Take a look at your Twitter timeline 10 years ago

Here’s a fun thing for a Friday: go back and see what your Twitter timeline looked like 10 years ago.

Twitter has pretty powerful search settings, but Andy Baio — of Kickstarter fame and more — did the heavy-lifting for us all by sharing a link that let’s you look at your timeline exactly a decade ago, assuming you followed the same people.

Try it here. (The search will work even if you didn’t have an account 10 years ago.)

The mix is eerily quiet, with far fewer retweets and likes than the current time — Twitter hadn’t yet introduced the ‘automatic’ retweet, people were still doing it manually — and no nested replies or link previews, while there are ghosts of once-major social media services, such as TwitPic, TinyURL.

Certainly, it’s a fun way to see how Twitter has morphed, both in terms of features and the actual dialogue of users. The latter, in my experience at least, seems more driven by status update-style tweets than discussions or dialogue and there’s precious little content from media at that time, too. Given how things are today, with polarized opinions and armies of trolls, perhaps the old days of Twitter did have their benefits.

You can, of course, tweak the settings to change the date, language and more to explore past Twitter.

Enjoy — and maybe retweet a decade-old tweet or two while you’re there.

Lime, Bird and Spin have to temporarily remove scooters from SF

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has officially made available its permit application for electric scooters to operate in the city as part of a one-year pilot program. Part of that means companies like Bird, Lime and Spin will need to at least temporarily remove their scooters from city sidewalks while their applications are being processed.

Lime, Bird and Spin — all of which deployed their scooters in March without permission from the city — have until June 7 to submit their applications. At that time, the SFMTA will review all the applications and aim to let companies know if they qualify by the end of June.

As part of a new city law, which goes into effect June 4, scooter companies will not be allowed to operate their services in San Francisco without a permit. Given that the SFMTA won’t start reviewing applications until the 7th, that means scooter companies will need to remove their scooters from city sidewalks by June 4. If they don’t, each companies respective scooters will be at risk of impound and fines of up to $100 per scooter.

“San Francisco supports transportation innovation, but it cannot come at the price of public safety,” SF City Attorney Dennis Herrera wrote in a press release. “This permit program represents a thoughtful, coordinated and effective approach to ensure that San Francisco strikes the right balance. We can have innovation, but it must keep our sidewalks safe and accessible for all pedestrians. We can have convenience, but it can’t sacrifice privacy and equity along the way. This program is a strong step forward. It provides the framework to ensure that companies operating in the public right of way are doing so lawfully and are accountable for their products.”

And if any company violates the law by operating electric scooters without a permit will automatically be denied a permit. The SFMTA’s application asks about things like scooter availability, proposed fleet sizes in disadvantaged communities, options for low-income people, processes for charging and deploying scooters, insurance and rider education. At a Board of Supervisors meetings in April some supervisors and members of the public expressed concerns around the lack of helmets and people riding on sidewalks. That’s where rider education would come in.

In order to submit an application, each company must make out a $5,000 check to the SFMTA to cover evaluation costs. If issued the permit, companies must then pay an annual permit fee of $25,000, as well as a $10,000 public property repair and maintenance endowment. Companies must also share trip data with the city.

Earlier this month, the city of San Francisco laid out its requirements for companies seeking to obtain electric scooter permits. The city will issue permits for no more than five companies during the 24-month pilot program. The program would grant up to 2,500 scooters to operate, but it’s not yet clear how many scooters each company would be allowed to deploy.

Since Bird, Lime and Spin deployed their scooters, a couple of other companies have signaled their interest in electric scooters. Lyft, for example, is looking to launch a service in San Francisco. And Uber also has its eyes on electric scooters. In April, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told me the company plans to “look at any and all options” that would help move transportation options in ways that are city-friendly. And just earlier today, a company called GOAT launched some electric scooters over in Austin.

Snapchat launches less creepy Send and Request Location features

Snapchat is taking another shot at location after its always-on coordinate-broadcasting Snap Map proved a bit invasive for some users. Snapchat now lets you send your on-going real-time location to a friend, or request theirs, which show up on the Snap Map and within your message thread.

Essentially, this is location sharing built for the intimacy people love about Snapchat, rather than the foreign and a little freaky idea of giving a wide swath of your contacts access to your whereabouts through Snap Map. As Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp ruthlessly exploit their clones of Stories, it’s the more private, close friends features like this and ephemeral messaging that are Snapchat’s best shot at staying relevant.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the location feature by our reader Chand Sethi (thanks!) and now Snapchat confirms it’s been slowly rolling out to iOS and Android users over the past few weeks. Snap Map, which launched last June, has always offered the option to only share with specific friends instead of all of them. Still, the whole idea of location broadcasting might have scared some users into staying in only-me Ghost Mode. This new feature is Snap’s chance to get them on board, one friend at a time.

Now when you long-press on a friend’s name or hit the three-line hamburger button on a chat thread, you’ll get the option to Send Location or Request location. It only works with bi-directional friends, so you can’t ask for the spot of your favorite Snap star if they don’t follow you back, and you can turn off getting requests in your settings if people are spamming you.

Location shared through this feature will only update live for eight hours after you last open the app. You can cancel someone’s access at any time through the Snap Map. And if you’ve never enabled it, you’ll go through the location consent flow first.

By letting users dip their toes in, Snapchat could get more users active on Snap Map. After its June 2017 launch, it hit 35 million daily viewers, but that number was at 19 million and sinking by November, according to leaked data. In February when it launched on web, Snapchat said it had 100 million monthly users — but since Snap never shares monthly user numbers and instead relies on daily counts, the fact that it had to go with a monthly stat here showed some insecurity about its popularity.

Along with Discover, Snap Map represent one of the app’s best differentiators. Investing in improvements here is wise. After all, it might only be a matter of time before we see an Insta Map.

Andy Rubin’s Essential is reportedly up for sale and has cancelled work on its next smartphone

Essential, the smartphone company helmed by Android co-creator Andy Rubin is trying to sell itself and has cancelled development of its next phone, Bloomberg reports.

The report states the Essential has hired Credit Suisse Group AG to advise them on potentially selling itself. The company raised $330 million from investors including Rubin’s own Playground Global, Tencent Holdings and the Amazon Alexa Fund. The news of a potential sale accompanies news that the company has ended development on its next smartphone, a major blow for a company aimed to challenge companies like Apple and Samsung with a device that it hoped would hold its own.

“We always have multiple products in development at the same time and we embrace canceling some in favor of the ones we think will be bigger hits,” an Essential spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are putting all of our efforts towards our future, game-changing products, which include mobile and home products.”

The Essential phone went on sale in August for $699 with a bold, reduced bezel design that was soon present on a variety of smartphones. A report from IDC suggested that the company only sold 88,000 phones in 2017. Sluggish sales prompted the company to slash $200 off the price of the phone just months later, earning it a price that one of my colleagues called the “best deal in smartphones.”

Though Essential’s smartphone is still on sale, without a clear plan to continue their smartphone line, it’s pretty dubious how they’ll continue their dream of a unified experience centered around the company’s ambient OS. The company has already detailed some of their work on Essential Home, a home assistant hub that would include a circular display that could also deliver visual notifications.

Essential was always setting itself up for a David/Goliath battle, but it seems that nine months after showing off their flagship smartphone they’ve realized they weren’t quite ready to go up against the giants.

OpenStack in transition

OpenStack is one of the most important and complex open-source projects you’ve never heard of. It’s a set of tools that allows large enterprises ranging from Comcast and PayPal to stock exchanges and telecom providers to run their own AWS-like cloud services inside their data centers. Only a few years ago, there was a lot of hype around OpenStack as the project went through the usual hype cycle. Now, we’re talking about a stable project that many of the most valuable companies on earth rely on. But this also means the ecosystem around it — and the foundation that shepherds it — is now trying to transition to this next phase.

The OpenStack project was founded by Rackspace and NASA in 2010. Two years later, the growing project moved into the OpenStack Foundation, a nonprofit group that set out to promote the project and help manage the community. When it was founded, OpenStack still had a few competitors, like CloudStack and Eucalyptus. OpenStack, thanks to the backing of major companies and its fast-growing community, quickly became the only game in town, though. With that, community events like the OpenStack Summit started to draw thousands of developers, and with each of its semi-annual releases, the number of contributors to the project has increased.

Now, that growth in contributors has slowed and, as evidenced by the attendance at this week’s Summit in Vancouver.

In the early days, there were also plenty of startups in the ecosystem — and the VC money followed them, together with some of the most lavish conference parties (or “bullshit,” as Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth called it) that I have experienced. The OpenStack market didn’t materialize quite as fast as many had hoped, though, so some of the early players went out of business, some shut down their OpenStack units and others sold to the remaining players. Today, only a few of the early players remain standing, and the top players are now the likes of Red Hat, Canonical and Rackspace.

And to complicate matters, all of this is happening in the shadow of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and the Kubernetes project it manages being in the early stages of the hype cycle.

Meanwhile, the OpenStack Foundation itself is in the middle of its own transition as it looks to bring on other open-source infrastructure projects that are complementary to its overall mission of making open-source infrastructure easier to build and consume.

Unsurprisingly, all of this clouded the mood at the OpenStack Summit this week, but I’m actually not part of the doom and gloom contingent. In my view, what we are seeing here is a mature open-source project that has gone through its ups and downs and now, with all of the froth skimmed off, it’s a tool that provides a critical piece of infrastructure for businesses. Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth, who created his own bit of drama during his keynote by directly attacking his competitors like Red Hat, told me that low attendance at the conference may not be a bad thing, for example, since the people who are actually in attendance are now just trying to figure out what OpenStack is all about and are all potential customers.

Others echoed a similar sentiment. “I think some of it goes with, to some extent, what’s been building over the last couple of Summits,” Bryan Thompson, Rackspace’s senior director and general manager for OpenStack, said as he summed up what I heard from a number of other vendors at the event. “That is: Is open stack dead? Is this going away? Or is everything just leapfrogging and going straight to Kubernetes on bare metal. And I don’t want to phrase it as ‘it’s a good thing,’ because I think it’s a challenge for the foundation and for the community. But I think it’s actually a positive thing because the core OpenStack services — the core projects — have just matured. We’re not in the early science experiment days of trying to push ahead and scale and grow the core projects, they were actually achieved and people are actually using it.”

That current state produces fewer flashy headlines, but every survey, both from the Foundation itself and third-party analysts, show that the number of users — and their OpenStack clouds — continues to grow. Meanwhile, the Foundation is looking to bring up attendance at its events, too, by adding container and CI/CD tracks, for example.

The company that maybe best exemplifies the ups and downs of OpenStack is Mirantis, a well-funded startup that has weathered the storm by reinventing itself multiple times. Mirantis started as one of the first OpenStack distributions and contributors to the project. During those early days, it raised one of the largest funding rounds in the OpenStack world with a $100 million Series B round, which was quickly followed by another $100 million round in 2015. But by early 2017, Mirantis had pivoted from being a distribution and toward offering managed services for open-source platforms. It also made an early bet on Kubernetes and offered services for that, too. And then this year, it added yet another twist to its corporate story by refocusing its efforts on the Netflix-incubated Spinnaker open-source tool and helping companies build their CI/CD pipelines based on that. In the process, the company shrunk from almost 1,000 employees to 450 today, but as Mirantis CEO and co-founder Boris Renski told me, it’s now cash-flow positive.

So just as the OpenStack Foundation is moving toward CI/CD with its Zuul tool, Mirantis is betting on Spinnaker, which solves some of the same issues, but with an emphasis on integrating multiple code repositories. Renski, it’s worth noting, actually advocated for bringing Spinnaker into the OpenStack foundation (it’s currently managed on a more ad hoc basis by Netflix and Google).

“We need some governance, we need some process,” Renski said. “The [OpenStack] Foundation is known for actually being very good and effectively seeding this kind of formalized, automated and documented governance in open source and the two should work together much closer. I think that Spinnaker should become part of the Foundation. That’s the opportunity and I think it should focus 150 percent of their energy on that before it builds its own thing and before [Spinnaker] goes off to the CNCF as yet another project.”

So what does the Foundation think about all of this? In talking to OpenStack CTO Mark Collier and Executive Director Jonathan Bryce over the last few months, it’s clear that the Foundation knows that change is needed. That process started with opening up the Foundation to other projects, making it more akin to the Linux Foundation, where Linux remains in the name as its flagship project, but where a lot of the energy now comes from projects it helps manage, including the likes of the CNCF and Cloud Foundry. At the Sydney Summit last year, the team told me that part of the mission now is to retask the large OpenStack community to work on these new topics around open infrastructure. This week, that message became clearer.

“Our mission is all about making it easier for people to build and operate open infrastructure,” Bryce told me this week. “And open infrastructure is about operating functioning services based off of open source tool. So open source is not enough. And we’ve been, you know, I think, very, very oriented around a set of open source projects. But in the seven years since we launched, what we’ve seen is people have taken those projects, they’ve turned it into services that are running and then they piled a bunch of other stuff on top of it — and that becomes really difficult to maintain and manage over the long term.” So now, going forward, that part about maintaining these clouds is becoming increasingly important for the project.

“Open source is not enough,” is an interesting phrase here, because that’s really at the core of the issue at hand. “The best thing about open source is that there’s more of it than ever,” said Bryce. “And it’s also the worst thing. Because the way that most open source communities work is that it’s almost like having silos of developers inside of a company — and then not having them talk to each other, not having them test together, and then expecting to have a coherent, easy to use product come out at the end of the day.”

And Bryce also stressed that projects like OpenStack can’t be only about code. Moving to a cloud-native development model, whether that’s with Kubernetes on top of OpenStack or some other model, is about more than just changing how you release software. It’s also about culture.

“We realized that this was an aspect of the foundation that we were under-prioritizing,” said Bryce. “We focused a lot on the OpenStack projects and the upstream work and all those kinds of things. And we also built an operator community, but I think that thinking about it in broader terms lead us to a realization that we had last year. It’s not just about OpenStack. The things that we have done to make OpenStack more usable apply broadly to these businesses [that use it], because there isn’t a single one that’s only running OpenStack. There’s not a single one of them.”

More and more, the other thing they run, besides their legacy VMware stacks, is containers and specifically containers managed with Kubernetes, of course, and while the OpenStack community first saw containers as a bit of a threat, the Foundation is now looking at more ways to bring those communities together, too.

What about the flagging attendance at the OpenStack events? Bryce and Collier echoed what many of the vendors also noted. “In the past, we had something like 7,000 developers — something insane — but the bulk of the code comes down to about 200 or 300 developers,” said Bryce. Even the somewhat diminished commercial ecosystem doesn’t strike Bryce and Collier as too much of an issue, in part because the Foundation’s finances are closely tied to its membership. And while IBM dropped out as a project sponsor, Tencent took its place.

“There’s the ecosystem side in terms of who’s making a product and selling it to people,” Collier acknowledged. “But for whom is this so critical to their business results that they are going to invest in it. So there’s two sides to that, but in terms of who’s investing in OpenStack and the Foundation and making all the software better, I feel like we’re in a really good place.” He also noted that the Foundation is seeing lots of investment in China right now, so while other regions may be slowing down, others are picking up the slack.

So here is an open-source project in transition — one that has passed through the trough of disillusionment and hit the plateau of productivity, but that is now looking for its next mission. Bryce and Collier admit that they don’t have all the answers, but if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that both the OpenStack project and foundation are far from dead.

Twitter unveils new political ad guidelines set to go into effect this summer

Following the unrelenting wave of controversy around Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Twitter announced new guidelines today for political advertisements on the social networking site.

The policy, which will go into effect this summer ahead of midterm elections, will look towards preventing foreign election interference by requiring organizations to self-identify and certify that they are based in the U.S., this will entail organization registered by the Federal Elections Committee to present their FEC ID, while other orgs will have to present a notarized form, the company says.

Orgs buying political ads will also have to comply with a stricter set of rules for how they present their profiles. Twitter will mandate that the account header, profile photo and organization name are consistent with how the organization presents itself online elsewhere, a policy likely designed to ensure that orgs don’t try to obfuscate their identity or present their accounts in a way that would confuse users that the account belonged to a political organization.

In a blog post, the company noted that there would also be a special type of identifying badge for promoted content from these certified advertisers in the future.

Back in April — in the midst of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — Twitter publicly shared its support for the Honest Ads Act. This Political Campaigning Policy will be followed up by the company’s work on a unified Ads Transparency Center which the company has promised “will dramatically increase transparency for political and issue ads, providing people with significant detail on the origin of each ad.”

Navigating the risks of artificial intelligence and machine learning in low-income countries

On a recent work trip, I found myself in a swanky-but-still-hip office of a private tech firm. I was drinking a freshly frothed cappuccino, eyeing a mini-fridge stocked with local beer and standing amidst a group of hoodie-clad software developers typing away diligently at their laptops against a backdrop of Star Wars and xkcd comic wallpaper.

I wasn’t in Silicon Valley: I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, meeting with a firm that is designing machine learning (ML) tools for a local project backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Around the world, tech startups are partnering with NGOs to bring machine learning and artificial intelligence to bear on problems that the international aid sector has wrestled with for decades. ML is uncovering new ways to increase crop yields for rural farmers. Computer vision lets us leverage aerial imagery to improve crisis relief efforts. Natural language processing helps us gauge community sentiment in poorly connected areas. I’m excited about what might come from all of this. I’m also worried.

AI and ML have huge promise, but they also have limitations. By nature, they learn from and mimic the status quo — whether or not that status quo is fair or just. We’ve seen AI or ML’s potential to hard-wire or amplify discrimination, exclude minorities or just be rolled out without appropriate safeguards — so we know we should approach these tools with caution. Otherwise, we risk these technologies harming local communities, instead of being engines of progress.

Seemingly benign technical design choices can have far-reaching consequences. In model development, trade-offs are everywhere. Some are obvious and easily quantifiable — like choosing to optimize a model for speed versus precision. Sometimes it’s less clear. How you segment data or choose an output variable, for example, may affect predictive fairness across different sub-populations. You could end up tuning a model to excel for the majority while failing for a minority group.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

These issues matter whether you’re working in Silicon Valley or South Africa, but they’re exacerbated in low-income countries. There is often limited local AI expertise to tap into, and the tools’ more troubling aspects can be compounded by histories of ethnic conflict or systemic exclusion. Based on ongoing research and interviews with aid workers and technology firms, we’ve learned five basic things to keep in mind when applying AI and ML in low-income countries:

  1. Ask who’s not at the table. Often, the people who build the technology are culturally or geographically removed from their customers. This can lead to user-experience failures like Alexa misunderstanding a person’s accent. Or worse. Distant designers may be ill-equipped to spot problems with fairness or representation. A good rule of thumb: If everyone involved in your project has a lot in common with you, then you should probably work hard to bring in new, local voices.
  2. Let other people check your work. Not everyone defines fairness the same way, and even really smart people have blind spots. If you share your training data, design to enable external auditing or plan for online testing, you’ll help advance the field by providing an example of how to do things right. You’ll also share risk more broadly and better manage your own ignorance. In the end, you’ll probably end up building something that works better.
  3. Doubt your data. A lot of AI conversations assume that we’re swimming in data. In places like the U.S., this might be true. In other countries, it isn’t even close. As of 2017, less than a third of Africa’s 1.25 billion people were online. If you want to use online behavior to learn about Africans’ political views or tastes in cinema, your sample will be disproportionately urban, male and wealthy. Generalize from there and you’re likely to run into trouble.
  4. Respect context. A model developed for a particular application may fail catastrophically when taken out of its original context. So pay attention to how things change in different use cases or regions. That may just mean retraining a classifier to recognize new types of buildings, or it could mean challenging ingrained assumptions about human behavior.
  5. Automate with care. Keeping humans “in the loop” can slow things down, but their mental models are more nuanced and flexible than your algorithm. Especially when deploying in an unfamiliar environment, it’s safer to take baby steps and make sure things are working the way you thought they would. A poorly vetted tool can do real harm to real people.

AI and ML are still finding their footing in emerging markets. We have the chance to thoughtfully construct how we build these tools into our work so that fairness, transparency and a recognition of our own ignorance are part of our process from day one. Otherwise, we may ultimately alienate or harm people who are already at the margins.

The developers I met in South Africa have embraced these concepts. Their work with the nonprofit Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator has been structured to balance the perspectives of both the coders and those with deep local expertise in youth unemployment; the software developers are even foregoing time at their hip offices to code alongside Harambee’s team. They’ve prioritized inclusivity and context, and they’re approaching the tools with healthy, methodical skepticism. Harambee clearly recognizes the potential of machine learning to help address youth unemployment in South Africa — and they also recognize how critical it is to “get it right.” Here’s hoping that trend catches on with other global startups, too.

Reddit adds a desktop night mode as it continues rolling out major redesign

For being one of the most visited websites on the web, Reddit‘s product has rocked a notoriously basic design for much of its existence. The site is in the process of slowly rolling out a major desktop redesign to users, and today the company announced that part of this upgrade will be native support for night mode.

Night mode will likely be a popular feature for the desktop site that seems to have a core group of users that never sleep. Reddit’s mobile apps have notably had a native night mode for a while already.

While night mode won’t likely be too controversial, some Redditors already seem resistant to the redesign change. Nevertheless, I’ve found it to be a pretty friendly upgrade (classic view is still the best) that gels with the surprisingly great mobile apps the company has continued to update. Reddit’s recent heavy integration of native ads is only more apparent in the new design, something that is understandably frustrating a lot of users, but it was surprising the ad-lite good times lasted so long in the first place.

You can access the night mode feature with a toggle in the username dropdown menu in the top-right corner of the site.