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Google Reveals Location Data to Help the Coronavirus Response

By Klint Finley
The search giant is disclosing trends in visits to broad categories of places, as a tool for public health officials.

Wellness Influencers Sell False Promises As Coronavirus Fears Soar

By Arielle Pardes
Tips for staying active during the pandemic are one thing. But some influencers are pushing unscientific claims about "immunity boosting" merch.

For Open-Source Ventilators, Making Them Is the Easy Part

By Steven Levy
Plus: The DIY movement, the Long Tail theory of the internet, and wild animals in the streets.

Delivery Apps Offer Restaurants a Lifeline—at a Cost

By Sidney Fussell
Social distancing rules have reduced many eateries to delivery and take out. But apps like Uber Eats exact a 25 percent toll on their shrinking revenue.

The High-Stakes Race to Build More Ventilators

By Alex Davies
The US is short of ventilators to help Covid-19 patients breathe. Ford, GM, and satellite-launch company Virgin Orbit are trying to fill the gap.

China Flexes Its Soft Power With ‘Covid Diplomacy’

By Will Knight
Initially criticized for covering up and failing to control the virus, China is rebranding its response as a symbol of leadership and strength.

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

Nextdoor updates its app to allow businesses to link to fundraisers, gift cards and more

By Sarah Perez

Neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor is rolling out a few changes focused on supporting local businesses. The COVID-19 outbreak has forced many businesses to close their doors, sometimes for good, while others are struggling to stay afloat. As a result, many Nextdoor users have been posting on the app asking how they can help support their favorite businesses during this time. These new updates will allow them to do just that — by buying gift cards from local businesses, donating to fundraisers, or shopping from a business that remains open by way of pickup or delivery.

Buying gift cards from local merchants has quickly emerged as an easy way for customers to help their favorite restaurants and other businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

New sites, like HelpMainStreet.com and SaveOurFaves.org, have launched in recent days to make this process more organized. OpenTable’s gift card marketplace waived its fees. Meanwhile, other efforts had their hearts in the right place but flubbed the execution — as with Yelp’s disastrous implementation of a GoFundMe integration that didn’t allow participants to easily opt-out.

On Nextdoor, however, the app is simply being updated to allow the local businesses themselves to direct users to whatever websites or fundraisers they already have running.

For example, in the Business Profile section, the local merchant can now add a gift card website address to their profile. When Nextdoor users click the link, they’ll be directed to the page the business has set up for selling gift cards.

Even if the business doesn’t offer online purchases, it could simply add a page to its existing website that instructs users how to buy the gift card from them — perhaps, by calling the business on the phone or reaching out on social media.

In addition, if the business is running a GoFundMe campaign, they’ll now be able to include that link in the “Story” section of their Nextdoor Business Page for Nextdoor users to see.

Their Nextdoor Business Page can also now be customized with their available take-out and delivery options, which is particularly useful for dine-in restaurants that just started offering to-go meals or delivery for the first time, but haven’t partnered with a larger delivery service, like DoorDash, GrubHub or Uber Eats.

In addition, businesses that been voted as a “Nextdoor Neighborhood Favorite” by the community will also now be able to post to the main Nextdoor news feed. Here, they can share updates to their hours, services offered, or operations, which will be seen by a larger number of users.

Nextdoor has also added a Coronavirus Resource Center to help local business owners get updated news, information, and actionable business advice in one spot.

The changes come only a day after Facebook launched Community Help for COVID-19, which allows local community members — including Facebook Pages used by businesses– to both offer aid and request assistance. But posts about supporting your favorite restaurant could easily get lost amid more critical calls for medical supplies needed by area hospitals or food banks in need of volunteers.

On Nextdoor, local businesses may instead find a smaller, but more targeted audience where their real-life neighbors and customers are already engaging with one another.

This isn’t the first COVID-19 related update Nextdoor has rolled out. The company previously updated its app to include a Help Map for neighbors offering to help one another or in need of help themselves.

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

The Coronavirus Relief Bill Promotes Surveillance for Health

By Sidney Fussell
The package includes $500 million for tracking and data collection, worrying some government watchdogs.

The Newest US Sanctions on China's Huawei Could Backfire

By Will Knight
A reported ban on sales to Huawei of chips made with American equipment might intensify China's drive to develop its own chip industry.

Facebook Could Help Journalism by Making News Easier to Find

By Steven Levy
The social media giant gave $100 million to help local news during the pandemic, but it still makes you hunt for trusted sources.

A Wearable for Opioid Patients Gets Retooled for Covid-19

By Sidney Fussell, Adrienne So
It alerts staff when a patient’s condition changes, allowing people to be sent home and monitored remotely. Two hospital systems will begin testing it this week.

Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign Is Making Its Software Open Source

By Gilad Edelman
The team developed its own software to coordinate volunteers and synthesize voter data. Now, it’s posting the code to GitHub.

During a Pandemic, the Big Event Is No Events

By Steven Levy
Plus: Revisiting the birth of Alphabet’s Loon, a defense of colorful language, and a faulty warning in Hawaii.

The Threat of Coronavirus Disrupts the Disrupters

By Arielle Pardes
Accelerators like Y Combinator have had online programs, but the pandemic might force even its elite core program to go entirely remote for the first time.

China Goes Back to Work as the Coronavirus Rages On Elsewhere

By Will Knight
Big companies are recalling workers, with safety precautions. Malls and restaurants are reopening to crowds. 

Record Jobless Claims Are Overwhelming States’ Aging Tech

By Paris Martineau
Laid-off workers struggle to file claims for unemployment benefits; economists say the situation will likely get worse.

Yelp pauses GoFundMe Covid-19 fundraising after opt-out outcry

By Ingrid Lunden

A fundraising program that Yelp and GoFundMe put in place this week to help local businesses impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic has been paused after public outcry over how it was rolled out — specifically, controversy over how the two provided no easy and quick way to opt out of the fundraising.

The fundraising campaigns started to appear automatically with company profiles on Yelp after the announcement, but to get out of running the campaign, Yelp and GoFundMe required more identification from business owners (for example drivers’ licenses or business ID verifications). One estimate put the number of fundraisers that had been created through the program at 144,000.

The two companies are now working together to create a “more seamless” way to opt out of the fundraising feature, Yelp said in a statement. (You can read the full statement at the bottom of the article below.)

The lesson here is that while the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a major impact on local retailers and other businesses that have been forced to close, or have lost business, due to shelter-in-place and other social distancing measures, this incident highlights the fact that this doesn’t mean that every business want to fundraise to offset their own specific predicaments. And if they do, ultimately it is their own choice which companies they will choose to work with if they do so.

The original fundraising feature was launched by Yelp earlier this week as part of a bigger effort from both companies to provide assistance to businesses and individuals impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. (Yelp has also committed $25 million in waived fees for those who usually pay it for premium listing services; while GoFundMe is also working with other companies like Intuit QuickBooks to build fundraisers for its business customers.)

At the time, the companies noted that the feature would “automatically” appear under a business profile on Yelp.

It was only yesterday, however, that outcry over how that integration was put in place, and how hard it was to remove, both for small businesses and for those that are part of larger chains.

Uhhh, what the fuck? Without my permission, or even notifying me, Yelp has created a GoFundMe fundraiser for my bar @suckerpunchpdx. pic.twitter.com/qqmn6IUSx5

— Andy McMillan (@andymcmillan) March 26, 2020

I can’t believe that I have to deal with this right now! Forcing people to Opt-In so that they can Opt-Out?! A copy of my drivers license? My business EIN? Information Extortion. I’m done. @9NEWS @RyanHaarer @Yelp @gofundme pic.twitter.com/l1JeoE93Db

— A Bolder Blonde (@ABolderBlonde) March 26, 2020

At a time when we are seeing a huge groundswell of good works and charity to help our communities get through what is not just a public health crisis, but a social and economic one, the resulting feature has a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and felt more like opportunistic profiteering (both GoFundMe and Yelp are businesses, after all) than altruism.

We’re still waiting to hear back from GoFundMe, but Yelp’s statement is below:

 

On Tuesday, Yelp announced a partnership with GoFundMe to provide a fast and easy way for people to support their favorite local businesses by donating to a GoFundMe fundraiser directly on the Yelp pages of eligible businesses. In an effort to get businesses help quickly and easily, a GoFundMe fundraiser was automatically added to the Yelp pages of an initial group of eligible businesses, with information provided on how to claim it or opt out should a business choose to do so. However, it has come to our attention that some businesses did not receive a notification with opt-out instructions, and some would have preferred to actively opt-in to the program. As such, we have paused the automatic rollout of this feature, and are working with GoFundMe to provide a seamless way for businesses to opt into the program moving forward, as we have received a great deal of interest and support for the program from both consumers and businesses alike.

Notarize to add 1,000 online notaries to address demand for remote transactions

By Catherine Shu

Notarize, the platform that enables digital notarizations, announced that it is adding 1,000 notaries to address demand as more Americans are ordered to shelter in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still need to sign important documents.

The startup is partnering with the National Notary Association to verify notaries have been screened and have the necessary insurance or bonding. The service is available to Americans in all 50 states or abroad, but notaries must be physically located in Florida, Nevada, Texas or Virginia to join the platform (with plans to add more states later) and have a digital certificate before applying for Notarize .

Founder and CEO Pat Kinsel said Notarize is “experiencing unprecedented demand due to coronavirus. Consumers and businesses are turning to us en masse because they can’t complete critical transactions.”

He added that to scale quickly, Notarize is able to “leverage existing credentials from the National Notary Association that ensure people have commissions, insurance and background screenings. Notaries are stuck at home right now, looking for safe work. They can get onboarded in one to two days.”

Right before the spread of COVID-19 prompted shelter in place orders and social distancing mandates, there was an increased demand for mortgages because of low rates, with refinance applications growing 400% annually, according to CNBC. Now many of those loans can no longer be closed in-person. Kinsel says more than 2,000 lenders and title companies have contacted Notarize in the past week, and it is also opening the platform so they can add their own employees to serve transactions.

Notarize users also want to make sure critical documents are updated as they cope with the pandemic. “Beyond real estate, we’re seeing spikes in medical authorizations, people updating financial accounts and beneficiaries,” Kinsel said.

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