for this industry?

This accelerates the timeline of virtual worlds being a mainstream place to hang out and socialize in daily life. I think people will be at home for multiple months, not just a couple of weeks, and it’s going to change people’s perspectives on socializing and working from home.

That’s a really powerful cultural shift. It’s getting more people beyond the core gaming community excited about spending time in virtual worlds and hanging out with their friends there.

We have seen this most heavily with the youngest generation of internet users. The majority of kids 9-12 years old are users of Minecraft and Roblox who hang out there with friends after school. We’ll see that expand to older demographics more quickly than it was going to before.

One of the complaints that I’ve seen on Twitter is that even though we have one of the largest global human lockdowns of all time, all the VR headsets are basically gone. Is VR a key component of virtual worlds?

Well, you don’t need VR headsets in order to spend meaningful time with others in a virtual space. Hundreds of millions of people already do it through their mobile phones and through PCs and consoles.

This is at the heart of the gaming industry: creating virtual worlds for people to spend time in, both pursuing the mission of whatever a game is designed for but also interacting with others. Among the most popular mobile and PC games last year were massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.

Talking about gaming, one facet of the story that I thought was particularly interesting was the fact that gaming was still not that high in terms of market penetration in the population.

More than two billion people play video games in the context of a year. There’s incredible market penetration in that sense. But, at least for the data I’ve seen for the U.S., the percent of the population who play games on a given day is still much lower than the percent of the population who use social media on a given day.

The more that games become virtual worlds for socializing and hanging out beyond just the mission of the gameplay, the more who will turn to virtual worlds as a social and entertainment outlet when they have five minutes free to do something on their phone. Social media fills these small moments in life. MMO games right now don’t because they are so oriented around the gameplay, which takes time and uninterrupted focus. Virtual worlds in the vein of those on Roblox where you just hang out and explore with friends compete for that time with Instagram more directly.

Theater chains like Regal and AMC announced this week that they are entirely shutting down to wait out the pandemic. Is that going to affect these virtual world companies?

I think they are separate parts of media. Cinema attendance has been declining quite substantially for years, and the way the industry has made up for that is trying to turn cinemas into these premium experiences and increasing ticket prices. Kids are just as likely, if not more likely, to play a game together on a Friday night as they are to go to the cinema. Cinemas are less culturally relevant to young people than they once were.

We’ve seen a massive experiment in work from home, which is a form of virtual world, or at least, a virtual workplace. When it comes to popularizing virtual worlds, is it going to come from the entertainment side or the more productivity-oriented platforms?

It will come from the entertainment side, and from younger people using it to socialize, in part because there’s less fear around cultural etiquette compared to people meeting in a business setting who are worried about a virtual world context not feeling as professional. Over time, as virtual worlds become pervasive in our social lives they will become more natural places to chat with people about business as well.

As more and more people are working online and interacting virtually, a big question is how you get beyond Zoom calls or the technology that’s currently in the market for virtual conferences to something that feels more like walking around and chatting with people in person. It’s tough to do without the ability to walk around a virtual space. You can’t have those unplanned small group or one-on-one interactions with people you don’t know if you’re just boxes within a Zoom call or some other broadcast. It will be interesting to see what develops around virtual business conferences that stems from virtual world technology. I’ve seen a few teams exploring this.

Last question here, but we are looking at a major recession in the economy, and so how does the landscape of people earning money from virtual worlds change with coronavirus?

The second-to-last article in my series is about the virtual economies around virtual worlds. Any virtual world inherently has commerce and people have already been making real-world money from games and from early virtual worlds like Second Life.

Both people staying home amid the coronavirus and the recession that we seem to be entering are pressures that will push more people to look online for ways to make money. That will only increase the activity of virtual economies around some of these worlds, whether those are formally built into the game or they’re happening in a gray or black market around the games (which is more common).

Thanks, Eric.

Google Cloud announces four new regions as it expands its global footprint

By Frederic Lardinois

Google Cloud today announced its plans to open four new data center regions. These regions will be in Delhi (India), Doha (Qatar), Melbourne (Australia) and Toronto (Canada) and bring Google Cloud’s total footprint to 26 regions. The company previously announced that it would open regions in Jakarta, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seoul and Warsaw over the course of the next year. The announcement also comes only a few days after Google opened its Salt Lake City data center.

GCP already had a data center presence in India, Australia and Canada before this announcement, but with these newly announced regions, it now offers two geographically separate regions for in-country disaster recovery, for example.

Google notes that the region in Doha marks the company’s first strategic collaboration agreement to launch a region in the Middle East with the Qatar Free Zones Authority. One of the launch customers there is Bespin Global, a major managed services provider in Asia.

“We work with some of the largest Korean enterprises, helping to drive their digital transformation initiatives. One of the key requirements that we have is that we need to deliver the same quality of service to all of our customers around the globe,” said John Lee, CEO, Bespin Global. “Google Cloud’s continuous investments in expanding their own infrastructure to areas like the Middle East make it possible for us to meet our customers where they are.”

Zuckerberg details the ways Facebook and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are responding to COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some of the steps that Facebook and his family’s non-profit, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are taking to respond to the spread of both the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 and viral misinformation about the illness, in a statement posted earlier this evening.

Facebook’s response focuses on three areas: providing accurate information; stopping misinformation; and providing data for research (which is not creepy at all coming from Facebook).

To provide accurate information, Facebook is directing users who search for information on the coronavirus on its platform to the World Health Organization or local health authority through an automatic pop-up. That notification on information is also automatically populated into the news feed for everyone who is in a country where the World Health Organization has reported a case of person-to-person transmission.

“Given the developing situation, we’re working with national ministries of health and organizations like the WHO, CDC and UNICEF to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support. We’ll also give support and millions more in ad credits to other organizations too and we’ll be working closely with global health experts to provide additional help if needed.”

To stop the spread of misinformation on the platform, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook was removing false claims and conspiracy theories flagged by global health organizations and the company is blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the fears of the public by pitching snake oil cures.

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Facebook is “looking at how people can use our services to help contribute to broader efforts to contain the outbreak,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Researchers are already using aggregated and anonymized Facebook data — including mobility data and population density maps — to better understand how the virus is spreading.”

There are open questions around what controls Facebook has put in place to restrict who has access to the anonymized data and what users might be able to do with that data — or how long they can maintain access once the threat from the virus abates. Facebook had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Technology from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also helping with the medical efforts to halt the spread of the disease. Working with the Gates Foundation, researchers financed by the two organizations were able to fully sequence the genome of the virus that causes COVID-19 in a matter of days, making it easier for people infected with the virus to be identified.

That same team created a public version of the IDSeq tool so scientists could study the full genome in the context of other pathogens, Zuckerberg wrote.

Chan-Zuckerberg’s Biohub has also been working to develop a cell atlas, which maps different cell types in the body. Some researchers are using that atlas to try and assess how the coronavirus damages the lungs and identify potential treatments that could limit lung damage caused by the virus.

“There’s more we can do to help people feel less isolated and help one another and we’re working on some ideas we’ll share in the next few weeks, but for now the focus is on slowing the spread of the outbreak itself,” Zuckerberg wrote. “This is a difficult time for a lot of people and I’m thinking of everyone affected by this — the people who are sick or quarantined, their friends and family and of course the healthcare workers who are always on the frontlines of any outbreak. We’ll share more updates soon.”

The companies that will shape the upcoming multiverse era of social media

By Eric Peckham

Throughout this series on the rise of multiverse virtual worlds, I have outlined the collision of gaming and social media into a new multiverse era of social media within virtual worlds due to technological and cultural changes. The result will be a healthier ecosystem of social media than what currently exists and the economic development of these virtual worlds such that many people turn to them as sources of income.

The critical question that remains in this final part of the series: Who will be the dominant companies of this multiverse era who build the most popular virtual worlds? Will one virtual world achieve a monopoly or will there be many worlds we hop between on a daily basis? Will the most influential company be the developer of a certain world or an infrastructure layer underpinning many worlds?

(This is the final column in a seven-part series about “multiverse” virtual worlds.)

There are three categories of competitors in position for this new stage: gaming incumbents, social media incumbents and new virtual world startups.

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