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The rise of the activist developer

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The last few months have put technology and its role in society, especially in the United States, in the spotlight.

We need a serious conversation on the equitable and ethical use of tech, what can be done to combat the spread of misinformation and more. As we work to solve these problems, however, I hope this dialogue doesn’t overshadow one silver lining of the past year: The rise of the developer activists who are using tech for good.

They stepped up like never before to tackle numerous global issues, demonstrating they not only love solving incredibly hard problems, but can do it well and at scale.

We need a serious conversation on the equitable and ethical use of tech, what can be done to combat the spread of misinformation and more.

The responsibility lies with all of us to empower this community to unleash their entrepreneurial growth mindset and ensure more people have the opportunity to create a sustainable future for all. I’m calling on my colleagues, our industry, our governments and more to join me in supporting a new wave of developer-led activism and renew efforts to collectively close the skills gap that exists today.

From the COVID-19 pandemic, to climate change, to racial injustice, developers are playing a crucial role in creating new technologies to help people navigate today’s volatile world. Many of these developers are working on social problems on their own time, using open-source software that they can share globally. This work is helping to save lives and going forward, will help millions more.

The international research community acted early to share data and genetic sequences with one another in open-source projects that helped advance our early understanding of coronavirus and how to mobilize efforts to stop it. The ability for researchers to track genetic codes around the world in near real-time is crucial to our response.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was able to digitize its contract signature process in just 10 days during this critical time. A team of four developers hailing from Taiwan, Brazil, Mongolia and India helped farmers navigate climate change by using weather data to make more informed crop management decisions.

From the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s through the recent rallies supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, people have used passion and protests to shape the conversations that lead to a better future. Now, this rich history of people-powered action has an important new set of tools: The data, software and tech know-how that’s needed to mount a coordinated global and local response to our greatest challenges.

Today’s software developers are akin to civil engineers in the 1940s and 1950s who designed bridges and roads, creating an infrastructure that paved the path for enormous widespread progress.

The open-source code community already collaborates and shares, producing innovations that belong to everyone, focusing on progress over perfection. If a hurricane is about to create havoc in your community, don’t just fill sandbags, hit your keyboard and use open-source technologies to not only help your community, but to scale solutions to help others. DroneAID, for example, is an open-source tool that uses visual recognition to detect and count SOS icons on the ground from drones flying overhead, and then automatically plots emergency needs on a map for first responders.

A recent GitHub study shows that open-source project creation is up 25% since April of last year. Developers are signing on to contribute to open-source communities and virtual hackathons during their downtime, using their skills to create a more sustainable world.

In 2018, I helped found Call for Code with IBM, David Clark Cause and United Nations Human Rights to empower the global developer community, and a big part of our mission was to create the infrastructure needed to shepherd big ideas into real-world deployments. For our part, IBM provides the 24-million-person developer community access to the same technology being used by our enterprise clients, including our open hybrid cloud platform, AI, blockchain and quantum computing.

One winner, Prometeo, with a team including a firefighter, nurse and developers, created a system that uses artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to safeguard firefighters as they battle blazes and has been tested in multiple regions in Spain. We’ve seen developers help teachers share virtual information for homeschooling; measure the carbon footprint impact of consumer purchases; update small businesses with COVID-19 policies; help farmers navigate climate change; and improve the way businesses manage lines amid the pandemic.

This past year, Devpost partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) and challenged developers to create COVID-19 mitigation solutions in categories including health, vulnerable populations and education. The Ford Foundation and Mozilla led a fellowship program to connect technologists, activists, journalists and scientists, and strengthen organizations working at the convergence of technology and social justice. The U.S. Digital Response (USDR) connected pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis.

The most complex global and societal issues can be broken down into smaller solvable tech challenges. But to solve our most complex problems, we need the brains of every country, every class, every gender. The skills-gap crisis is a global phenomenon, making it critical that we equip the next generation of problem solvers with the training and resources they need to turn great ideas into impactful solutions.

This year, we can expect to see a newly energized community of developers working across the boundaries of companies, states and countries to take on some of the world’s biggest problems.

But they can’t do it alone. These developer activists need our support, encouragement and help pinpointing the most crucial problems to address, and they need the tools to bring solutions to every corner of the world.

The true power of technology lies with those who want to change the world for good. To ensure anyone who wants to create change has the tools, resources and skillsets to do so, we must renew our focus on closing the skills gap and addressing deep inequalities in our society.

Our future depends on getting this right.

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EBay and Adevinta to sell UK sites Gumtree, Motors.co.uk and Shpock to get their $9.2B deal past regulators

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After inking a $9.2 billion deal to merge their classifieds businesses last year, eBay and Norway’s Adevinta have announced a deal to sell off three popular web properties in the UK to get the deal cleared by local regulators, the Competition Markets Authority. The companies plan to sell off Adevina-owned Shpock, and eBay-owned Gumtree and Motors.co.uk — three UK sites that let individuals sell used goods and find/offer services — with the transactions expected to be completed in time for eBay and Adevinta to complete their bigger deal in Q2 2021, pending final regulatory approvals.

“EBay and Adevinta remain excited about the proposed combination of Adevinta and eBay Classifieds Group and now target closing the transaction in Q2 2021, subject to final ratification of the remedies execution plan by the CMA and receipt of outstanding regulatory approval in Austria,” the companies said in a joint statement.

The companies have not yet said whether they plan to sell them in a single package or to independent buyers, but a spokesperson for Adevinta said that it’s likely that there will be another update in 4-6 weeks. She declined to give a price range for the properties.

But in the statement from the companies, eBay said that Gumtree and Motors, which form its UK classifieds business, account for less than 10% of its consolidated revenues ($10.3 billion last year); and Adevinta said that Shpock revenues make up less than 1% of its consolidated revenues (which were about $80 million in the last 12 months). Adevinta is the majority owner of Norwegian publisher Schibsted, among other businesses.

The CMA provisionally has said that it would support the deal if the sale of the three properties gets completed.

“The CMA considers that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the undertakings offered by Adevinta and eBay, or a modified version of them, might be accepted by the CMA under the Enterprise Act 2002,” it noted in a brief update (which was dated 2 March, 2020, although I think that was a typo).

The divestment decision comes as a result of the CMA last month announcing that the deal raised competition concerns as is.

“It is important that people have choice when it comes to selling items they no longer require or searching for a bargain online, and that they can enjoy competitive fees and services,” said CMA’s Joel Bamford, Senior Director of Mergers, in a statement. “There is a realistic chance that without this deal Gumtree and Shpock would have been direct competitors to eBay, which is by far the biggest player in this market. This is the latest in a series of merger probes by the CMA involving large digital companies, where we are thoroughly examining deals to ensure that competition is not restricted, and consumers’ interests are protected.”

Interestingly, one of those other deals also involves eBay, indirectly. Another asset that eBay sold off as part of its wider divestment efforts aiming to streamline its business was selling secondary ticket market company Stubhub to Viagogo in a $4 billion deal. That acquisition closed last year, but then the merger was investigated by the CMA, which last month ordered Viagogo to divest the company’s business outside of North America. It’s a crushing blow when you consider that events have fallen off a virtual cliff (literally and figuratively).

Turning back to Gumtree, Shpock and Motors.co.uk, even if those sites are a relatively small part of eBay and Adevinta’s wider business revenue-wise, collectively they form a very popular option for people looking to buy or sell used goods or hire people for service jobs in the UK. I’ve been a regular user of both in my time, to sell and buy items, and to advertise for/discover several excellent au pairs. Coincidentally, people also use them to resell tickets.

It’s notable that the CMA didn’t consider Facebook, or any others, big enough yet to be seen as viable competitors in that market. It will be worth watching to see how and if that changes though. With deals like last week’s $191 million fundraise for Wallapop, and Facebook’s persistent Marketplace efforts, it is clear that there is still business to be found in classified listings, both as a standalone enterprise, or as something that creates stickiness for users to hang around for other services and advertising alongside them.

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Microsoft’s Power Automate Desktop is now free for all Windows 10 users

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Microsoft today announced that it is making Power Automate Desktop, its enterprise-level tool for creating automated desktop-centric workflows, available to all Windows 10 users for free. Power Automate Desktop is what Microsoft calls its “attended Robotic Process Automation” solution, but you can think of it as a macro recorder on steroids. It comes with 370 prebuilt actions that help you build flows across different applications, but its real power is in letting you build your own scripts to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks.

Power Automate Desktop originally launched last September. It’s based on Microsoft’s acquisition of Softomotive in early 2020, but Microsoft has since extended Softomotive’s technology and integrated it deeper into its own stack.

Users who want to give Power Automate Desktop a try can now download it from Microsoft, but in the coming weeks, it’ll become part of Microsoft’s Insider Builds for Windows 10 and then eventually become a built-in part of Windows 10, all the way down to the standard Windows Home version. Until now, a per-user license for Power Automate Desktop would set you back at least $15 per month.

“We’ve had this mission of wanting to go democratize development for everybody with the Power Platform,” Charles Lamanna, the CVP of Power Platform engineering at Microsoft, told me. “And that means, of course, making products which are accessible to anybody — and that’s what no-code/low-code is all about, whether it’s building applications with Power Apps or automating with Power Automate. But another big part of that is just, how do you also expand the imagination of a typical PC user to make them believe they can be a developer?”

This move, Lamanna believes, reduces the licensing friction and sends a message to Windows users that they can build bots and automate tasks, too. “The way we’ve designed it — and the experience we have, particularly around the recording abilities like a macro recorder — makes it so you don’t have to think about for loops or what is this app I’m clicking on or this text box — you can just record it and run it,” he said.

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Piano acquires analytics company AT Internet

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Piano is expanding its platform for digital publishers with the acquisition of AT Internet, a 25-year-old analytics company based in France.

Even if you don’t recognize Piano as a company, TechCrunch readers will probably be familiar with the product, since we use it to manage the reader experience of our Extra Crunch membership program.

Other customers include CNBC, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, and Piano describes itself more broadly as a “digital business platform” with products around personalization, advertising and analytics, as well as subscriptions.

“Fundamentally, our job is to help big websites make more money,” said CEO Trevor Kaufman. “We view that not as a billing problem, but as a marketing problem.”

Kaufman described a “pretty siloed system” used by most publishers and other digital businesses, where data around ad revenue, subscriptions, content engagement and customer profiles is all stored separately. By integrating with AT Internet’s “user-centric, event-based data store,” he said Piano can provide a more comprehensive picture of “the full customer journey,” allowing businesses to personalize their marketing and messaging accordingly.

He also praised AT Internet for its focus on “data quality and privacy,” with the company helping clients comply with GDPR and CCPA regulations.

New York-based Piano says AT Internet’s chief executive Mathieu Llorens will continue in that role while becoming a “significant shareholder” in the combined organization. The acquisition price was not disclosed, but the transaction involves both cash and equity and was funded by Updata Partners, Rittenhouse Ventures and Sixth Street Partners.

“The merger of our two organizations is an exciting chapter in our company’s history and prominence in the web analytics industry,” Llorens said in a statement. “This next chapter with Piano will enable AT Internet to invest more resources in and drive expansion of our current products, as well as help more organizations leverage analytics values and segments to deliver personalized customer experiences.”

Kaufman added that Piano and AT Internet will both work to integrate their platforms while continuing offer standalone products, but “the line becomes blurrier and blurrier as we use the backend of AT Internet to power more and more stuff for Piano.”

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