Zindi rallies Africa’s data scientists to crowd-solve local problems

Zindi is convening Africa’s data scientists to create AI solutions for complex problems.

Founded in 2018, the Cape Town-based startup allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data-oriented challenges.

Zindi’s platform also coordinates a group of more than 4,000 data scientists based in Africa who can enroll to join a competition, submit their solution sets, move up a leader board and win the challenge — for a cash prize payout.

The highest purse so far has been $12,000, split across the top three data scientists in a competition, according to Zindi co-founder Celina Lee. Competition hosts receive the results, which they can use to create new products or integrate into their existing systems and platforms.

Zindi’s model has gained the attention of some big corporate names in and outside of Africa. Digital infrastructure company Liquid Telecom has hosted competitions.

This week, the startup announced a partnership with Microsoft to use cloud-based computing service Azure to power Zindi’s platform.

Microsoft will also host (and sport the prize money) for two competitions to find solutions in African agtech. In a challenge put forward by Ugandan IoT accelerator Wazihub, an open call is out for Zindi’s data scientist network to build a machine learning model to predict humidity.

In a $10,000 challenge for Cape Town-based startup FarmPin, Zindi’s leader board is tracking the best solutions for classifying fields by crop type in South Africa using satellite imagery and mobile phones.

Zindi Africa competition board

 

There’s demand in Africa to rally data scientists to solve problems across the continent’s public and private sectors, according to Zindi CEO Celina Lee.

“African companies, startups, organizations and governments are in this phase right now of digitization and tech where they are generating huge amounts of data. There’s interest in leveraging things like machine learning and AI to capitalize on the asset of that data,” she told TechCrunch.

She also noted that “80% of Zindi’s competitions have some sort of social impact angle.”

Lee recognizes a skills gap and skills building component to Zindi as a platform. “Data science skills are relatively scarce still… and companies are looking for ways to access data science and AI solutions and talent,” she said.

“Then there’s this pool of young Africans coming out of universities working in data…looking for opportunities to build their professional profiles, hone their skills and connect to opportunities.”

Lee (who’s originally from San Francisco) co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Dukerand, who lead a team of six in the company’s Cape Town office. The startup hopes to get 10,000 data scientists across Africa on its platform by this year and 20,000 by next year, according to Lee.

Zindi Team in Cape Town 1

“The idea is to just keep growing and growing our presence in every country in Africa,” Lee said. Zindi could add some physical presence in additional African countries by the end of this year, Lee added, noting Zindi currently hosts data scientists and competitions online and on the cloud from any country in Africa.

Zindi received its first funds from an undisclosed strategic investor and is in the process of raising a round. The startup, which does not disclose revenues, generates income by taking a fee from hosting competitions.

Zindi is also looking to add a recruitment service to connect data scientists to broader opportunities as a future source of revenue, according to Lee.

As a startup, Zindi’s emerging model could see it enter several existing domains in African business and tech. When Zindi adds recruitment, it could offer a service similar to talent accelerator Andela of connecting skilled African techies to jobs at established firms.

Connecting African software developers with top tech companies nets Andela $100 million

CEO Lee acknowledges such, but makes a distinction between data scientists and Andela’s developer focus. “We’re honing more in on statistical modeling, AI, machine learning and predictive analytics,” she said. “I also think the developer market in Africa is much more mature and lot of developers want to move into data science.”

In addition to competing on tech recruitment, Zindi could also become a cheaper and faster alternative for African companies and governments to contracting big consulting firms, such as Accenture, IBM or Bain.

IBM brings its Quantum computer program to 16 African universities

Zindi’s co-founder Lee confirmed the startup has received inbound partnership interest from some established consulting firms — which indicates they’ve taken note of the startup.

“I think we are a bit disruptive because we’re offering companies in Africa the best data scientists in the continent at their fingertips,” she said.

Lee highlighted a couple distinctions between Zindi and data-driven consulting firms: affordability and potential scale.

The startup could also provide data science solutions to many African organizations that don’t have the resources to pay big consulting firms — meaning Zindi could be on to a much larger addressable market.

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A.Capital Partners, founded by Ronny Conway, targets $140 million for its third fund

Silicon Valley investor Ronny Conway is raising his third early-stage venture fund, shows a new SEC filing that states the fund’s target is $140 million and that the first sale has yet to occur.

The now six-year-old firm, A.Capital, focuses on both consumer and enterprise tech, and has offices in Menlo Park and San Francisco.

Among the many brand-name companies in its portfolio are Coinbase, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Reddit. (You can find its other investments here.)

Conway led the seed-stage program of Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) for roughly four years in its earliest days and left in 2013 to raise his debut fund, which closed with $51 million in capital commitments. He also raised two, smaller parallel funds at the time.

According to SEC filings, he sought out $140 million for his second fund, though he never announced its close.

A.Capital is today run by Conway, along with General Partner Ramu Arunachalam (also formerly of a16z) and Kartik Talwar, who worked previously with Conway’s brother, Topher, and his famed father, Ron, at their separate venture firm, SV Angel.

Conway maintains a far lower profile than his father in particular, who throughout his venture career has nurtured relationships not only with founders but with tech reporters and local politicians.

Though now ancient history in Silicon Valley years, Ronny Conway was credited with introducing Andreessen Horowitz to Instagram during its earliest days.

Conway, a former Googler, met Instagram cofounder Kevin System in the several years when he, too, worked for the search giant, beginning in 2006. It turned out to be a highly worthwhile introduction, though it could have been even lucrative for a16z.

Though the firm made a seed-stage bet on the what was then a far simpler mobile photo-sharing app, a16z never followed up with another check because of investment in another photo-sharing startup that would eventually flounder (PicPlz).

It was a sensitive issue at the time for a16z, with some noting its missed opportunity. In fact, Ben Horowitz later felt compelled to write in a blog post that Andreessen Horowitz made $78 million from its $250,000 seed investment in Instagram when Facebook acquired it $1 billion in 2012.

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The Russians are coming! The Russians are … complicated!

Did you know that Russia’s security services, particularly those related to hacking / information security, have been in the throes of vicious high-stakes infighting for years? Did you know that the perceived Russian doctrine which informed much Western analysis of Russian strategies never actually existed? Did you know that the Kremlin’s secrecy has built an entire cottage industry of largely-unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories based on the few tantalizing details which do leak?

OK, you probably knew that last part. Everyone, or at least everyone who calls a social-media stranger with whom they disagree a “Russian bot,” is a Russian conspiracy theorist nowadays. And of course the evidence of widespread malevolent Russian activity, ranging from assassinations to hacking to social-media bombing, is copious.

But exactly which Russian organizations are doing what, and why — that’s a lot harder to establish. I’m reminded of old Cold War spy novels in which Kremlinologists analyzed the few public appearances of Politburo members, wrongfully reading great significance into who stood where and when, because they had little else to go on. Just like those bad old days, our instinct nowadays is to treat “Russia” as a single, well-oiled, tightly-orchestrated malignant machine.

Of course it’s nothing of the sort. Instead it is a complex, seething, tiered morass of many figures and institutions, often incentivized against one another, in a time of profound and rapid change. Today I attended a Black Hat talk by Kimberley Zenz, who opened with a plea for nuanced consideration of Russia and Russian activities. She’s right, of course, but sadly the Internet tends to be where nuance goes to die.

This nuance, though, is especially fascinating, the stuff of spy thrillers. In 2017 a slew of Russian intelligence officials and hackers — along with, inexplicably, Kaspersky Lab’s Head of Investigations — were suddenly arrested. One was “apparently forcibly removed from a meeting with fellow FSB officers — escorted out with a bag over his head” according to Stratfor. A case was eventually made against them for “high treason in favor of the United States.”

Four individuals were this year sentenced to up to 22 years in prison. (They are appealing.) Andrei Gerasimov, the longtime director of Russia’s Information Security Center, “a shadowy unit … thought to be Russia’s largest inspectorate when it comes to domestic and foreign cyber capabilities, including hacking,” resigned a week after this case emerged.

Stratfor again: ‘Because the charges are treason, the case is considered “classified” by the state, meaning no official explanation or evidence will be released.’ From this fog of secrecy, half a dozen different rumors and theories have emanated. Are the charges entirely trumped-up to eliminate rivals? Did someone leak to the US to attack their rivals, only to see this backfire spectacularly? Did the FSB turn a hacking group which then discovered something they really shouldn’t have about a powerful oligarch? Who can say?

Of course another conspiracy theory is the nuance-free “well-oiled malignant machine” one, in which this case is just an instance of said machine expelling a bit of grit from its innards. It’s remarkable how common this “monolithic Russian single-voiced hive-mind” analysis has become. Here’s Politico, for instance, after the above scandal broke: “Lately, Russia appears to be coming at the United States from all kinds of contradictory angles … Confused? Only if you don’t understand the Gerasimov Doctrine.”

That doctrine — named after General Valery Gerasimov, please note, not repeat not the now-disgraced former-FSB-director Andrei Gerasimov mentioned above — is used there to explain away all Russian activity, even that which appears self-contradictory, as a deliberately bewildering diversity of tactics used to “achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.” It was cited yesterday in another Black Hat talk, which I was so unimpressed by I’ll diplomatically refrain from discussing further. It is consistently cited by Russian policy analysts to this day.

But the problem with the Gerasimov Doctrine as a cornerstone of modern Kremlinology is that — according to the very person who coined the term! — it never actually existed. (Ironically it stems from a conspiracy theory on General Gerasimov’s part: that the CIA instigated the Arab Spring.) Instead, rather than a campaign informed by a unifying doctrine, Russian activity is

largely opportunistic, fragmented, even sometimes contradictory. Some major operations are coordinated, largely through the presidential administration, but most are not. Rather, operations are conceived and generally carried out by a bewildering array of “political entrepreneurs” hoping that their success will win them the Kremlin’s favor

That sounds like an awfully important distinction to make, and it leads to the most interesting thing (to me) about Ms. Zenz’s talk; her mention that “the Russian government considers Russian cybercriminals to be a strategic asset,” and that one side effect of this treason case is that it has greatly chilled information sharing and cooperation between Russia and the West regarding online threats.

Does this strategic status in turn mean that Russian hackers are likely to be government operatives, and/or Russian infosec companies in bed with their government? I am no Kremlinologist, but it seems to me more that the very question is wrong and should be unasked. Rather, the relatively sharp differences between “private sector,” “government,” and “criminal,” defined in nations with a strong rule of law, don’t really exist in a nation like modern Russia where those distinctions can, and often do, blur together.

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Facebook could face billions in potential damages as court rules facial recognition lawsuit can proceed

Facebook is facing exposure to billions of dollars in potential damages as a federal appeals court on Thursday rejected Facebook’s arguments to halt a class action lawsuit claiming it illegally collected and stored the biometric data of millions of users.

The class action lawsuit has been working its way through the courts since 2015, when Illinois Facebook users sued the company for alleged violations of the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act by automatically collecting and identifying people in photographs posted to the service.

Now, thanks to an unanimous decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the lawsuit can proceed.

The most significant language from the decision from the circuit court seems to be this:

 We conclude that the development of face template using facial-recognition technology without consent (as alleged here) invades an individual’s private affairs and concrete interests. Similar conduct is actionable at common law.

The American Civil Liberties Union came out in favor of the court’s ruling.

“This decision is a strong recognition of the dangers of unfettered use of face surveillance technology,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in a statement. “The capability to instantaneously identify and track people based on their faces raises chilling potential for privacy violations at an unprecedented scale. Both corporations and the government are now on notice that this technology poses unique risks to people’s privacy and safety.”

As April Glaser noted in “Slate”, Facebook already may have the world’s largest database of faces, and that’s something that should concern regulators and privacy advocates.

“Facebook wants to be able to certify identity in a variety of areas of life just as it has been trying to corner the market on identify verification on the web,” Siva Vaidhyanathan told Slate in an interview. “The payoff for Facebook is to have a bigger and broader sense of everybody’s preferences, both individually and collectively. That helps it not only target ads but target and develop services, too.”

That could apply to facial recognition technologies as well. Facebook, thankfully, doesn’t sell its facial recognition data to other people, but it does allow companies to use its data to target certain populations. It also allows people to use its information for research and to develop new services that could target Facebooks billion-strong population of users.

As our own Josh Constine noted in an article about the company’s planned cryptocurrency wallet, the developer community poses as much of a risk to how Facebook’s products and services are used and abused as Facebook itself.

The real risk of Facebook’s Libra coin is crooked developers

Facebook has said that it plans to appeal the decision. “We have always disclosed our use of face recognition technology and that people can turn it on or off at any time,” a spokesman said in an email to “Reuters”.

Now, the lawsuit will go back to the court of U.S. District Judge James Donato in San Francisco who approved the class action lawsuit last April for a possible trial.

Under the privacy law in Illinois, negligent violations could be subject to damages of up to $1,000 and intentional violations of privacy are subject to up to $5,000 in penalties. For the potential 7 million Facebook users that could be included in the lawsuit those figures could amount to real money.

“BIPA’s innovative protections for biometric information are now enforceable in federal court,” added Rebecca Glenberg, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois. “If a corporation violates a statute by taking your personal information without your consent, you do not have to wait until your data is stolen or misused to go to court. As our General Assembly understood when it enacted BIPA, a strong enforcement mechanism is crucial to hold companies accountable when they violate our privacy laws. Corporations that misuse Illinoisans sensitive biometric data now do so at their own peril.”

These civil damages could come on top of fines that Facebook has already paid to the U.S. government for violating its agreement with the Federal Trade Commission over its handling of private user data. That resulted in one of the single largest penalties levied against a U.S. technology company. Facebook is potentially on the hook for a $5 billion payout to the U.S. government. That penalty is still subject to approval by the Justice Department.

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Glow raises $2.3M to help podcasters make money

Glow is a new startup that says it wants to help podcasters build media business.

That’s something co-founder and CEO Amira Valliani said she tried to do herself. After a career that included working in the Obama White House and getting an MBA from Wharton, she launched a podcast covering local elections in Cambridge, Mass., and she said that after the initial six episodes, she struggled to find a sustainable business model.

Valliani (pictured above with her co-founder and chief product officer Brian Elieson) recalled thinking, “Well, I got this one grant and I’d love to do more, but I need to figure out a way to pay for it.” She realized that advertising didn’t make sense, but when a listener expressed interest in paying her directly, none of the existing platforms made it easy.

“I just couldn’t figure it out,” she said. “I felt an acute need, and I thought, ‘Are there other people out there there who haven’t been able to figure out how to do it, because the lift is just too high?’”

That’s the need Glow tries to address with its first product — allowing podcasters to create paid subscriptions . To do that, podcasters create a subscription page on the Glow site, where they can accept payments and then allow listeners to access paywalled content from the podcast app of their choice.

Y Combinator bets on the booming podcast industry

Glow started testing the product with the startup-focused podcast Acquired, which is now bringing in $35,000 in subscription fees through Glow. More recently, it’s signed up the Techmeme Ride Home, Twenty Thousand Hertz, The Newsworthy and others.

When asked about the broader landscape of podcast startups (including several that support paid subscriptions), Valliani said there are three main problems that podcasters face: Hosting, monetization and distribution.

Hosting, she said, is “largely a solved problem,” so Glow is starting out by trying to “solve for monetization through the direct relationship with listener.” Eventually, it could move into distribution, though that doesn’t mean launching a Glow podcast app: “For us, we think distribution means helping podcasts grow their audience.”

The startup announced today that it has raised $2.3 million in seed funding. The round was led by Greycroft, with participation from Norwest Venture Partners, PSL Ventures, WndrCo and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, as well as individuals investors including Nas and Electronic Arts CTO Ken Moss.

“Our first hire after this funding round will be someone focused on podcast success,” Valliani said. “Of course, we’re going to build the product [but we’re] doubling down on this market; we better make sure that [podcasters] are prepared to launch programs that are as successful as possible.”

Earios is a new podcast network for women creators

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