Start Up No.1,045: San Fran likes scooters, China’s AI abuse, who’s buying Google’s Pixel 3?, and more


Google’s Location History is being used by US police to arrest people – sometimes wrongly. CC-licensed photo by Lars Plougmann on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. There you are! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

San Francisco finds controlled scooter pilot a success • SFChronicle.com

Carolyn Said, on how SF has limited scooter-ing to just two companies, Scoot and Skip:

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Several spurned operators, including Spin, Lime and Uber’s Jump, had appealed their rejections, while Lyft wrote letters asking for reconsideration. All had hopes of being tapped for the program’s second half.

From riders’ perspective, fewer scooters makes the rentals less useful, according to people who attended a public workshop held by the agency this month.

“I used to use them and loved them — then they disappeared,” said Soni Mehra. “It’s harder and harder to find them now, so I can’t rely on them to get to work.”

Both Scoot and Skip said they’d be happy to increase their fleets, especially now that they’ve ironed out some kinks — notably preventing theft and deterring some vandalism by adding built-in locks to all scooters as of early February.

Locks also ensure that parked scooters aren’t tipped over and don’t block sidewalks, curb cuts or crosswalks as they have to be affixed to bike racks or posts.

“The locking is key,” Maguire said. “We’re the first city in the country that has all our scooters lockable.” Complaints about improper parking have plunged since the locks were implemented, he said. Scoot had only a fraction of its allotment on streets for the program’s initial months because theft was so rampant, but now is bringing its numbers up.

“We had a rough start with all the theft and vandalism and then a terribly rainy few months,” said Michael Keating, Scoot CEO. “We want to show that this can be done safely, respectfully and sustainably.”

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So.. regulation is what’s needed? Novel idea.
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An algorithm is attempting to block drug deals at UK Wi-Fi kiosks • Engadget

Christine Fisher:

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The InLink kiosks installed throughout the UK were meant to replace payphones and provide free calls, ultra-fast WiFi and phone charging. But it wasn’t long before they became a hotbed for drug dealing. Rather than do away with the free phone service, British telecom company BT and InLinkUK developed an algorithm to automatically block and disable “antisocial” calls.

The algorithm uses the frequency of attempted and connected calls, their length and distribution and insights provided by police to identify suspicious patterns and phone numbers. It can then automatically block those numbers. It’s already been deployed across all of the InLinkUK kiosks.

Before the system was in place, drug dealers reportedly arranged 20,000 sales from just five kiosks in a 15-week period. A separate kiosk was used to facilitate £1.28m in drug sales (about $1.68m). But BT and InLinkUK say less than half a% of the total calls across the InLink network are associated with antisocial behavior. And the company believes its new algorithm has already solved the problem.

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It was so obvious that free phone services would be abused. And now the solution is technology? It won’t take long before this is figured out; apart from anything, there’s money to be made, so people will find out how to defeat it. There, at least, is what humans do have over machines: the profit motive.
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streaming the dawn chorus – adambowie.com

Adam Bowie:

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Each year at the start of May there is an International Dawn Chorus day. And off the back of this comes Reveil, an annual broadcast that comes from an art collective called SoundCamp.

Around the world, people participate by placing open microphones wherever they happen to be, capturing all the glory of their local dawn chorus. These live streams can all be found on the Locus Sonus Soundmap.

From there these streams they produce a continuous stream of dawn choruses from across the globe:

Starting on the morning of Saturday 4 May just before daybreak in Rotherhithe near the Greenwich Meridian, the Reveil broadcast will pick up these feeds one by one, tracking the sunrise west from microphone to microphone, following the wave of intensified sound that loops the earth every 24 hours at first light.

The resulting stream is broadcast on a number of radio stations throughout the world including Resonance Extra in London.

Even if you do nothing else, the Soundmap is well worth exploring – especially over that weekend. But many of the microphones are live 24/7 all year round…

…The really great thing is that it’s surprisingly easy to create a live stream. While you could use your laptop, or even a mobile phone, my preferred method was to build a Raspberry Pi based streamer.

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So cheap to do, such a nice idea; the most expensive thing is probably the microphone.
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Tracking phones, Google is a dragnet for the police • The New York Times

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries:

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When detectives in a Phoenix suburb arrested a warehouse worker in a murder investigation last December, they credited a new technique with breaking open the case after other leads went cold.

The police told the suspect, Jorge Molina, they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They had made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.

Investigators also had other circumstantial evidence, including security video of someone firing a gun from a white Honda Civic, the same model that Mr. Molina owned, though they could not see the license plate or attacker.

But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr. Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and released him. Last month, the police arrested another man: his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had sometimes used Mr. Molina’s car.

The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement. In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, it is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices.

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Hello, Google’s Location History feature – which will collect data about your location all the time (on Android) or when allowed (on iOS).

See yours: https://takeout.google.com/.
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One month, 500,000 face scans: how China is using AI to profile a minority • The New York Times

Paul Mozur:

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The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review. The practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.

The technology and its use to keep tabs on China’s 11 million Uighurs were described by five people with direct knowledge of the systems, who requested anonymity because they feared retribution. The New York Times also reviewed databases used by the police, government procurement documents and advertising materials distributed by the AI companies that make the systems.

Chinese authorities already maintain a vast surveillance net, including tracking people’s DNA, in the western region of Xinjiang, which many Uighurs call home. But the scope of the new systems, previously unreported, extends that monitoring into many other corners of the country.
Shoppers lined up for identification checks outside the Kashgar Bazaar last fall. Members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority have been under Chinese surveillance and persecution for years.

The police are now using facial recognition technology to target Uighurs in wealthy eastern cities like Hangzhou and Wenzhou and across the coastal province of Fujian, said two of the people. Law enforcement in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia, along the Yellow River, ran a system that over the course of a month this year screened whether residents were Uighurs 500,000 times.

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China is becoming the totalitarian nightmare: using technology to oppress and suppress minorities. It’s quite like what the Nazis did to identify Jews in Holland and elsewhere.
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From Macintosh to Granny Smith: the rise and fall of Apple • VentureBeat

Christina Wallace and David Kidder:

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n the last five years. Microsoft has improved the way it identifies which research to use in which products and how to get even the most distant employees to collaborate. For example, every six months or so, they host a two-to-three day workshop between research and product teams to share their findings and participate in a hackathon.

Now the company is renowned for its AI efforts in vision, speech, language, and real-time calculation, from healthcare solutions to CPG inventory management.

Even an old signature like Office now subtly employs AI in just about every capability in the suite. In Powerpoint, for example, it’s training AI to be an intelligent assistant that can all but finish presentations for you. It’s a far cry from the days of the laughable “Clippy” assistant in Microsoft Word.

Microsoft is able to innovate at a previously unimaginable pace because in large part, they’ve given their terms permission to work together on customer problems. A simple yet surprisingly radical notion in many of the largest companies.

In asking Apple to innovate once more, the directive isn’t to rip up their product roadmap and halt all production of phones. For a large enterprise like Apple, steering the whole company in a new direction is neither feasible nor desirable.

Instead, Apple needs the framework other large companies are discovering to install a permanent, always-on growth capability.

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The authors of this piece are from a “growth advisory firm”. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that in the past five years Microsoft did a reorg so that it would have the same horizontal structure as, ah, Apple. And the piece doesn’t mention Apple’s AirPods (that would spoil the story of “nothing new”). What’s Apple working on? We don’t know. That doesn’t mean it isn’t. People have been calling it over for ages, but I really don’t think Microsoft is the one to compare it to.
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I gathered stories of people transformed by Fox News • NY Mag

Luke O’Neil:

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No matter where the stories came from they all featured a few familiar beats: A loved one seemed to have changed over time. Maybe that person was already somewhat conservative to start. Maybe they were apolitical. But at one point or another, they sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person — someone difficult, if not impossible, to spend time with. The fallout led to failed marriages and estranged parental relationships. For at least one person, it marks the final memory he’ll ever have of his father: “When I found my dad dead in his armchair, fucking Fox News was on the TV,” this reader told me. “It’s likely the last thing he saw. I hate what that channel and conservative talk radio did to my funny, compassionate dad. He spent the last years of his life increasingly angry, bigoted, and paranoid.”

Something about the piece struck a chord. It had gone viral, and wave after wave of frustrated and saddened Fox News orphans began to commiserate with me and with each other on Twitter and in my messages. Others wrote of similar phenomenon in Australia with the television channel Sky or in the U.K. with the tabloid Daily Mail. I heard from more than a hundred people who felt like they could relate to what they all seemed to think of as a kind of ideological brain poisoning. They chose Fox News over their family, people told me. They chose Fox News over me.

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This is the result of the loosening under the Reagan administration of the requirement that TV stations should not be political – that they had a responsibility to reflect the truth, and be impartial. The whirlwind has been slow to arrive, but no less big.
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Google Pixel 3 and OnePlus 6T sales driven by previous Samsung owners in Q4 2018 • Counterpoint Research

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Over one-third of consumers who bought the Google Pixel 3 and the OnePlus 6T, during Q4 2018, were previous Samsung owners, according to Counterpoint Research’s US Smartphone Churn Tracker. Less than one in five people who bought either device was a previous Apple user. In Q4 2018, Google Pixel accounted for 7.3% of Verizon’s total sales while the OnePlus 6T made up 2.4% of T-Mobile’s total sales. Each device signaled an appetite for more diversity in premium device product line-ups from consumers.

Despite the initial sales success, the Pixel 3 series has been ineffective in converting a larger share of iPhone users to Android. Conversely, 6T sales have been down Q1 2019 in spite of the strong Q4 2018 start.
 
Of the Pixel smartphones, Jeff Fieldhack, Research Director at Counterpoint Research said, “The newest Google Pixel lineup was certainly successful in terms of disrupting the premium market space at Verizon. Google invested a lot of marketing money during Q4 2018 resulting in strong sales of the Google Pixel 3 lineup. Over half of all new Pixel 3 owners came from Samsung. A total of 31% of Pixel 3 sales came from previous Samsung Galaxy S7 owners. The Pixel was built to lead Android innovation and be a device to sway the iOS base over to Android. Over 80% of volumes are coming from its Android partners. This is probably seen as a disappointment.”

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Given the small volumes that the Pixel and OnePlus sell in, this isn’t making a dent on Apple or Samsung. If Google or OnePlus could get real volume, it would be a different story.
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Health apps pose ‘unprecedented’ privacy risks • BBC News

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Using popular health apps could mean private information about medical conditions is not kept confidential, researchers warn.
Of 24 health apps in the BMJ study, 19 shared user data with companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon.

It warns this could then be passed on to other organisations such as credit agencies or used to target advertising.

And data was shared despite developers often claiming they did not collect personally identifiable information.

Users could be easily identified by piecing together data such as their Android phone’s unique address, the study says.

“The semi-persistent Android ID will uniquely identify a user within the Google universe, which has considerable scope and ability to aggregate highly diverse information about the user,” wrote co-author Dr Quinn Grundy of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto.
“These apps claim to offer tailored and cost-effective health promotion – but they pose unprecedented risk to consumers’ privacy given their ability to collect user data, including sensitive information.”

The authors conclude:
• doctors need to warn patients about the threat to their privacy from using such apps
• regulators should consider that loss of privacy is not a fair cost for the use of digital health services.

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Apple spends hundreds of millions on Arcade video game service • FT

Tim Bradshaw:

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Several people involved in the project’s development say Apple is spending several million dollars each on most of the more than 100 games that have been selected to launch on Arcade, with its total budget likely to exceed $500m. The games service is expected to launch later this year.

That compares with the $1bn that Apple was said in 2017 to have budgeted for original content for TV , though analysts believe that its video spending has already exceeded that level.

Apple seeks up to $27bn in legal battle with Qualcomm
Apple is offering developers an extra incentive if they agree for their game to only be available on Arcade, withholding their release on Google’s Play app store for Android smartphones or other subscription gaming bundles such as Microsoft’s Xbox game pass. But after a few months of exclusivity, developers will be free to release their games on PCs or other games consoles such as Nintendo’s Switch or Sony’s PlayStation. 

Apple declined to comment.

Titles already announced for Apple Arcade include well-established brands such as Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, Cartoon Network and Lego, as well as new games from independent developers such as ustwo games, Annapurna Interactive and Bossa Studios. Most of those selected have previously proven successful on the iPhone’s App Store. Apple’s advances more than cover the cost of developing a typical indie game, according to people familiar with the terms. 

Apple Arcade’s focus on indie games contrasts with the big Hollywood names attached to TV , and has left some developers cautious about how many people will subscribe to the service. 

“It’s Sideways, not Marvel,” said one games industry executive, referring to the Oscar-winning independent film set in California’s wine country. 

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In other words, you can’t predict what will be a hit. But Apple is seeing this as strategic; a long-term play, rather as Netflix does for its own content, because who knows where the licensed content might go?
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The coal cost crossover: economic viability of coal compared to new local renewables • Energy Innovation

Eric Gimon and Mike O’Boyle:

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America has officially entered the “coal cost crossover” – where existing coal is increasingly more expensive than cleaner alternatives. Today, local wind and solar could replace approximately 74% of the US coal fleet [generating capacity 211GW] at an immediate savings to customers. By 2025, this number grows to 86% of the coal fleet.

This analysis complements existing research2 into the costs of clean energy undercutting coal costs, by focusing on which coal plants could be replaced locally (within 35 miles of the existing coal plant) at a saving.

It suggests local decision-makers should consider plans for a smooth shut-down of these old plants

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In the end, cost is what will make this change. But it would be good if there were local politics driving it too. (The link is to a PDF paper.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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