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Without leadership on vaccine rollout, scams are inevitable

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To say the first few weeks of vaccine delivery have been turbulent would be an understatement. States across the US have found themselves struggling with underdeveloped logistics that have caused problems in delivery and made rollout slower than promised. Meanwhile, the debacle at Stanford Medical Center, where a system to rank potential vaccine recipients managed to ignore frontline doctors, was proof that you could over-engineer the system too. 

Many were puzzled as to how this could happen, given the months of lead time to arrange distribution. The US government had used a press conference in October to explain the military’s role in what it claimed would be world-leading delivery of vaccines. 

“We have the best logisticians in the world at the Department of Defense, working in conjunction with the CDC, to guide … every logistical detail you could possibly think of,” declared Paul Mango, the deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services. Though the military would not be involved in giving injections, he said, it would run an end-to-end system of surveillance to ensure that every dose of vaccine was administered with precision before it expired. 

That supply chain, however, has come under attack. 

In one case a pharmacist in Wisconsin managed to sabotage 500 vaccines, apparently driven by his belief in apocalyptic conspiracy theories. It wasn’t exactly the strike that Interpol warned about when it cautioned nations to remain vigilant against threats to the vaccine supply from organized crime, but it did show that the weaknesses in the system were there—and that they might be the consequence of bad decisions at the top.

Temporary fixes cause trouble

It has become increasingly clear that many hospitals, pharmacies, and other facilities that received vaccine deliveries are on their own: forced to oversee the logistics themselves, organize appointments with patients, and monitor follow-ups. Under pressure, they have started to make hasty or uninformed decisions, or turn to services that weren’t built for such critical purposes.

Reports started to trickle in about how different free websites, like SignUpGenius, were being used for vaccination reservations in Oklahoma. Princeton University sociologist Shamus Khan chronicled how he was frustratedly refreshing Eventbrite, an online event service website, in order to grab a spot for his elderly parents in Florida. Some health departments in the state had decided to use the system because it was “quickest, easiest, and most efficient way” to meet their pressing need. 

Later, however, it was revealed that some people who thought they had paid to secure a spot via Eventbrite had been duped. Fraudsters had created fake listings pages to trick people into handing over their money for appointments that didn’t exist. Phone numbers for county health departments were jammed all day, and websites struggled with demand, compounding the problem. 

The use of third-party websites creates the perfect opportunity for a low-tech supply chain attack. Typically when we think about supply chains and cybercrimes, images of malicious software, stolen passwords, or phishing come to mind. But no hacking was needed in this case. What happened in Florida was media manipulation in the form of impersonation: fraudsters had only to use the website as it was designed in order to run away with desperate seniors’ cash. 

The rule of misinformation

These cases are alarming for a number of reasons. Imposter sites hiding behind suspect domains to sell fake wares have become common during the pandemic. So, too, has the use of social media to conduct low-grade information warfare claiming that the pandemic is a conspiracy

But if there is a law of misinformation, it is this: Everything open will be exploited. 

Scammers will profit from crisis and confusion, especially if the heist is easy and risks are minimal. When the DOD and CDC failed to consider the last mile for vaccine delivery, it opened the possibility for a supply chain attack. Counties and hospitals with limited resources and basic infrastructure are not pandemic prepared, nor have they been briefed on the security risks posed by third-party websites that make money by harvesting the data associated with signups. 

Counties should not be left to deal with this issue ad hoc. Media manipulators will continue to use their tactics until it is no longer profitable, and federal authorities should step up to the challenge and provide access to the logistics technology they so proudly boasted about in press conferences. The incoming administration promises to deliver 100 million shots during its first 100 days—but to do that, it will have to address misinformation as well all the other issues.

As a nation, we must treat these vaccines as life-saving medicine and ensure that this precious cargo is secured just like our software: end-to-end—or shot-to-arm. 

—Joan Donovan is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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The history of the connected battlespace, part one: command, control, and conquer

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Believe it or not, this fictional version of NORAD shows off the idea of the "connected battlespace" even better than the reali thing.

Enlarge / Believe it or not, this fictional version of NORAD shows off the idea of the “connected battlespace” even better than the reali thing. (credit: MGM/UA)

Since the earliest days of warfare, commanders of forces in the field have sought greater awareness and control of what is now commonly referred to as the “battlespace”—a fancy word for all of the elements and conditions that shape and contribute to a conflict with an adversary, and all of the types of military power that can be brought to bear to achieve their objectives.

The clearer a picture military decision-makers have of the entire battlspace, the more well-informed their tactical and strategic decisions should be. Bringing computers into the mix in the 20th century meant a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, too. The ability of computers to sort through enormous piles of data to identify trends that aren’t obvious to people (something often referred to as “big data“) didn’t just open up new ways for commanders to get a view of the “big picture”—it let commanders see that picture closer and closer to real-time, too.

And time, as it turns out, is key. The problem that digital battlespace integration is intended to solve is reducing the time it takes commanders to close the “OODA loop,” a concept developed by US Air Force strategist Colonel John Boyd. OODA stands for “observe, orient, decide, act”—the decision loop made repeatedly in responding to unfolding events in a tactical environment (or just about anywhere else). OODA is largely an Air Force thing, but all the different branches of the military have similar concepts; the Army has long referred to the similar Lawson Command and Control Loop in its own literature.

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Early-stage African VC firm, Microtraction reports portfolio boom despite the weight of COVID-19

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In a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic, it seems that early-stage startups on the African continent are continuing to see some notable growth, both in terms of their business and from investors looking to back them. 

Microtraction, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Lagos, Nigeria, saw funding nearly quadruple for its portfolio.

In a review of the year published last week, the firm noted that 21 companies in its portfolio have raised more than $33 million in funding. This represents nearly four-fold growth over a year ago when its portfolio raised $6 million (and just $3 million in 2018). The companies’ combined valuation stands at over $147 million according to the firm.

Founded by Yele Badamosi in 2017, Microtraction arrived on the continent’s early-stage investment scene with all intent to be “the most accessible and preferred source of pre-seed funding for African tech entrepreneurs.”

Badamosi, who returned to Nigeria from the UK in 2015, worked as the general manager for Starta Africa, an online community for African tech entrepreneurs. After his stint there, he saw the need to plug the gap of early-stage funding in Nigeria and the continent at large with Microtraction.

Microtraction does not specify the size of its fund, but what is more clear is that it has attracted a great deal of attention and has built a strong network in part because of who backs it. 

Michael Seibel, the CEO of Y Combinator, is a global advisor and an investor in the firm, and so is Andy Volk, the head of ecosystem for Google Sub-Saharan Africa. Other investors include Pave Investments and US-based angel investor, Chris Schultz.

Being entrepreneurs in the past, some of these investors know what it takes to build a startup in the U.S. But it’s completely different in Africa. With no on the ground know-how as to which startups to fund but an interest to do so, for portfolio diversification and other personal reasons, Microtraction and a few other early-stage investors present the best bets to accomplish this goal.

At first, Microtraction’s standard deal was to offer portfolio startups $15,000 in exchange for a 7.5% equity. But as a sign of how the market is firming up, that changed last year and now the firm invests $25,000 for 7% equity.

Microtraction revealed that it accepted over 500 applications from startups in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, and Mauritius in its first full year of operation. Though, just eight of those companies got investments.

The introductory batch was all Nigerian. Four fintech startups — Cowrywise, Riby, Wallets Africa, and ThankUCash; a crypto-exchange startup, BuyCoins; a SaaS platform, Accounteer; an edtech startup, Schoolable; and healthtech startup, 54gene.

2019 saw the local VC firm invest in six companies. This time there was a representative outside Nigeria — Ghanaian fintech startup, Bitsika. The Nigerian startups included social commerce startup, Sendbox; events startup, Festival Coins; communications-as-a-service platform, Termii. The rest were unannounced.

Half of its portfolio companies are backed by YC and other global accelerators

Last year (the one this latest review covers), Microtraction announced seven startups. The latest selection includes Nigerian fintech startups, Evolve Credit and Chaka; edtech startup, Gradely; bus-hailing platform, PlentyWaka; and Kenyan credit data marketplace, CARMA.

Of the total investments raised in 2019 and 2020, 54gene contributed more than half of those numbers by raising $4.5 million in seed and $15 million Series A investment. With an ingenious solution to solve the underrepresentation of African genomics data in global genomics research, 54gene got accepted into the winter batch in January 2019, the same month it officially launched.

Excluding 54gene, there were six other African-focused startups in the YC W19 batch. Two out of the six, Schoolable and Wallets Africa, were Microtraction portfolio companies. Others accepted into YC before and after included BuyCoins, Cowrywise, Termii, and two unannounced startups.

Microtraction-backed ThankUCash and a second unannounced startup have also joined cohorts at 500 Startups. On the other hand, Festival Coins is the only startup to be selected into Google for Startups Accelerator. With all accounted for, 11 out of the 21 startups are either backed by Y Combinator, 500 Startups, or Google for Startups.

The Microtraction team with founding partner, Yele Badamosi (far right)

Getting into these global accelerators is a surefire way to receive follow-up investment, ranging from $125,000 to $150,000. From the outside in, startups see Microtraction and other early-stage VC firms like Ventures Platform as a means to that end. There have also been arguments that these firms build startups to be “YC or any global accelerator ready.”

However, Dayo Koleowo, a partner at Microtraction alongside Chidinma Iwueke, debunks it saying there’s no formula behind the numbers we see. He believes YC and other accelerators share the same fundamentals with Microtraction which revolves around the team, the market, and traction.

“We love super technical teams, understand the industry they are in and are likely to succeed without us. We are always looking for companies that are solving huge problems that a lot of people face,” he told TechCrunch. “Also, the tech and startup world moves fast, so we like teams that understand that and can show in real-time that they can execute. I believe that these global accelerators look for these same things.”

Typically, YC and other accelerators may perform extended due diligence and risk assessments before cutting cheques for any African startup without a local backer. Koleowo points out that this might be why Microtraction portfolio companies get accepted quicker. “The icing on the cake is that there is a level of de-risking that has been done by Microtraction and other local investors on the ground before these global accelerators step in,” he added.

That said, there’s no denying the significance of Microtraction’s advisory board in playing a part as to why half the firm’s portfolio are in global accelerators. Besides the names mentioned earlier, Lexi Novitske, PIO at Singularity Investments and Dotun Olowoporoku, managing partner at Starta act as regional advisors, and Monique Woodward, a venture partner at 500 Startups is a global advisor.

And with the growing trends of globalization, plus the acceptance of a more decentralised approach to building and operations in the tech industry because of COVID-19, it’s a trend that might continue for a while.

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