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What the complex math of fire modeling tells us about the future of California’s forests

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At the height of California’s worst wildfire season on record, Geoff Marshall looked down at his computer and realized that an enormous blaze was about to take firefighters by surprise.

Marshall runs the fire prediction team at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known as Cal Fire), headquartered in Sacramento, which gives him an increasingly difficult job: anticipating the behavior of wildfires that become less predictable every year.

The problem was obvious from where Marshall sat: California’s forests were caught between a management regime devoted to growing thick stands of trees—and eradicating the low-intensity fire that had once cleared them—and a rapidly warming, increasingly unstable climate.

As a result, more and more fires were crossing a poorly understood threshold from typical wildfires—part of a normal burn cycle for a landscape like California’s—to monstrous, highly destructive blazes. Sometimes called “megafires” (a scientifically meaningless term that loosely refers to fires that burn more than 100,000 acres), these massive blazes are occurring more often around the world, blasting across huge swaths of California, Chile, Australia, the Amazon, and the Mediterranean region.

At that particular moment in California last September, several unprecedented fires were burning simultaneously. Together, they would double the record-setting acreage of the 2018 wildfire season in less than a month. But just as concerning to Marshall as their size was that the biggest fires often behaved in unexpected ways, making it harder to forecast their movements.

To face this new era, Marshall had a new tool at his disposal: Wildfire Analyst, a real-time fire prediction and modeling program that Cal Fire first licensed from a California-based firm called TechnoSylva in 2019.

The work of predicting how fires spread had long been a matter of hand-drawn ellipses and models so slow analysts set them before bed and hoped they were done in the morning. Wildfire Analyst, on the other hand, funnels data from dozens of distinct feeds: weather forecasts, satellite images, and measures of moisture in a given area. Then it projects all that on an elegant graphic overlay of fires burning across California.

A modeling tool called Wildfire Analyst shows how a blaze in California might spread over a period of eight hours. The red objects are buildings.

Every night, while fire crews sleep, Wildfire Analyst seeds those digital forests with millions of test burns, pre-calculating their spread so that human analysts like Marshall can do simulations in a matter of seconds, creating “runs” they can port to Google Maps to show their superiors where the biggest risks are. But this particular risk, Marshall suddenly realized, had slipped past the program.

The display now showed a cluster of bright pink and green polygons creeping over the east flank of the Sierras, near the town of Big Creek. The polygons, one of the many feeds ported directly into Wildfire Analyst, were from FireGuard, a real-time feed from the US Department of Defense that estimates all wildfires’ current locations. They were spreading, far faster than they should have been, up the Big Creek drainage.

In its calculations, Wildfire Analyst had made a number of assumptions. It “saw,” on the other side of Big Creek, a dense stand of heavy timber. Such stands were traditionally thought to impede the rapid spread of fire, which models attribute largely to fine fuels like pine straw.

But Marshall suddenly realized, as the algorithms driving Wildfire Analyst had not, that the drainage held all the ingredients for a perfect firestorm. That “heavy timber,” he knew, was in fact a huge patch of dead trees weakened by beetles, killed by drought, and baked by two weeks of 100 °F heat into picture-perfect firewood. And the Big Creek valley would focus the wind onto the fire like a bellows. With no weather station at the mouth of the creek, the program couldn’t see all that.

Marshall went back to his computer and re-ran some numbers with the new variables factored in. He watched on his screen as the fire spread at frightening speed across the Sierra. “I went to the operation trailer and told my uppers: I think it’s going to jump the San Joaquin River,” he recalls. “And if it does, it’s going to run big.”

This was, at that moment, a far-fetched claim—no California fire had ever made a nine-mile run in heavy timber, no matter how dry. But in this case, the trees’ combustion created powerful plumes of superheated air that drove the fire on. It jumped the river and raced through the timber to a reservoir known as Mammoth Pool, where a last-minute airlift saved 200 campers from fiery death.

The Creek Fire was a case study in the challenge facing today’s fire analysts, who are trying to predict the movements of fires that are far more severe than those seen just a decade ago. Since we understand so little about how fire works, they’re using mathematical tools built on outdated assumptions, as well as technological platforms that fail to capture the uncertainty in their work. Programs like Wildfire Analyst, while useful, give an impression of precision and accuracy that can be misleading.

Getting ahead of the most destructive fires will require not simply new computational tools but a sweeping change in how forests are managed. Along with climate change, generations of land and environmental management decisions—intended to preserve the forests that many Californians feel a duty to protect—have inadvertently created this new age of hyper-destructive fire.

But if these massive fires continue, California could see the forests of the Sierra erased as thoroughly as those of Australia’s Blue Mountains. Avoiding this nightmare scenario will require a paradigm shift. Residents, fire commanders, and political leaders must switch from a mindset of preventing or controlling wildfire to learning to live with it. That will mean embracing fire management techniques that encourage more frequent burns—and ultimately allowing fires to forever transform the landscapes that they love.

Shaky assumptions

In late October, Marshall shared his screen and took me on a tour in Wildfire Analyst. We watched the fluorescent FireGuard polygons of a new flame “finger” break out from the smoldering August Complex. With a few clicks, he laid four tiny virtual fires along the real fire’s edge, on the far side of the fire line that had blocked its progress. A few seconds later, fire blossomed across the simulated landscape. Under current conditions, the model estimated, a fire that broke out at those points could “blow out” to 8,000 acres—a nearly three-mile run—within 24 hours.

For Marshall and the rest of Cal Fire’s analysts, Wildfire Analyst provides a standardized platform on which to share data from fires they’re watching, projections about the runs they might make, and hacks to make a simulated fire approximate the behavior of a real one. With that information, they try to anticipate where a fire is going to go next, which in theory can drive decisions about where to send crews or which regions to evacuate.      

Like any model, Wildfire Analyst is only as good as the data that feeds it—and that data is only as good as our scientific understanding of the phenomenon in question. When it comes to the mechanics of wildland fire, that understanding is “medieval,” says Mark Finney, director of the US Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Lab.

Our current approach to fire modeling, which powers every real-time analytic platform including TechnoSylva’s Wildfire Analyst, is built on a particular set of equations that a researcher named Richard Rothermel derived at the Fire Lab nearly half a century ago to calculate how fast fire would move, with given wind conditions, through given fuels.

Rothermel’s key assumption—perhaps a necessary one, given the computational tools available at the time, but one we now know to be false—was that fires spread only through radiation as the front of the flame catches fine fuels (pine straw, leaf litter, twigs) on the ground.

That spread, Rothermel found, drove outward in a thin, expanding edge along an ellipse. To figure out how a fire would grow, firefighters in the field used “nomograms”: premade graphs that assigned specific values for wind speed, slope, and fuel conditions to reveal an average speed of spread.

fire behavior chart

US DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

In his early days in the field, Finney says, “you would spread your folder of nomograms on the hood of your pickup and make your projections in thick pencil,” charting on a topo map where the fire would be in an hour, or two, or three. Rothermel’s equations allowed analysts to model fire like a game of Go, across homogenous cells of a two-dimensional landscape.

This is where things have stood for decades. Wildfire Analyst and similar tools represent a repackaging of this approach more than a fundamental improvement on it. (TechnoSylva did not respond to multiple interview requests.) What’s needed now is less a technique for real-time prediction than a fundamental reappraisal of how fire works—and a concerted effort to restore California’s landscapes to something approaching a natural equilibrium.

Complications

The problem for products like Wildfire Analyst, and for analysts like Marshall, is easy to state and hard to solve. A fire is not a linear system, proceeding from cause to effect. It is a “coupled” system in which cause and effect are tangled up. Even on the scale of a candle, ignition kicks off a self-sustaining reaction that deforms the environment around it, changing the entire system further—fuel decaying into flame, sucking in more wind, which stokes the fire further and breaks down more fuel.

Such systems are notoriously sensitive to even small changes, which makes them fiendishly difficult to model. A small variance in the starting data can lead, as with the Creek Fire calculations, to an answer that is exponentially wrong. In terms of this kind of nonlinear complexity, fire is a lot like weather—but the computational fluid dynamic models that are used to build forecasts for, say, the National Weather Service require supercomputers. The models that try to capture the complexity of a wildland blaze are typically hundreds of times simpler.

Pioneering scientists like Rothermel dealt with this intractable problem by ignoring it. Instead, they searched for factors, such as wind speed and slope, that could help them predict a fire’s next move in real time.

Looking back, Finney says, it’s a miracle that Rothermel’s equations work for wildfires at all. There’s the sheer difference in scale—Rothermel derived his equations from tiny, controlled fires set in 18-inch fuel beds. But there are also more fundamental errors. Most glaring was Rothermel’s assumption that fire spreads only by radiation, instead of through the convection currents that you see when a campfire flickers.

This assumption isn’t true, and yet for some fires, even huge ones like 2017’s Northwest Oklahoma Complex, which burned more than 780,000 acres, Rothermel’s spread equations still seem to work. But at certain scales, and under certain conditions, fire creates a new kind of system that defies any such attempt to describe it.

The Creek Fire in California, for example, didn’t just go big. It created a plume of hot air that pooled under the stratosphere, like steam against the lid of a pressure cooker. Then it popped through to 50,000 feet, sucking in air from below that drove the flames on, creating a storm system—complete with lightning and fire tornadoes—where no storm should have been.

Other huge, destructive fires appear to ricochet off the weather, or each other, in chaotic ways. Fires usually quiet down at night, but in 2020, two of the biggest runs in California broke out at night. Since heat rises, fires usually burn uphill, but in the Bear Fire, two enormous flame heads raced 22 miles downhill, a line of tornadic plumes spinning between them.

Finney says we don’t know if the intensity caused the strange behaviors or vice versa, or if both rose from some deeper dynamic. One measure of our ignorance, in his view, is that we can’t even rely on it: “It would be really nice to know when our current models will work and when they won’t,” he says.

Illusions

To Finney and other fire scientists, the danger with products like Wildfire Analyst is not necessarily that they’re inaccurate. All models are. It’s that they hide solutions inside a black box, and—far more important—focus on the wrong problem.

Unlike Wildfire Analyst, the older generation of tools required analysts to know precisely what hedges and assumptions they were making. The new tools leave all that to the computer. Such products play into the field’s obsession with modeling, scientist after scientist told me, despite the fact that no model can predict what fire will do.

“You can always calibrate the system afterward to match your observations,” says Brandon Collins, a wildfire research scientist at UC Berkeley. “But can you predict it beforehand?”

Doing so is a question of science rather than technology: it would require primary research to develop and test a new theory of flame. But such work is expensive, and most wildfire research money is awarded to solve specific technical problems. The Missoula Fire Lab survives on the remnants of a Great Society–era budget; its sister facility, the Macon Fire Lab in Georgia, was shut down in the 1990s.

Collins and Finney are doing what they can with the funds available to them. They’re both part of a public-private fire science working group called Pyregence that’s converting a grain silo into a furnace to see how large logs, like the fallen timber on Big Creek, spread fire.

Meanwhile, Finney’s team at the Missoula Fire Lab is working to develop a data set that answers fundamental questions about fire—a potential basis for new models. They aim to describe how wind on smoldering logs drives new flame fronts; quantify the likelihood that embers cast by a flame will “spot,” or ignite, new fires; and study the role that pine forests seem to play in encouraging their own burning.

The point of those models is less to see where a particular fire will go once it’s broken out, and more to serve as a planning tool to help Californians better manage the fire-prone, fire-suppressed landscape they live in.

Like ecosystems in Chile, Portugal, Greece, and Australia—all regions that have recently seen more megafires—California’s conifer forests evolved over thousands of years in which natural and human-caused fires periodically cleared out excess fuel and created the space and nutrients for new growth.

Before the 19th century, Native Americans are thought to have deliberately burned about as much of California every year as burned there in 2020. Similar practices survived until as recently as the 1970s—ranchers in the Sierra foothills would burn brush to encourage new growth for their animals to eat. Loggers pulled tons of timber from forests groomed to produce huge volumes of it, burning the debris in place.

controlled burn technique

JOSH BERENDES / UNSPLASH

Then, as ranchers went bust and sold their land to developers, pastureland became residential communities. Clean-air regulations discouraged the remaining ranchers from burning. And decades of conflict between environmental organizations and logging companies ended, in the 1990s, with loggers deserting the forests they had once clear-cut.

In the Sierra—as in these other regions now prone to huge, destructive fires—a heavily altered landscape that was long ago torn from any natural equilibrium was largely abandoned. Millions of acres of pine grew in, packed and thirsty. Eventually many were killed by drought and bark beetles, accumulating into a preponderance of fuel. Fires that could have cleared the land and reset the forest were extinguished by the US Forest Service and Cal Fire, whose primary objective had become wholesale fire suppression.

Breaking free of this legacy won’t be easy. The future Finney is working toward is one where people can compare various models and decide which will work best for a given situation. He and his team hope better data will lead to better planning models that, he says, “could give us the confidence to let some fires burn and do our work for us.”

Still, he says, focusing too much on models risks missing a more important question: “What if we are ignoring the basic aspect of wildfire—that we need more fire, proper fire, so that we don’t let wildfire surprise and destroy us?”

Living with wildfires

In 2014, the King Fire raged across the California Sierra, leaving a burn scar where trees have still not regrown. Instead, says Forest Service silviculturist Dana Walsh, they’ve been replaced by thick mats of chaparral, a fire-prone shrub that has squeezed out the forest’s return.

“People ask what happens if we just let nature take its course after a big fire,” Walsh says. “You get 30,000 acres of chaparral.”

This is the danger that landscapes from the Pyrenees to California Sierra to Australia’s Blue Mountains now face, says Marc Castellnou, a Catalan fire scientist who is a consultant to TechnoSylva. Over the last two decades, he’s studied the rise of megafires around the world, watching as they smashed records for length or speed of runs.

For too long, he says, California’s fire and forest policy has resisted an inevitable change in the landscape. The state doesn’t need flawless predictive tools to see where its forests are headed, he says: “The fuel is building up, the energy is building up, the atmosphere is getting hotter.” The landscape will rebalance itself.

California’s choice—as in Catalonia, where Castellnou is chief scientist for the autonomous province’s 4,000-person fire corps—is to either move with that change and have some chance of influencing it, or be bowled over by megafires.

The goal is less to regenerate native forests in these areas—which Castellnou believes have been made obsolete by climate change—than to work with the landscape to develop a new type of forest where wildfires are less likely to blow out into massive blazes.

In large measure, his approach lies in returning to old land management techniques. Rural people in his region once controlled destructive fires by starting or allowing frequent, low-intensity fires, and using livestock to eat down brush in the interim. They planted stands of fire-resistant hardwood species that stood like sentinels, blocking waves of flame.

For Castellnou, though, this also means making politically difficult choices. In July 2019, just outside of Tivissa, Spain, I watched him explain to a group of rural Catalan mayors and olive farmers why he had let the area around their towns burn.

He’d worried that if crews slowed the Catalan fires, they might cause it to form a pyrocumulonimbus—a violent cloud of fire, thunder, and wind like the one that formed over the Creek Fire. Such a phenomenon could have spurred the fire on until it took the towns anyway. Now, he says, gesturing to the burn scar, the towns had a fire defense in place of a liability. It was another tile in a mosaic landscape of pasture, forest, and old fire scars that could interrupt wildfire.

As tough as planned burns are for many to swallow, letting wildfires burn through towns—even evacuated ones—is an even tougher sell. And replacing pristine Sierra Nevada forests with a landscape able to survive both drought and the most destructive fires—say, open stands of ponderosa pine punctuated by fields of grass, picked over by goats or cattle—might feel like a loss.

Doing any of this well means adopting a change in philosophy as big as any change in predictive tech or science—one that would welcome fire back as a natural part of the environment. “We are not trying to save the landscape,” Castellnou says. “We are trying to help create the next landscape. We are not here to fight flames. We are here to make sure we have a forest tomorrow.”

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This Week in Apps: Twitter targets creators, Clubhouse security, Spotify’s plans for paid podcasts

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. A new forecast this week expects consumer spend to grow to $270 billion by 2025.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into what’s next for the future of one of the top social apps (Twitter), as well as Spotify’s latest announcements around its future plans for podcasts and subscriptions, along with other top stories, including the Clubhouse security problem.

Top Stories

Twitter wakes up

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter over the years has been slow to roll out new features that dramatically impact its platform — even going so far at one time to build an entirely separate app just to test a new way to link together conversation threads. Its slow momentum and failure to build features users actually want, like an edit button, has left Twitter feeling a lot like the same experience it was in its earlier years — a public SMS of sorts (albeit one with more utilities for tweet discovery and management).

This has also contributed slow user growth, which opened up Twitter last year to pressure from activist investors to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, who was then planning to move to Africa, while also still running Square. (He decided not to go because of the pandemic… and, well, to keep his job, we’d guess.) Following this more intensive scrutiny of Twitter’s operations, the company in recent months has begun to speed things up on the product front.

Last year, it rolled out to its global audience a stories-like feature called Fleets, offering a place for more ephemeral content to live on its platform. It began development on a Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, which is surging ahead with updates and new features. And it’s working on a community-led misinformation debunking effort, Birdwatch.

Twitter also began to make a series of acquisitions to build out its product teams, with additions like social app Squad, stories template maker Chroma Labs and podcasting app Breaker. And more recently, it bought newsletter platform Revue, which is already integrated on the Twitter website.

And it’s not done. This week, Twitter announced even more new products were in the works.

One, a new product called “Super Follow,” represents Twitter’s first-ever paid feature. The idea with the Super Follow is to turn Twitter into a platform where creators can monetize their fan base — with a “Super Follow” subscription, fans can access member-only perks. These can include whatever the creator wants — newsletters, videos, deals, community access and even paywalled content like tweets, fleets and audio chats in Twitter Spaces.

Along with this, Twitter introduced “Communities,” which, in addition to allowing social networking around interests, give Super Follow-using creators a place to organize their own private networks.

And it’s finally working on tools to auto-block and mute the trolls, too. 🙌

To put it mildly, this strategy represents one of the more radical shake-ups to Twitter’s platform to date. It not only challenges other networks — like Facebook, Discord, Patreon, Substack and Clubhouse — it positions Twitter’s slew of new features not just as fun add-ons, but rather as general-purpose tools that allow anyone to build and grow their own communities whichever way they want.

The one big miss on this front is that Twitter no longer has its own social video app to throw in the mix, too. Sadly, the company shut down both Vine and now, Periscope. Though Twitter itself supports video, Vine’s closure led to a hole in the market that’s since been filled by TikTok. And unfortunately, sharing TikTok links on Twitter is poor experience — they just display as previews that take you to a new TikTok tab when clicked. To get TikTok videos to play in-line, you have to download them first — something not all creators permit.

Nevertheless, Twitter is expecting the changes to help it to double its revenues by 2023, and grow its daily user base to 315 million, up from the 192 million it has today.

Spotify looks to new subscriptions for revenue growth

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

Twitter isn’t the only one looking to new subscriptions to make more money. Spotify this week also announced a good handful of updates, including a high-end Premium add-on for higher-quality music streams, called Spotify HiFi.

The company also confirmed its plans to test paid podcast subscriptions. The big bet here is that some podcasts are so compelling and have such a loyal fanbase that listeners will pay for their content, or maybe just their extras. These, of course, will no longer really be “podcasts” at this point — they’re paid audio programs. The feature will be introduced to Spotify’s creation app Anchor this spring.

But overeager adoption of paywalls by podcasters (who can’t make a living from their ad sales) could push more users to new social audio platforms, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, where content is free and conversations are more participatory. Anchor’s solution for audience engagement is to roll out Q&As and polls. But why bother clicking, when you can hit up a Clubhouse room and talk?

Clubhouse’s exclusivity leads to discovery of security problems

The demand for Clubhouse access is becoming so high that people are figuring out ways to reverse-engineer the experience, TechCrunch reported this week. A developer found a way to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real time to users who couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an invite or an iPhone. Though Clubhouse blocked the effort later in the week, the fact that a developer was able to gain access to Clubhouse audio feeds in the first place was an indication that the app isn’t as locked down as one might think.

In addition, other researchers have figured out ways to “ghost listen” to rooms without displaying user profiles — essentially, eavesdropping. And users in China appear to be able to listen to a room conversation facilitated by Clubhouse’s service provider Agora by using a VPN — even though they can’t technically “join” a room due to the app itself being banned.

Clubhouse’s appeal has a lot to do with how its social audio spaces aren’t recorded, so people can be themselves. There’s an expectation that you are only speaking to a group who’s listening and there’s no way to go back for a transcript or recording later. In other words, it’s not a podcast — it’s live. It’s social. And it’s semi-private.

These security breaches prove that’s not entirely true.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple added guidance for app developers to help them complete App Store privacy labels. Specifically, it added information about data types, like email and messages, and gameplay content. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Google added a privacy label to Gmail this week, too.

Apple’s “Sign in with Apple” button is now a part of the U.S. DoJ antitrust investigation against the company, reports The Information. Apple requires the option on all apps that offer sign-in buttons from other companies, like Facebook and Google, which has upset some developers. Investigators are looking to better understand how use of the button makes it more difficult for Apple device users to switch to other platforms.

Apple Entrepreneur Camp applications opened up for female founders and developers. The camp will run online July 20-29, 2021, offering attendees code-level guidance, mentorship, plus access to Apple engineers.

Apple tweaked the subscription “buy sheet” in iOS 14.5 beta. The new screen aims to make the price of an app’s subscription more clear to end users.

Apple hid an Easter egg in its Apple Store app to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

Platforms: Google

Google this week announced the next set of features coming to Android in its spring 2021 release. Flagship items include a password checkup tool and a way to schedule your texts (!!!). The latter means you can compose a message at any time, then pick the time you want it to send. iMessage, your turn! Other improvements included updates to the screen reader TalkBack, Maps (which gets a dark mode default option), Assistant and Android Auto.

Google launches an Android Sleep API for use in health and wellness apps. The new API will use the phone’s light and motion sensors in combination with an onboard API model to generate information like a “sleep confidence” determination and daily sleep segments.

Food & Drink

Food delivery app DoorDash stock falls after its first earnings. The company reported $970 million in revenue versus $938 million expected and a loss per share of $2.67. But shares dropped as much as 13% on DoorDash’s forecast, which said some of the earlier tailwinds it saw under stay-at-home orders in the U.S. will turn around as the country gets the vaccine under control.

Food delivery apps got a boost during the Lunar New Year holiday week in China, thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept people at home and prompted more remote gift deliveries, in particular food orders from services like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me.

Augmented Reality

An iPhone app called Museum Alive, reviewed by The Verge, includes narration from Sir David Attenborough as an extension of his Natural History Museum Alive film. The app includes interactive AR exhibits with extinct animals in their own habitats.

Fintech

Mobile investing app Robinhood reports seeing 6 million new customers on Robinhood Crypto just this year. By comparison, the number peaked at 401,000 customers in a single month in 2020, with a monthly average of 200,000 customers trading on Robinhood Crypto for the first time.

Google emailed users of the old Google Pay app and website that they’ll lose transactional capabilities on April 5 and will need to switch to the updated Google Pay app instead.

Social

Image Credits: Snap

At Snap’s investor day, the company projected 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years. The company spoke of the app’s main features — Camera, Map, Chat, Stories and Spotlight — each which it believes to be multibillion-dollar revenues streams in the long-term. It also talked about its investments in AR, Snap Ads, Shows, Stories and its TikTok rival, Spotlight. Investors responded favorably to the news, with shares up 11% on Tuesday, pushing the company’s valuation over $100 billion.

Instagram adds its TikTok rival, Reels, to its slimmed-down Instagram Lite app aimed at emerging markets. Some are already dubbing it “bloatware.”

TikTok partners with Portland Timbers and Thorns FC in its first U.S. soccer deal. The multi-year deal will have the clubs distributing video content in collaboration with TikTok, and will see the clubs featuring the TikTok logo on their jerseys.

TikTok owner ByteDance agrees to $92 million privacy settlement with U.S. TikTok users after a year of litigation. The claims in the lawsuits said TikTok was using a broad array of biometric data and content from user devices for ad targeting and profit. TikTok said it disagrees with the assertions but wanted to put an end to the lengthy litigation.

TikTok’s latest transparency report for H2 2020 said the app removed over 300,000 election misinformation videos, and another 400,000 from the For You page. The percentage of deletions were in line with the prior report, despite the busy election season it covered.

The Washington Post reports conservative backer Rebekah Mercer, whose family also funds Breitbart, now controls two of the three board seats at right-wing Twitter alternative, Parler. The app’s founding CEO John Matze was pushed out last month, and Mercer has since exerted more control over the company’s direction.

Twitter banned 100 accounts linked to Russian troll farms. The accounts were caught up in part of a larger enforcement action Twitter took against 373 accounts with connections to Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Russian accounts were being used to amplify talking points in favor of the Russian government.

Facebook tests new tools to combat child exploitation. One tool will pop up a message for people who use search terms linked to child exploitation that reminds them of the consequences and points them to resources to get help from offender diversion organizations. Another will alert users to the legal ramifications of sharing viral, meme child exploitative content. The company also updated its child safety policies and updated its reporting menu across FB and IG to include a section for a report that “involves a child.”

Top social apps including TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest added new features to support those with eating disorders as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22-28). Among the changes, TikTok and Instagram added features to encourage body inclusivity; TikTok now redirects some eating disorder searches to point to support resources; Instagram added links to local helplines in Australia, Canada and the U.K.; Pinterest donated credits to encourage people to tune into NED Awareness events; and more.

Photos

Flickr rolled out a widget for both iOS and Android devices. The widget lets you enjoy a rotating selection of photos from Explore on your home screen — great for someone looking for variety, instead of a static home screen.

Messaging / Communications

Telegram adds an auto-delete option for all messages, which lets users automatically delete messages after either 24 hours or seven days. The feature was previously available only for its encrypted Secret Chats. It also added expiring invite links and an option to create broadcast-only groups.

WhatsApp details what will happen when users don’t agree to the privacy changes by the May 15, 2021 deadline. It said for a short time (a few weeks), the users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but won’t be able to read or send messages, to give them more time to agree.

More Google Hangouts users are being migrated over to the Google Chat “preview” experience. The company had said it would split Hangouts into two services, Chat and Meet. The transition began last year, but personal account holders had only been told “early 2021” for their migration date. Early reports (see below) say the new experience is lacking when it comes to video call integration and lack of SMS support.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube announced it will roll out parental control features for families with tweens and teens that will allow them to graduate more safely from the YouTube Kids app to “real YouTube.” Parents will be able grant kids more access through their “supervised” Google Account, then choose from one of of three levels of YouTube access ranging from a selection that’s more tween-friendly to another that’s more appropriate for older teens. By using the account, parents are also agreeing to allow YouTube to collect personal data from the kids — something it couldn’t do in YouTube Kids.

Disney’s adult-friendly Star channel launched outside the U.S. to Disney+ subscribers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The additional channel combines content from Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, and bumps Disney+ price up by a small amount (a few pounds in the U.K., e.g.). Parental controls were also added to block kids from accessing the more adult fare.

South Korean media reported the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has joined Clubhouse, making him the most senior political leader to join the growing app.

Gaming

Image Credits: GameSnacks

Google’s mobile-friendly online games, GameSnacks, developed by its Area 120 in-house incubator, are being integrated into Chrome on iOS and Android Pay in select emerging markets. The HTML5-powered games are a way that Google is routing around app stores, and instead delivering gaming content to users without the associated app store fees. It’s also a more lightweight model for gaming, which helps in some markets where storage space and bandwidth are concerns. The company is experimenting with bringing the games to Google Assistant next.

Chinese mobile games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in $5.8 billion during Q24 2020, up 34.3% from a year ago, and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, per Sensor Tower data. Top titles include big names like Call of Duty (a collaboration between Tencent and Activision) and Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. as well as those from smaller studios such as Mihoyo’s Genshin Impact and Magic Tavern’s Project Makeover.

In the ongoing Epic Games versus Apple legal showdown in the U.S., Epic is now trying to locate former iOS software chief Scott Forstall to testify, after Apple said Forstall didn’t respond to its request to appear.

Meanwhile, a U.K. court blocked Epic Games from challenging Apple’s Fortnite ban. The court said Epic’s lawsuit against Apple would be better to pursue in the U.S., but allowed the suit against Google to continue.

Epic Games is sending players V-Bucks to settle its Fornite loot box class action lawsuit. The settlement is supposed to be for U.S. players only, but Epic is offering the V-Bucks to global players.

Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which lets users stream games across platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, web browsers on iPhone and iPad and desktop, has now arrived on Amazon’s Fire TV devices in an expansion of its early access program.

App Annie announces new features to help customers discover gaming launches, as well as measure and visualize performance of games. The features include RPD (revenue per download), Align Apps by Launch, Cumulative Downloads and Cumulative Revenue, and a Soft Launches Report.

A floating gaming toolbar has been found in the code of the Android 12 Developer Preview. Full details are not available but one button is a picture of a game controller while the other is suspected to be some sort of option to record your current gaming session.

Social casino game Coin Master from Moon Active tops $2 billion in lifetime player spending, reports Sensor Tower. The title booked $1.2 billion in 2020 alone, up 122.4% year-over-year, boosted by pandemic boredom and in-game spending.

Zynga is creating its own first-party walled garden for ad tech, due to Apple’s push for app tracking transparency. More companies could do the same, argues Mobile Dev Memo.

Health & Fitness

The New York Department of Financial Services said in an investigative report that Facebook has now taken steps to prevent it from collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, The WSJ reported. The company had been collecting the data through its SDK installed in numerous apps, then matches the sensitive, personal data to users’ Facebook accounts for ad targeting. One app involved, period tracker Flo, separately settled with the FTC in January over its involvement.

Media

Australia’s ABC News app hit the top of the App Store following the upheaval related to Facebook’s ban of Australian news sources on its platform. The app become No. 1 in News and No. 2 Overall, ahead of Facebook and its other apps, including Messenger and Instagram.

Funding and M&A

💰 YouTuber David Dobrik’s retro photo app raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Spark Capital. The app’s gimmick is that it allows you to snap photos in an old-fashioned camera interface where photos don’t “develop” until the next morning. The TestFlight, capped at 10,000 users, was full within a weekend of launching.

💰 Celebrity video platform memmo raised $10 million Series A, in a round led by Left Lane Capital. The concept is similar to U.S.-based Cameo, but Stockholm-based memmo’s strategy is both global and localized.

💰 Snack, a TikTok-like dating app, raised $3.5 million in a round led by Kindred Ventures and Coelius Capital. The startup was founded by early (Match Group-owned) Plenty of Fish exec Kimberly Kaplan, and targets Gen Z by way of a video feed with likes and comments that lead to DMs.

💰 AI-powered transcription service Otter, available on web and mobile, raised $50 million ($40 million in new funds) Series B. The service got a boost from the pandemic and its Zoom integration.

💰 Spain’s Wallapop raised $191 million at an $840 million valuation for its classifieds marketplace. The funding was led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver. The app was previously going to merge with U.S.-based LetGo, but later shelved those plans. (LetGo instead was bought by OfferUp.)

🤝 Austrian app marketer App Radar acquired Spanish rival TheTool. At the time of the deal, TheTool provided data insights for some 400 app marketing clients. The assets-only deal will allow App Radar to expand its presence across Europe.

💰 Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raised $31 million for its website and app that help students learn math and science. The app lets students take a photo of the problem, then uses ML and image recognition to deliver the answer in the form of short videos.

🤝 Design platform Canva, which works on both web and mobile, acquired Kaleido, the maker of a drag-and-drop background removal service, remove.bg, for photos and videos. It also bought Smartmockups in the Czech Republic, which lets anyone create mockups for t-shirts, mugs and other items.

🤝 Podcast host and ad network Acast bought RadioPublic, a maker of tools for podcasters, including a website maker, marketing tools, and the RadioPublic podcast app. The latter will remain live and the team will stay in the U.S.

💰 Copenhagen-based Podimo, a subscription service for podcasts, raised €11.2 million in funding. The app offers access to over 600 exclusive shows, and shares its revenue from subscriptions with its creators.

❓Beijing-based tutoring app Yuanfudao is said to be raising funding at a $20 billion+ valuation. The funding would follow a prior $2.2 billion round that valued the business at $15.5 billion.

📈Roblox shares to begin trading March 10. The cross-platform gaming service, which is popular on mobile, has opted for a direct listing instead of an IPO.

Downloads

Quill

Image Credits: Quill

A new Slack competitor, Quill, launched out of stealth this week, TechCrunch reported, with its apps for the web, Mac, Windows, Linux and Android and iOS on mobile. Like Slack, Quill lets co-workers communicate through channels, video and voice. But it also addresses some of the issues Slack overlooks. One, “structured channels,” lets admins enforce threads, for example. It also automatically moves up active conversations, limits notifications, has improved pinning, supports moving threads between channels and places video and chat side-by-side, to name a few. You can even interact with Quill via SMS and email.

ANDY’s apps

Image Credits: ANDY

Andy Allen, former head of Product at WeTransfer, teamed up with Mark Dawson, the lead graphics engineer from Allen’s former prior company Fifty Three, to create a new set of “default” apps with ANDY. That is, the company’s new apps aim to update your basic set — like weather, calculator and timer.

“Most of the default apps haven’t changed over the last 10 years. Yet we’re still using them. I see that as a sign that we’ll still need basic apps like weather, calculator and timer in another 10 years,” notes Allen.

Image Credits: ANDY

What makes ANDY apps different is that they’re built inside a game engine to unlock new experiences that makes them feel more like games themselves. They’re also skinnable, with three skins available at launch and more to come every few months. The apps require a subscription to work — either $14.99/yr for all apps and basic skins or $69.99/yr for all apps plus basic and limited-edition skins, as well as limited-edition collector cards. The company plans to expand its app collection over time.

YouWidget

Image Credits: YouWidget

Spotted this week by the folks at iMore, the new YouWidget delivers a YouTube iOS widget that puts a live video feed on your home screen along with other stats. For YouTubers and fans alike, the app could be useful in helping to track a specific channel’s releases and their other subscriptions. But even if you don’t need live videos, the app offers a widget with statistics for any channel — including subscriber counts, views and video counts.

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Storm Ventures promotes Pascale Diaine and Frederik Groce to partners

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Storm Ventures, a venture firm that focuses on early stage B2B enterprise startups, announced this week that it has promoted Pascale Diaine and Frederik Groce to partners at the firm.

The two new partners have worked their way up over the last several years. Groce joined Storm in 2016 and has invested in enterprise SaaS startups like Workato, Splashtop, NextRequest and Camino. Diaine joined a year later and has invested in firms like Sendoso, German Bionic, InEvent and Talkdesk.

Groce, who is also a founder at BLCK VC and helped organize the Black Venture Institute to create a network of Black investors, says that these promotions show that venture needs to be more diverse, and Storm recognizes this.  “If you think about the way our team works, that’s the way I think venture teams will need to work to be able to be successful in the next 40 years. And so the hope is that over time everyone does this and we’re just early to it,” Groce told me.

Unfortunately, right now that’s not the case, not even close. According to research by Crunchbase, just 12% of venture capitalists are women and two-thirds of firms don’t have any female investors. Meanwhile, only about 4% of ventures investors are Black.

Those numbers have an impact on the number of Black and female founders because as Groce points out the lack of founders in underrepresented groups is in part a networking problem. “In a business that’s predicated on networks if you don’t have diversity in the network, or the teams that are driving those networks, you just can’t make sure you’re seeing great talent across all ecosystems,” he said.

Diaine, who is French and started her career by founding Orange Fab, the corporate accelerator of the European Telco Orange, has brought her international business background to Storm where they helped her tune that experience to an investor focus and supported her as she learned the nuances of the investment side of the business.

“I don’t come from the VC world. I come from the innovative corporate world. So they had to train me and spend time getting me up to date. And they did spend so much time making sure I understood everything to make sure I got to this level,” she said.

Both partners bring their own unique views looking beyond Silicon Valley for investment opportunities. Diaine’s investment include a German, Brazilian and Portuguese company, while Groce’s investments include companies in Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle.

The two partners have also developed an algorithm to help find investments based on a number of online signals, something that has become more important during the pandemic when they couldn’t network in person.

“Frederik and I have been working on [an algorithm to find] what are the signals that you can identify online that will tell you this company’s doing well, this company growing.You have to have a nice set of startup search tracking [signals], but what do you track if you can’t just get the revenue in real time, which is impossible. So we’ve developed an algorithm that helps us identify some of these signals and create alerts on which startups we should pay attention to,” Diaine explained.

She says this data-driven approach should be helpful and augment their in-person efforts even after the pandemic is over and increase their overall efficiency in finding and tracking companies in their portfolios.

 

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If you haven’t followed NFTs, here’s why you should start

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NFTs (non-fungible tokens) — or scarce digital content represented as tokens — are driving a new wave of crypto adoption.

Thanks to the Ethereum blockchain, artists, gaming companies and content creators alike are utilizing token standards, which ascribe provenance to uniquely distinguishable assets. NFTs first made headlines in 2017 when Dapper Labs’ game CryptoKitties accounted for 95% of Ethereum network usage at its peak. While someone paying $170,000 for a digital cat seemed like an anomaly, what’s happening today blows that headline out of the water.

Platforms like Nifty Gateway, SuperRare, Foundation and Zora are quickly emerging as the leading players for creatives to monetize work in a digital world.

The estimated total value of crypto art has now passed $100 million according to cryptoart.io/data — just one vertical of a growing ecosystem of NFTs.

Image Credits: https://cryptoart.io/data

Collectible mania

Just as we’ve seen an alternative asset class form around physical collectibles like Pokémon cards, NFTs are starting to showcase what this universe of rare hallmark brands looks like online.

NBA Top Shot has seen close to $10 million in 24h volume according to CryptoSlam, with more than $100 million of “moments” being sold in less than one year of being live. The parent company behind NBA Top Shot, Dapper Labs, is said to be raising a $250 million round at a $2 billion valuation, as reported by The Block.

Niche collectibles like CryptoPunks — or 10,000 unique collectible characters with scarce traits and qualities — now have a base floor of roughly $18,000 a piece. Just recently, Punk 4156 sold for 650 ETH, equivalent to roughly $1.3 million at today’s prices.

Crypto art paradigms

Graphic designs and 3D designers are finding new platforms to showcase their work, with marketplaces like Nifty Gateway facilitating Supreme style drops for exclusive digital art.

Mad Dog Jones recently set a record for $3.9 million worth of art sold in one sale, topping the previous record held by beeple for his $3.5 million “Everydays 2020 Collection” drop. No wonder top art galleries like Christies are asking to team up.

With Bitcoin and Etherium reaching all-time high prices and investors looking for new places to allocate capital, the crypto art movement has given power back to the creatives.

Vibrant collector communities like FlamingoDAO are forming around these drops, while protocols like Zora are quickly starting to support NFTs of all different verticals.

Musicians like Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Fort Minor has released NFTs as a part of their strategy for his new single “Happy Endings” featuring popstar Iann Dior. EDM DJ and producer 3LAU is tokenizing his debut album “Ultraviolet” and Grammy-award winning musician RAC broke the SuperRare record for the highest NFT primary sale with his piece “Elephant Dreams.”

I even sold a blog post for 2 ETH (or roughly $4,000) using a crypto media publication called Mirror!

Why should I care?

NFTs have exposed a creative side of crypto that is not only fun to play, but digestible and accessible to new users. As bigger names host their first NFT drops, they bring a new wave of attention to their millions of followers noticing crypto for the first time.

This leaves people in a unique position to curate and discover this growing wave of scarce digital content. Showtime is aggregating NFTs to offer an Instagram-like experience, and the forthcoming music-specific NFT marketplace Catalog is creating a digital record store.

As Nifty Gateway drops continue to sell out in seconds thanks to credit card payments and free transactions, new collectors are finding ways to collect their favorite artists and brands — a trend that is likely to take better form over the coming years.

Areas of improvement

While the sales figures showcase a clear demand for NFTs, it’s not without hiccups.

More on NFT

The vast majority of NFT platforms today require users to be familiar with Ethereum wallets like MetaMask. This means collectors need to purchase ETH from an exchange like Coinbase and send it to a non-custodial address that consists of a long string of numbers and letters to get started.

Once they’re there, they need to pay upwards of $100 worth of fees to make a transaction and place a bid. The same goes for artists creating NFTs, causing community funds like MintFund to pop up and cover the operational costs of launching their first NFT.

Luckily, platforms like Audius are addressing these pain points head on. With 2 million monthly active users — the most of any Ethereum application today — Audius replaced MetaMask with an email and password login wallet called Hedgehog. By removing key management and transaction costs, users are able to access the wonderful world of crypto without significant start-up costs.

NFT bubble?

What’s happening in the NFT ecosystem today is nothing short of a paradigm shift for a maturing sector of cryptocurrencies. As avid collectors frame their digital art using companies like Infinite Objects, there’s no denying the vast majority of buyers are here to speculate. This increased demand signals interest, but is highly reminiscent of the 2017 ICO boom that caused the market to crash many years ago.

However, out of that multi-year bear market came a strong wave of foundational companies and products like Uniswap and Compound that are here to stay. It’s this writer’s bet that the same will happen with NFTs.

Until then, remember that digital content does have value, and crypto collectors are flocking to lay their namesake on the biggest collections of tomorrow.

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