A Q&A with DFJ Partner, Bill Bryant, on “unicorn” valuations and startup investing

A Q&A with DFJ Partner, Bill Bryant, on “unicorn” valuations and startup investing

Pundits are painting a picture of doom and gloom for startups, saying it will be harder to raise money. What do you think?

I think the next several months and possibly years will be challenging for raising capital. There has definitely been a reset. The market was over extended in an unhealthy way and we are seeing the impact across the board.

The catalyst for this reset has been the collapse of public markets stocks where comparisons versus private startup companies are unfavorable.

Smart investors are saying: “Why would I invest in this promising startup that values itself at 10 to 15 x revenue when there are fantastic companies trading for 3 x revenue. It doesn’t make sense.”

Does that mean we should all throw up our hands? Absolutely not. We invested in Chef in January 2009, six months after the collapse. It was a great time. They started small with four co-founders. A year after, the company was 8 – 10 people and we raised a responsible $3.75 million to get started. Great companies were created in that timeframe just like they will be today.

The good thing about a market like this is it doesn’t attract the wannabe tourist entrepreneur.

Some investors are saying that in the current climate, many privately held companies will have to reset their valuations in order to raise money and survive. If you were an early investor in such companies, what would you advise them to do?

That is the harsh reality. Unless you can round up necessary capital internally and keep valuations just for optics, new investors will only do deals at lower prices.

There is just no way around that especially where companies stretched to get to a valuation that wasn’t warranted, often times giving up term concessions.

Valuation alone doesn’t mean much. Many entrepreneurs agreed to onerous terms to get a unicorn-esque valuation and that’s really hard.

For example, as an investor I could say fine, I’ll give you your billion-dollar valuation as long as I get 3x senior liquidation preferences on my $10 million. This means my only bet is that your company is worth $30 million. In the event of a sale, I get $30 million first before the entrepreneur gets anything.

Valuation alone doesn’t mean much. Many entrepreneurs agreed to onerous terms to get a unicorn-esque valuation and that’s really hard. Any new investor coming into the deal must radically discount the valuation. I always advise entrepreneurs to set realistic valuations at each stage.

In the past, you said you only invest in companies pursuing transformative innovation (versus those doing ‘fluffy’ stuff like social media). Do you still hold this view? Investments in clean tech and renewable energy have disappointed, while Facebook and Twitter are some of the most successful IPOs in recent times.

I hold the notion that as venture investors it is incumbent upon us to identify enduring and iconic companies that are addressing large scale challenges. This is DFJ’s philosophy. We have been investing in technology for 31 years and our focus is to identify entrepreneurs who are disrupting and innovating in large scale industries.

Two examples include SpaceX and Telsa where we’ve had successful partnerships with Elon Musk. These are the kinds of opportunities in which you can create true value and build billion dollar companies.

You make a good point that clean tech and renewable energy have disappointed. We spent a lot of effort trying to make that work in the 2000’s and learned that these markets are not a venture asset class.

The clean tech area in particular, you could demonstrate a new technology for venture dollars but the production and scale up was hundreds of millions of dollars and therefore not a great venture asset class.

The clean tech area in particular, you could demonstrate a new technology for venture dollars but the production and scale up was hundreds of millions of dollars and therefore not a great venture asset class.

You asked a question about Facebook and Twitter. I view those as transformative companies as well. While they are not hard-tech the scaling up of a company like Facebook is an incredible engineering feat. It is not just fluffy social media.

Based on your comment about investing in Chef right after the bubble burst, is your strategy swooping in and finding the bargains or sitting out the market until prices stabilize?

I don’t think there is a bargain hunting strategy. In venture capital you are really trying to identify the very most promising companies. The entry price into the best companies has not historically mattered. People were thinking investors were crazy to value Facebook at $100 million to $50 billion. Today they are valued at $400 billion?

You have said in the past you don’t have a thesis or theme when investing. Why?

Yes, I don’t invest in themes; rather, I invest in amazing entrepreneurs. There are thematic investors and sector-specific investors. I am decidedly not thematic because, by the time investors like me start prognosticating on what they think is interesting, the time to make those investments is probably 18 months in the past.

We are not deep enough. We are not domain experts. We are not living the problems the way the entrepreneurs do. Great entrepreneurs are obsessed about these problems for years in many cases. They are purposeful, they are mission driven and have direct visceral experience with the issues.

For example, Remitly. Matt Oppenheimer spent 4.5 years in Kenya as a bank manager for Barclays and watched firsthand the challenges that the local population had in receiving money from loved ones abroad. He watched this process play out day-in and day-out said, ‘“I can fix this. We can build technology to these transfers more efficiently”. He then came back to the States and joined the TechStars accelerator program, at the end of which Remitly emerged.

This is an individual who started the company from a deep desire to transform how hundreds of millions of workers around the world send and receive money.

In contrast, it would be a little ridiculous for me to say ‘remittances is a $600 billion market and is ripe for innovation. Let me see how I can disrupt it’.  Matt lived this and thought about it for years. That is the kind of entrepreneur we are trying to back.

remitly-team

C&G: The investment strategy you’ve explained (about finding people who have lived through and thought deeply about problems) seems really sound. Would you say thematic and sectoral investors are wrong?

Bryant: I don’t know that they are right or wrong but what they end backing is people who are opportunistically drawn to sectors. They are reading analysts and saying ‘that’s a hot sector’.  They don’t have the deep passion it takes to create great companies.

To build a great company, there are many ups and downs. If you are not 100% obsessed with the problem you are solving, it is disheartening and you’ll want to give up.

Chef is another example. It started out as an open source project written by Adam Jacob, a sys admin. He was just solving his own problem of “How do you manage servers at scale? The existing tools were crap, so he decided to solve the problem because he faced it daily.

adam-jacobs

Adam Jacobs, founder and CEO of Chef (formerly Opscode)

What areas/domains do you think are overhyped and likely to disappoint? Why?

The hype in AR and VR in 2015 was well ahead of the market from a timing standpoint. That is one area I’d be cautious about. Bitcoin is overhyped—no one has built a fantastic business yet.

Big data has become such a broad rubric that I am not sure means anything. There are a lot of businesses trying to hang their hats on big data but there is no great insight in saying “I am taking a big data approach to this problem.”

The smart home/ connected home was an area we looked at and it is probably ahead of itself from a consumer behavior standpoint. I think there are neat ideas out there but consumers are don’t want to use a smartphone app just to turn on lights or the coffee machine.

Speaking of Bitcoin, what are your thoughts on it and crypto currencies in general? Has your firm looked at companies in the space? It seems like one of those areas that would lead to transformative innovation.

We are investors in Coinbase and have looked at a lot of bitcoin-related companies. There is also Coinlab (based locally) that one of DFJ’s associates has invested in.

The whole Bitcoin as currency, I never understood. If you have to read about how a currency is used it is never going to take off in any mass way. Another challenge is Bitcoin hasn’t been stable as a bearer of value. The fluctuation makes it untenable as a transactional currency. That said we are still looking at general block-chain ideas, whether in real estate or IT auditing and so on.

What are three things that turn you off when an entrepreneur or company pitches to you?

I only have three? God, where do I start? First, I never thought startups were formulaic, that you say these three things and then you get funded.

What you are trying to judge is does the entrepreneur have this reality distortion field around them and also a sense of what is possible? They need to be visionary and project 7 – 10 years and yet also grounded enough to say ‘here is how we start in the next 6 – 12 months.’

I’ll use Remitly as an example again. Yes, it is a $600 billion market. Can you address it on day one? No, you can’t. It is not possible to even get licenses to operate in all of these markets, so what is a thoughtful approach? That is what Matt brought to the table.

remitly-mobile

He had a broad understanding but he took a Mckinsey-esque approach to dissecting it. This is a market where your success in the Philippines doesn’t carry over to Kenya. There is no overlap of the population so it is a separate customer acquisition education process.

So both execution without vision and vice-versa are turnoffs.

A second turn off is a basic lack of understanding of business models. I see plans where they say “In my third year I am going to have 78% net margins” or “I am going to drive $50 million in revenue and $42 million in EBITDA” There is no business in the world that yet we hear a lot of pitches that say things like that.

The third would probably be the entrepreneur not appreciating that venture capitalists have a business model too. We don’t know apriori which companies will be successful and so for every 10 investments we make, the one or two runaway successes must pay for all the failures.

We then price the valuations accordingly. If the entrepreneur is asking for $5 million and projecting a $150 million exit, I need to own a third of the company ($50 million) to get my 10 x or better return. Often, entrepreneurs view us as banks and think we can make do with 6% returns.

What are the key lessons you’ve learned about investing? Feel free to also talk about mistakes you’ve made.

Backing awesome people makes all the difference. Is it the market, the technology or the people?

It is really all three but I’ve made the most mistakes when I got enamored with a concept, a market opportunity or a technology without really confirming that the individuals involved were amazing leaders.

If you were to pick one and only one single biggest factor that determines a startup’s success, what would it be?  (Marc Andreessen says it is product-market fit, Bill Gross says it’s timing, Dan Levitan says it is the team). Earlier, you suggested it would be an amazing entrepreneur. Would that be your factor?

Yes, but amazing entrepreneurs do a couple of things. They pick the right market and the right problem. They also hire a great team, create a sense of mission and are culture masters. Those are the other elements. It is not just this heroic Ayn Rand kind of figure but someone who can inspire and motivate others to join their cause while creating an empowering culture that allows talents to flourish.

If I were to pick one thing, it would definitely be culture because companies are compilations of individual people who wake up every day and decide I am going to work for company X versus not. Why do they do that? Compensation plays a part but at the end of the day if you are going to spend 10 to 12 hours a day at a place of work you’ve gotta be inspired by what the company is about, the values and so on.

At Remitly, the people feel that in some small way they are changing the world and feel good about it.

Do you have any parting thoughts for entrepreneurs?

Pursue a startup where you care about the outcome deeply. Startups are inherently hard. If you are successful at a startup you won’t know that for generally 5 – 7 years.

Also, pursue a big problem.  A small business is as hard or harder than a big-idea business. It is harder to attract people and resources. All things being equal, pursue a big idea even though on the surface it might seem like a smaller one might be more certain.

Source: TechCrunch

Talking the future of education with Convergent Media founder Rob Anderson

Talking the future of education with Convergent Media founder Rob Anderson

This week on Technotopia I talk to Rob Anderson, founder of Convergent Media Group and a former founding team member at MTV Russia. Anderson has some interesting ideas on education and the necessity for a true way to assess and hire based on personality types and skills.

Anderson is constantly hiring for his media company and he’s looking forward to a future when we will all be working a few hours a week at jobs perfectly suited for our aptitudes. While personality is a bit difficult to pin down, talent and skill can be measured and you can be placed on an educational track the could make you more than happy. The mission, then, is the sci-fi-like notion that humans are not one-size-fits-all and that smarter systems will slot us into exactly the right place at the right time.

You can download the MP3 or subscribe to the podcast here.

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Incidentally, if you’re looking for something a bit funnier and a lot raunchier (NSFW language), I’d encourage you to visit with Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, founder of SomethingAwful. I didn’t get much about the future out of him but he was funny.

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Source: TechCrunch

It’s a new era for female Israeli entrepreneurs

It’s a new era for female Israeli entrepreneurs

The Israeli startup scene has dramatically changed within a couple of years because of the significant increase in investment prospects (i.e. incubators, accelerators, angels), events, meet-ups, competitions, lectures, academic programs and more.

Especially interesting are the slowly, yet surely recent alterations in the diversity of the entrepreneurs, with more and more women entering the previously male-dominated startup habitat, turning it into an even more interesting scene. It is a crucial change that should have occurred earlier — but fortunately it is here, and it is here to stay.

There have been many debates, with many viable reasons provided, regarding why Israeli women entrepreneurs haven’t been active in the startup scene till now, why they are only now getting recognition and whether they are actually the ones taking more action. Here are a few arguments as to why Israeli women entrepreneurs are starting to blossom.

New opportunities

It appears that the male-dominated Israeli startup nation has taken a turn in the right direction. Not to seem too optimistic, though — men still lead the investment front, and they fulfill most key roles in the Israeli startup scene. However, diversity seems to be encroaching upon previous conventions, and there are now several new opportunities that have made it possible, easier and more appealing for women to join the rollercoaster and become startup founders and co-founders, as well as to join startups in key positions.

One of these new opportunities is WMN, which at first seemed to be another beautifully designed hub targeting women entrepreneurs, strategically located at the port of Tel Aviv complex. It soon became a ground-breaking success story, however, pushing forward numerous women-led startups that are now fully funded working companies on the rise. (i.e. TRENCH, Sidekix and more).

According to Merav Oren, CEO and founder of WMN, “WMN is a game-changer for women entrepreneurs. Our mission is to have more women-led ventures. We do this by providing our community members with a co-working space, professional events and workshops, along with mentors and networking opportunities with profound and leading men and women in the industry who want to pay it all forward.”

Oren agrees that “the Israeli startup scene (as the rest of the startup world) is still male-dominated. However, a clear shift has become prominent in recent years, and we are seeing Israeli women entrepreneurs just about everywhere: Women are founding startups, winning competitions, leading ventures and venture deal-flows, and leading successful innovative companies.”

Simply go out there, be a woman entrepreneur, a business woman, a leader, a founder, a force to be reckoned with.

Oren takes pride in her contribution, but not without admitting the long road ahead: “WMN has an important role in this local shift, and we are extremely excited to see that our hard work is paying off, not only business-wise but socially, as well. Having said that, as someone who is highly familiar with the Israeli startup scene, it is apparent that we still have a lot to do, but the challenge makes it interesting. We will continue with our vision for the betterment of everyone who cares about the startup scene, that will all benefit from this change.”

The rise of the momtrepreneurs

Another program intended for women entrepreneurs or future entrepreneurs is being led by Hilla Ovil-Brenner, a serial entrepreneur in the Israeli high-tech industry. Ovil-Brenner, who started her first startup (which she later sold to a huge corporation) when she was nine months pregnant, is now CEO and founder of a startup called GlingMedia, the first on-demand platform for inbound calls.

Ovil-Brenner specializes in reaching out to entrepreneurs and helping them fulfill their passion. She also founded Campus TLV for Moms at the Google Tel Aviv campus. Ovil-Brenner describes Campus TLV for Moms as the world’s first baby-friendly startup school for women entrepreneurs. Initially launched at Campus Tel Aviv by Yazamiyot, a social network for women entrepreneurs, it was co-founded by Ovil-Brenner and Google. Campus TLV for Moms provides a productive and educational bootcamp for moms to meet like-minded entrepreneurs and make progress.

According to Ovil-Brenner, “with the success of Campus for Moms in Tel Aviv, the program has grown to other campuses around the world, including London, Madrid and Seoul. We have helped hundreds of moms acquire the basic skills required for launching a successful startup — from product, development, branding, pitching investors and more.”

Ovil-Brenner explains: “Campus TLV for Moms is primarily aimed at women on maternity leave who are interested in learning more about entrepreneurship. The program is aimed at different audiences — either current or aspiring entrepreneurs or corporate employees with a track record of internal entrepreneurship who would like to know more about leading a successful business. We offer an 8-session cycle with special guests who are top-notch leaders in their fields. We take pride in helping women push forward a startup at what we discovered to be a critical turning point in their lives.”

Inspiration

There is quite a small group of Israeli women entrepreneurs who lead successful companies and give inspiration to other female founders, those who want to become entrepreneurs or those  taking the first steps to establishing a new startup.

One of them is Orit Hashay, who founded Brayola, a crowd-recommendation site for choosing and buying brassieres.

Hashay started as a software developer who independently launched several successful sites, such as mit4mit, an Israeli consumer wedding services reviews site, and Ramkol, Israel’s leading local reviews. She later joined Israeli VC Carmel Ventures as an investment manager, pushing forward its portfolio companies and seeking new investment opportunities for the company.

Hashay also takes an active part in encouraging Israeli women to aim at the non-existing glass ceiling: “I have lived the scene as an investor as well as a striving entrepreneur. I know how hard it can be, especially in a male-dominated world. However, I consistently ignored the fact that it is hard and didn’t take no for an answer. Any difficulty that I had, I found a way to resolve it.”

It’s definitely a new era for Israeli women entrepreneurs.

— Orit Hashay

As to why women entrepreneurs are less represented in startups, locally and abroad, Hashay says she knows exactly why this is the case. “I think the problem lies in early education. I volunteered at an NGO aimed at helping kids (tzeva.org.il) and kept seeing boys freely expressing themselves, even if they were clearly wrong about something, while girls were always less confident, even when they have the right answer. Women should be encouraged to speak up, be competitive from an early age, in the same way that boys are. From a personal perspective, my 4-year-old boy is extremely enthusiastic about working in my company, even though my husband is independent as well. Even though it is very heart-warming and flattering, I constantly tell him that he could create his own company if he would like. Every little boy or girl should be encouraged in exactly the same ways.”

As for today, Hashay concludes, “it’s definitely a new era for Israeli women entrepreneurs. The different programs available, the idea that it is not unusual for a woman to want to be independent or to want to start a venture from scratch… whatever the reason is, it’s happening and it’s a revolution that’s super fun to take an active part in.”

Breaking conventions

Shelly Eisen-Livneh is a relatively new entrepreneur who is part of WMN. Eisen-Livneh is the CEO and co-founder of aida, aiming to help people find compatible matches through playful and meaningful interactions.

Aida (Japanese for space between, time between, relation between) is a unique app that captures the space and time between two people — where the magic happens. It’s an app where people can discover each other playfully, bond and gradually form a “togetherness” — as in real life. This way they can stop focusing on searching and start focusing on creating the relationship they want.

According to Eisen-Livneh, her app disrupts dating conventions. “aida encourages a new dating culture that invites daters to develop and maintain an “aida” between them, bringing fun, emotion and meaning back into dating — both online and offline.”

Eisen-Livneh explains how her app is a convention breaker and introduces a fresh outlook on Israeli women entrepreneurs finally moving into the spotlight: “With aida I set out to create a product that many women felt is missing for years and fix many problems men had but could not articulate. The more I met with investors and accelerators, the more I realized that the crowd I am pitching to is usually comprised of men. Every now and then I meet a women who is a decision maker (about 5 percent of the investors I meet). I wish I could be meeting with more diverse teams.”

Eisen-Livneh further explained: “When I talked with my angel investor I asked him at one point ‘How do I convey the pain and explain the solution to someone who has never been in the online dating scene, let alone experienced it from a woman’s perspective? Do you know that 96.6 percent of the VC investors are men?’ His answer actually served as my guiding light ever since. He said, ‘Shelly, it’s all statistics. According to the echo-system statistics — you don’t even exist. But you’re alive kicking and screaming — aren’t you? So go out there, make your own reality and beat the statistics, every bit of it, in every step of the ladder.’ ”

And that’s what I think is most important for diversity to happen — simply go out there, be a woman entrepreneur, a business woman, a leader, a founder, a force to be reckoned with. Serve as an example to other women and always help others — of all genders. As in Gandhi’s words, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Featured Image: Spaces Images/Getty Images
Source: TechCrunch

Understanding Hillary Clinton’s innovation plan

Understanding Hillary Clinton’s innovation plan

It’s been an all-Hillary week. But in her Philadelphia acceptance speech, she said next-to-nothing about innovation and absolutely nothing at all about digital policy. So what will a Clinton presidency mean to Silicon Valley? And does she actually have a plan on innovation and technology?

Yes, she does. Last month, she released her Initiative on Technology and Innovation plan. And last week, the policy guru and best-selling writer Larry Downes published a “Brief Review” of this plan in Harvard Business Review. Downes says — surprise, surprise — that there’s a “lot of both good and bad” in the plan.

It’s good on its commitment to supporting visas for high-tech overseas workers, he suggests. But less good, he argues, on Network Neutrality, where she continues Obama’s support for Chapter II and the idea of the Internet as a public utility.

So what role does Downes expect tech and the Internet to play between now and the November election? The big surprise, he suspects, will be that polls don’t work anymore. In spite – or perhaps because of – the explosion of social media, pollsters are finding it harder and harder to determine how people are going to vote.

Perhaps this is because nobody has landlines anymore – so pollsters can no longer reach us. Or maybe it’s because we don’t trust pollsters anymore than we trust Wall Street bankers or politicians, so we no longer tell them the truth.

As always, many thanks to the folks at CALinnovates for their support in the production of this interview.

Source: TechCrunch

Virtual reality will not replay the 3D debacle

Virtual reality will not replay the 3D debacle

In the mid-2000s, everyone was talking about 3D, the “next big thing” in video that would transform the way we consumed TV and movies, even how we communicated. It required people to buy expensive new gadgets and wear goofy eyewear, but we were told that consumers would flock to this new three-dimensional world.

Unless you’re James Cameron, the Hollywood director whose movies have made billions of dollars thanks to that technology, you likely missed the entire 3D revolution.

So perhaps we should look at the new “next big thing” in video, virtual reality (which also requires people to buy new gadgets and wear goofy eyewear), with a more skeptical eye. However, comparing the two technologies and, perhaps most importantly, the ecosystems coming up around them, it appears VR>3D — and it’s not because of Pokémon Go (well, not just because of it).

For a new technology like VR to take off, generally four factors need to be met:

Multiple uses. VR videos are by no means the only application for consumers. There are applications in gaming, communications, healthcare, education and more. VR also enjoys many industrial uses, including the ability for executives to take an immersive tour of a manufacturing facility from thousands of miles away. VR also is a fertile area for marketing and advertising.  OnePlus, the Chinese mobile device maker with a cult-like following, broadcast its recent launch event in VR. It didn’t matter that there were some technical glitches: In a couple of years, even Apple’s vaunted launch events will become VR experiences for remote viewers.

Diverse, high-quality content. VR has started to create an important balance of content developed by traditional providers (TV/movies, media, social media) and at-home users. This critical mass of professional and amateur will attract more consumers, many of whom will create their own VR content. While the content is not quite there yet, it is certainly on the upswing: VR content startup Jaunt has received funding from Disney and other Hollywood players, and fairly soon YouTube could be dominated by VR videos submitted by everyday users.

Falling device prices. Just a few years ago, VR cameras were prohibitively expensive for most consumers. But recent entries to the market, including the Samsung 360, allow consumers to film their own VR content for less than $400. What’s more, all one needs is a pair of cheap cardboard glasses and a smartphone app to start the VR experience.

Budding startup ecosystem. Many small, innovative companies are popping up to help drive VR growth. While the returns won’t be immediate for investors, venture capitalists haven’t been shy about spreading the love to all types of VR startups.

3D, on the other hand, fell short in all of these areas: Beyond movies and television, there weren’t really any broad uses for 3D, including mobile; 3D TVs started expensive and never got cheaper; content, created by traditional content providers or at-home users, never materialized; and the big players, particularly TV manufacturers, dominated the market.

The “wow factor” will also help VR succeed. I have witnessed more than a dozen people try VR for the first time, and each one was blown away by the experience. That just wasn’t the case with 3D, even with the latest breakthroughs showcased at tech conferences like CES International.

Consumers want a personalized experience they can control.

VR has the potential to upend nearly every sector of the economy, perhaps acting as a lifeline for drowning ones. Last year, The New York Times included a Google Cardboard, a VR viewer, with Sunday home deliveries. Subscribers could then download an app to enable their smartphone to display the Times’ VR video content through the Cardboard. The Times’ foray into this new technology was surprisingly good and easy to use, allowing readers to engage with the news on an unprecedented level.

The biggest reason we should all be bullish on VR is its potential for integration in social media, especially mobile. Facebook is making a big play in VR through its purchase of Oculus and the recent launch of Facebook 360. Much like Facebook pioneered social media and was the major driver of the mobile internet, the company is looking to beat competitors to the broad market and deliver VR to its 1.6 billion active users worldwide. Facebook users will, in turn, contribute greatly to the development of VR content, further driving growth.

Finally, VR provides the opportunity for a truly personalized media experience — for both user and industry-created content. As the swarms of real-life people trailing behind their phones in search of augmented reality cartoon creatures have shown, first-person video games put you right in the action. Watching a VR movie can become a different experience at each viewing, creating the movie you choose and not the one dictated by filmmakers. 

This creative disruption will shake the established interests, as evidenced by Steven Spielberg recently calling VR movies “dangerous” because viewers can decide “not to take direction from the storytellers.”

As we’ve seen through the success of Airbnb and Uber, and in the growth of social media, consumers want a personalized experience they can control — and one that allows them to step out of their daily lives. Beyond all the promising business indicators, that cultural phenomenon may be the most important sign that VR is here to stay.

Featured Image: J. R. EYERMAN/TimePix/Getty Images
Source: TechCrunch

BlackBerry’s security-focused Android identity crisis

BlackBerry’s security-focused Android identity crisis

Consider BlackBerry. Think about the company, its products, its most iconic features. What comes to mind? Business apps? A QWERTY keyboard? BBM? The once-mighty Canadian smartphone maker is banking on one word standing above all the rest: security.

You see, BBM is no longer solely the realm of BlackBerry devices, and the keyboard hasn’t been ubiquitous since the company belatedly responded to iPhone with the Storm in 2008 (a chapter the smartphone maker would likely just as soon forget). Heck, even the productivity focus has taken a backseat as Apple and Android devices have made sizable inroads in the enterprise space.

When the company finally launched its long-awaited Android handset late last year, security was front and center. In fact, the product’s name was the first four letters of “privacy.” Security was how BlackBerry envisioned the Priv standing apart from the countless throngs of Android devices. Well, security and a slide-out key. This time, however, the company’s latest device doesn’t even have one of those.

The company has taken to calling the DTEK50 the “world’s most secure Android smartphone” — or at least part of a two-way tie with the Priv. In fact, the company just went ahead and named the handset for the privacy app it introduced with its first Android phone. It’s one of a number of qualities the device shares with the Priv — and really, the new handset is a supplement, not successor to that device.

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The DTEK50 is both a show of faith to the company’s continued commitment to Android and an attempt at wider-scale accessibility with a starting price that undercuts last year’s model by a full $400 — a smart move, given that the Priv’s $699 price tag was among many reviewers’ chief complaints. The new phone is a much more populist device, a fact reflected in the video that opened the product’s launch event, in which the company questioned people on the street about smartphone security.

So, with a new take on the company’s new approach, we find ourselves asking the same question we ask each time the company offers a new device: Could this possibly be the one that puts BlackBerry back on the right track?

At a glance

  • 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080 display
  • No physical keyboard
  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow with BlackBerry apps
  • $299

Pros

  • Lots of security customization
  • Lightweight design
  • Good price

Cons

  • Rebranded third-party hardware
  • No physical keyboard

Alcatel that ends well

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If there’s no physical keyboard, can we really call it a BlackBerry? It’s one of those “if a tree falls in the forest”-style thought experiments. When the iPhone first appeared on the scene, it was precisely the company’s refusal to drop the keys that set it apart. Ultimately, however, the company’s stubbornness is precisely what got it into this position in the first place.

Naturally, when it finally embraced Android, the company did so with a keyboard in tow, a nod to the fact that, even as it embraced another company’s operating system in order to open itself up an active app development ecosystem, it maintained a focus on what made it different. When the DTEK50 was first unveiled this week, there were questions around whether or not the device was simply a middling piece of hardware rebadged with a BlackBerry logo. The answer is yes and no. When I first laid hands on the phone, it turned out to be a lot nicer than I’d originally anticipated. As the company notes in its press material, its 7.7mm width makes it the company’s thinnest phone to date. And at 4.7 ounces, it’s also quite light.

Really, there’s not much here that screams “BlackBerry.” That could well be because the handset appears to be a refurbished rebadge of Alcatel’s recent Idol 4. The company confirmed as much without actually coming out and saying it when I reached out shortly after receiving the handset. Scott Wenger, BlackBerry’s Global Head of Design, explained the similarities between the handsets suchly,

First and foremost, we are focused on meeting the needs of our users — and they want and expect the best in security, productivity, function and design. To meet this demand, we partnered with TCL to manufacture DTEK50 because we saw a great fit between our software solutions and an existing hardware platform to meet those needs.

BlackBerry DTEK50

Alcatel’s handset branch is, naturally, owned by TCL. So, the two phones share a reference design and most of the same specs, with BlackBerry offering some customization on top of that. It’s disappointing for a company that has made some of the most iconic pieces of hardware in the handset space, but, well, at least the company chose a solid starting point.

It does make one wonder what might have been in the mix had the company started from the ground up. For a company so focused on security, a fingerprint reader jumps out as a possibility. Wenger again,

Our goal with DTEK50 was to strike a great balance, providing the user with high performance, Android apps and experiences, and legendary BlackBerry security, all at a compelling price point. We carefully selected hardware and software components to ensure that balance, and will continue to evaluate fingerprint and other biometric authentication means moving forward.

In the end, the design partnership/outsourcing was likely an attempt to rein in costs, keeping BlackBerry’s handset well below the cost of last year’s Priv — but ultimately, it’s hard not to see the move as another key step away from the core of what has made BlackBerry (nee RIM) such a unique company as more and more smartphone manufacturers have consolidated around the same operating system and similar design.

A BlackBerry in hand

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The DTEK50 has a nice feel. It’s light but solid, and the custom textured backing adds a nice grip. The 5.2-inch display is flanked on top and bottom by thin speaker grilles, which are recessed slightly from the screen’s bezels. Up top is an eight-megapixel camera — the relatively high number is a nod to the needs of a business-minded device intended to do more than just snap selfies. To the left is an indicator that flashes big, white and bright.

The front of the device is entirely devoid of any BlackBerry branding — in fact, there’s nothing at all that indicates its connection to the Canadian company. The sides of the device are encased by a metal band, similar in appearance to the one you’ll find on Samsung’s most recent Galaxy devices.

At top is a headphone jack and on the bottom is the microUSB slot (no USB-C here). The power button is on the left (which takes a bit of getting used to), with the volume rocker located in the same spot on the right side. Below that is a circular button — what our friends at Alcatel refer to as the “Boom key.” BlackBerry, in keeping with past devices, has deemed it the Convenience key. Whatever the name, it’s a handy feature, serving as a customizable shortcut to launch frequently used apps or other tasks.

BlackBerry DTEK50

The device’s rear has a textured, hardened rubber feel. At top is the 13-megapixel camera, just above the flash module. In the center is the BlackBerry Bs logo, the only clear hardware indicator (aside from the company’s name in tiny, barely visible letters at the bottom) that this is, indeed, a product of Waterloo, Ontario. The backing in a nice aesthetic addition to what might otherwise be a bland handset. It’s not exactly a premium feel, but it certainly offers something different in a sea of lookalike handsets.

Even so, it’s far from the iconic BlackBerry of yore, one the company finally, symbolically sent out to pasture with the lonesome death of the Classic. The fact is that devices these days are mostly screen — something the company struggled to accept early on, but eventually conceded. What that means, of course, is that a company has to do an even better job setting itself apart on the software front.

On lockdown

P7261807

That, naturally, is easier said than done. Over the years, smartphone makers have struggled with precisely how much of a mark to leave on Google’s mobile operating system, to the point that “Pure” versions of the OS have felt like something of a breath of fresh air.

Last year, BlackBerry finally give in and jumped aboard the Android train. While the company has maintained a side commitment to BB10, it clearly saw Google as the path toward a return to mainstream adoption, courtesy of all the apps that seemed they’d never come to the company’s devices by way of its native OS.

This is where security comes in — in fact, that’s where the handset gets a name even less inherently pronounceable than the Priv. The DTEK software carries over from that device, offering security as much as peace of mind. As the company rightfully points out, many consumers made the jump from laptop to smartphone and forgot to take all of their security concerns with them. And given the large number of third-party apps we regularly download, we’ve opened so much of our precious information up to both malware and snooping, courtesy of a piece of hardware that essentially amounts to a collection of sensors.

P7261821

What DTEK offers is a handy spot for monitoring those potential points of weakness. And the company has done a good job making that detection as simple as possible. Fire up the app and you get a red, yellow and green gauge, telling you how good a job you’re doing securing the device. That data is based on a weighted 10-point checklist, including such things as data encryption and screen lock (and, to be fair, two of the points are marked as green simply because it’s a BlackBerry device running BlackBerry software).

Clicking into APPS and PERMISSIONS drills down on a per-app basis. Each one alerts the user to the permissions they’ve requested, as well as any manner of suspicious activity, including tracking. It’s a handy piece of software, and one BlackBerry ought to consider licensing to third-parties as security and privacy breaches and concerns rise among smartphone users. And on a very basic level, it’s a bit of a wake-up call, breaking down precisely how much information our different apps are requesting.

BlackBerry-flavored Marshmallow

BlackBerry DTEK50

The company has also ported over a number of enterprise and productivity features. BlackBerry Hub offers a centralized location for a slew of different communication platforms like email, social media, text, phone, calendar events and, of course, BBM — handy for those who are overwhelmed by the ever-increasing number of communication fronts.

BlackBerry DTEK50

The BlackBerry Intelligent Keyboard picks up the mantle from the company’s iconic physical offering. While, naturally, it can’t replace the tactility of the real thing, the company has gone out of its way to add productivity touches like word suggestions that hover over specific keys, which can be chosen with a swipe up. I found the integration a bit distracting at first, but it grows on you.

Coupled with BBM and a few other additions like a productivity sidebar, the DTEK50’s operating system isn’t BlackBerry-skinned Android so much as it is Android with BlackBerry functionality sprinkled in. The additions will likely be largely welcome — and, more importantly, are mostly out of the way when you don’t need them.

DTEK specs

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The 5.2-inch display comes in at 1920 x 1080 resolution, working out to 424 ppi; not bad for what is essentially a mid-tier or even borderline budget handset. The colors are nice and crisp and do a good job for those looking to add a little entertainment on top of their productivity. I can’t really say the same for the speakers. You’re going to want some headphones if you plan on listening to anything but short YouTube clips.

Inside, a 1.2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 is coupled with 3GB of RAM; not earth shattering, but more than enough for what most users will want to do with the device. The standard 16GB of storage is less impressive, but that’s where the expandable storage comes in, offering users up to 2TB via microSD. There’s also a decently sized 2610 mAh battery that will get you through a day of use, no problem.

I didn’t run into any performance issues during my time with the device, but the DTEK50 does heat up pretty quickly and the backing does little to insulate that.

What’s in a name?

BlackBerry DTEK50

When I met with BlackBerry to pick up the review unit, I asked whether the company would consider licensing its branded security offerings to another manufacturer. The company line seems to be one around a commitment to creating a unified hardware/software solution — and certainly that’s been a defining characteristic for the company. BlackBerry opening itself up to new ideas is a step in the right direction, as far as the company’s future health is concerned, but this handset feels aimless.

The DTEK50 is less of a step forward than a move toward a company that is more service-focused, rather than providing the full package. Would a company offering an Android handset augmented by BlackBerry software really feel like that big a shift from this current product?

Of course, BlackBerry doesn’t plan to hang its hat on this device. The more premium (and much higher-priced) Priv felt like much more of an attempt to define BlackBerry’s future, and the company has promised more keyboard devices to come. As it stands, the DTEK50 is a decent mid-tier device targeted at users seeking a security suite that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Gillmor Gang: Not Insane

Gillmor Gang: Not Insane

The Gillmor Gang — Robert Scoble, Frank Radice, Kevin Marks, and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, July 29, 2016. In 1972, the Firesign Theatre released a film nominating George Papoon as the National Surrealist Light Peoples Party candidate for president. The campaign rallying cry, Not Insane, has never been more appropriate. Plus, the latest G3 (below) with Kristie Wells, Elisa Camahort Page, Francine Hardaway, and Tina Chase Gillmor.

@stevegillmor, @Scobleizer, @kevinmarks, @fradice

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

Liner Notes

Live chat stream

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

G3: Trading Places

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G3 chat stream

G3 on Facebook

Source: TechCrunch

Here’s what your boring app would look like as a conversation

Here’s what your boring app would look like as a conversation

In years to come, conversations will breathe new life into software — particularly the boring enterprise tools millions of knowledge workers begrudgingly use every day. Conversational user interfaces (CUIs) work because of our familiarity with messaging. Even the most technically complex interactions can look as simple as getting an SMS text when presented as a conversation.

There are three benefits conversational user interfaces have over traditional software, and we believe these lessons can inform and inspire the redesign of countless online services. To illustrate the potential of conversational interfaces, we’ve reimagined what Google Analytics — one of the most widely used (and widely despised) pieces of enterprise software — could look like as a conversation.

What’s it all for, anyway?

Before diving into our redesign, it is important to consider some fundamental questions. What is enterprise software for? What job does it do for the user?

Fundamentally, enterprise software helps the user answer one or more of the following questions:

  • What’s important? (surface relevant information)
  • What do I do next? (support decision making)
  • How do I do it? (facilitate action)

That’s about it! Not all enterprise software does all three, but it must do at least one. In the case of Google Analytics, the software is heavy on surfacing information in an attempt to answer the first question, light on decision support and provides little in the way of facilitating the next action (with the exception of helping the user buy Google ads).

Interestingly enough, the conversational interface answers all three of the above questions better than the software tools we have today.

What’s important? (surface relevant information)

Instead of having to sift through the drop-down menus, tables, functions and buttons found in today’s software, tomorrow’s conversational interfaces will be able to send and receive messages in plain English. By simply asking a question via a conversational interface, the user will get the relevant information they seek.

But what happens when the user doesn’t know what they want? What about the valuable insights trapped in the data?

With today’s traditional interfaces, like Google Analytics, an alert appears in the top-right corner, annoying the user (at best) or ignored entirely (at worst). Opening Google Analytics reveals an intimidating explosion of charts and graphs full of data, but short on insight. What does it all mean? Is the user in the red? Or is everything okay?

Like lots of enterprise software today, Google Analytics is a mess of charts and graphs.

Like lots of enterprise software today, Google Analytics is a mess of charts and graphs.

By using a conversational interface instead, Google Analytics would ensure important information isn’t ignored, making it more easily understood. For example, the mockup below informs the user of an anomaly; there was a recent spike in the number of visitors to the user’s website. That’s the same information presented in the Google Analytics dashboard, but with a very different effect on the user.

A conversational interface can present the same information as a dashboard but with a much more powerful effect.

A conversational interface can present the same information as a dashboard, but with a much more powerful effect.

Dashboards today pump out data and expect the user to do the rest. However, tomorrow’s conversational interfaces will surface insights first, then back them up with data as needed. Notice how Christina, the new face of Google Analytics, prompts the user with a question to move the conversation along. Christina could be a bot, a human or hybrid; it doesn’t really matter to the user, as long as the job gets done.

What do I do next? (support decision making)

When two friends have coffee together, one might raise a topic to gauge the other person’s interest in further discussion. Perhaps catching up on how the kids are doing, how’s business or a bit of gossip — we test interest to see what’s worth talking about. If the other party wants to talk about something else, it would be rude to stubbornly insist on only talking about one thing. However, that’s exactly what today’s software does. It keeps nagging us with topics we don’t care about because, unlike a good friend, it doesn’t care to learn.

A conversational interface, however, can do something no ordinary dashboard can do: it listens and learns. By noting the user’s response to the discrete piece of information presented, the software remembers whether the insight was valuable. If the user continues the conversation about this information, the system learns the importance and raises similar concerns in the future. But if they don’t write back, great, that’s one less notification the app needs to send and one fewer interruption to the user’s day.

Unlike a traditional dashboard, the conversational interface gets better at its job of presenting relevant information the more it is used, and therefore becomes a more powerful decision support tool. This concept is called “stored value” and is a key to building habit-forming products (according to the Hook Model).

Artboard 1a

Furthermore, the conversational interface can learn from other users to improve the experience for everyone. For example, when Christina points out the spike in traffic is coming from Reddit, the information she presents isn’t just a statement of fact, she surfaces options to consider. To offer intelligent choices, Google could use the behaviors of other users to offer the best next steps.

Artboard 1 Copy 8

In this example, the assistant suggests a resource for learning how to use Reddit effectively, prompts the user to join the conversation there and offers to help fix the site’s high bounce rate to increase the number of users who stick around.

Helping the user figure out what to do next is hugely valuable. The easier the next action is to do, the more likely the user is to do it. The conversational interface easily surfaces the next best actions, saving the user time from hunting and second-guessing what to do next. By combining information from the user’s past conversations and other users’ actions, the new interface provides a better decision support tool to answer the question “What do I do next?”

How do I do it? (facilitate action)

Finally, now that the software has elevated what’s important and given the user options to consider, it’s time to facilitate the actions the user wants to take. Unfortunately, actually getting the task done with today’s software requires navigating a hodgepodge of solutions on disparate screens and sites. A conversational interface can eliminate all of that.

For instance, in the example above, when the user asks Christina for help with the site’s high bounce rate, she suggests creating a custom landing page that welcomes visitors from Reddit. Setting up such a page is child’s play for someone who has done it before, but for a novice it can be more work than it’s worth.

Thankfully, a conversational interface can get the job done behind the scenes in any number of ways. The assistant can offer upgraded services, summon in-house expertise or incorporate an outside vendor. Instead of relying on the user to get up to speed on yet another software tool, the assistant turns to people or bots who already know what they are doing. The point is, unlike today’s enterprise software that requires the user to figure out how to help themselves (a task most people just won’t do), a conversational assistant can do the work by taking the path of least resistance.

Here again, the conversational interface stores value every time a change is made to the site. With each page built or experiment run, the new Google Analytics learns more about the site owner’s goals and past results, making it easier to suggest improvements and making the service truly indispensable.

Die, dashboard, die!

Several workplace surveys have found we spend between 20 to 30 percent of our day looking for information. Even small reductions in the amount of time and effort spent digging around clunky enterprise software would yield significant dividends.

While not ideal for every use case, there are many benefits the conversational interface has over the enterprise software status quo. Fundamentally, it is better at answering what’s important?, what do I do next?, and how do I do it?

By adopting this more user-friendly interface, tomorrow’s software has the opportunity to cure the dashboard fatigue infecting the enterprise. It also promises to make solutions accessible to people who just don’t have the time to learn new tools.

The future of enterprise software won’t be about complicated dashboards and mind-numbing amounts of big data; it will be about well-designed interfaces that make work a pleasure. Software should be like a good friend — ask and ye shall receive.

Thanks to Ariel JalaliShane MacAmir Shevat and Matthew Woo for reading early versions of this essay.

Featured Image: Burak Cakmak/Getty Images
Source: TechCrunch

BBC: And then we strapped a helicopter rig to an elephant

BBC: And then we strapped a helicopter rig to an elephant

Imagine being part of the BBC’s natural history unit, traveling the world to create some of the world’s most beautiful documentaries. Sounds like a dream job, right? I sat down with Huw Cordey, the producer on a ton of the Beeb’s best-loved shows, to find out more about the technology and gadgets the team deploys to capture the beasties in action.

“I’m sorry, sir, your hand luggage must fit into this gauge.”

“People are always developing new equipment,” Cordey says, half grinning, half sighing, as I imagine him waving at an enormous pile of Peli cases stacked in the corner of his no doubt stacked-to-the-rafters office, “which is perfect for us. If you think about it, wildlife hasn’t really changed what they have been doing since we started filming nature documentaries. Instead, we have to come up with new ways of telling their stories.”

Coming up with innovative things is kind of his thing. For the most recent show Cordey worked on — BBC’s The Hunt, which is currently showing on a BBC channel near you — the concept was to try to capture how animals hunt in the wild. Which isn’t that tricky if you’re trying to film a spider rolling up a fly into a little ball, perhaps, but it’s a very different kettle of orcas when you’re talking about large animals careening along the savannah at 55 mph.

Is that a Cineflex on the side of your Landcruiser, or are you just happy to see me?

Is that a Cineflex on the side of your Land Cruiser, or are you just happy to see me?

“My favorite piece of equipment we used on this series were the Cineflex gyroscopic mounts,” Cordey says, referring to the super-stabilized, basketball-sized, 85-pound mounts usually attached to helicopters.

Yes, helicopters. If that sounds a little bit James Bond, and you’re getting all sorts of action sequence emotions tingling your spidey senses, check out the video below. It’s pretty epic.

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Of course, the team did use the Cineflex mounts as intended — strapped to the side of a helicopter — but they also used the camera extensively in other situations.

Well polar bears don't film themselves, you know!

Well polar bears don’t film themselves, you know!

“We were able to mount the camera on a truck and follow the animals as they were hunting,” says Cordey. He explains that the team did have to be a bit more careful than usual; altogether, the gear they tied to the truck costs around half a million dollars.

All the hours playing on the PlayStation finally paid off.

— Jamie McPherson

He adds, soberly; “It was a completely new way of following wildlife; all the bounces were taken out of the footage by the technology, creating a smooth shot from beginning to end. We can follow the chase as fast as we are able to drive, but if we’d hit a porcupine borough along the way, we’d have been buggered.”

Filming in this manner also meant that the team was able to film a full hunt “for real,” rather than doing it the way it had been done in the past. Which… used to work out pretty much exactly the way you’d imagine. In some nature documentaries, you might notice that the animal that is caught in the end looks slightly different or is a bit bigger or smaller than the animal at the start of the sequence. Of course, that is because they filmed different hunts, often on completely different days and in different locations.

Because why wouldn't you attach a stabilization mount designed for helicopters to the biggest land animal in the world.

Because why wouldn’t you attach a stabilization mount designed for helicopters to the biggest land animal in the world?

One innovation was to build a mount enabling the team to film… from an elephant. Which is every bit as bonkers as it sounds, but it isn’t completely “just because we can” — it turns out that it’s the perfect way to film tigers, because unlike drones, helicopters and juicy camera-men, tigers basically ignore elephants.

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In the above video, the team explains how they came up with the idea of creating an elephant-mounted camera. 

“Being able to film continuously through the hunt is a complete game-changer for us,” Cordey admits, with more than just a little bit of awe in his voice. This, I can tell, is bloody exciting, even for the 20-year veteran of nature documentaries.

“We had an amazing camera man, Jamie McPherson. He’s really taken to all of the tech, and I had to laugh one night after a shoot, when he pointed out that all the hours playing on his PlayStation finally paid off,” Cordey says, but looking into the tech more closely makes it clear that he’s only partially joking. Operating a Cineflex is an awful lot like playing a video game. Instead of throwing a camera on your shoulder, you have a screen and a remote control, meaning a slightly different skill set is needed to operate the new kit.

An awful lot like playing Playstation... If your Playstation cost half a million dollars.

An awful lot like playing PlayStation… if your PlayStation cost half a million dollars.

Bring on the drones

New technology is a key aspect of the series, enabling whole new aspects of storytelling.

Elephants run a mile immediately when a drone comes near.

— Huw Cordey

“I love drones; we use them all the time,” Cordey explains, pointing out that the the Panasonic GH4 is a particular favorite. It weighs very little, but the quality is good enough for use in broadcast, which means it is perfect for sending up with a drone.

“We do have to be very careful, though; drones sound like a swarm of angry bees, which scares some animals, so we can’t get too close,” Corey says, explaining that the team uses drones especially for overview shots and landscape shots. “Elephants run a mile immediately when a drone comes near.”

Despite their shortcomings, drones are a favorite and the team often carries drones, launching them whenever they’re needed, rather than getting out a jib arm or calling in a helicopter.

Consumer-grade equipment, broadcast quality footage

The other big change over the last 20 years is how good prosumer equipment has become. In the past, you needed specialized equipment in order to shoot in high def for television. The team does obviously still use high-end equipment a lot of the time, but commercially available equipment makes it much easier and cheaper to shoot shows today.

“For The Hunt, we used Camblock and Kessler sliders a lot of the time. For the time-lapse sequences we often shoot with Canon 5D MK III cameras and for low-light, Sony’s α7S has fantastic abilities at night,” says Cordey. “We also use the tiny Flare cameras a lot; they were invaluable for shooting time-lapse sequences of army ants.”

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If you haven’t seen what Sony’s α7s can do in low light, check out the above short film, shot exclusively by moonlight. If that’s not impressive to you, perhaps it’s time to go for a walk, you’ve been on the internet for too long. 

“Ultimately, you can’t say that a $2,000 camera delivers the same quality as a $50,000 camera, but it’s horses for courses. If we can use more affordable cameras, that’s fantastic,” Cordey explains.

Another big advantage is the availability of camera traps — much like the ones offered commercially by Camptraptions, where the team has built its own gear, powered by a bank of batteries.

“Being able to leave a camera out for months at a time makes it possible to capture scenes that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. For very rare animals like leopards, it’s the best way,” says Cordey. Makes sense; leaving a $50,000 camera and a very expensive camera man in the forest for a few months gets very expensive very quickly, but it’s worth taking the risk with a couple of grand’s worth of equipment on the off-chance that you capture a shot worthy of using in the series.

Huge leaps in technology

The past 20 years have seen a huge leap of technology and the natural history unit veteran reflects on what has changed.

You can’t use white light on most animals.

— Huw Cordey

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t film at night without lights and helicopters needed to get within 50 meters of the animals,” Cordey explains. That’s a problem: nocturnal animals shy away from light and you can imagine what happens if you’re casually grazing along, minding your own business when suddenly a 10,000-pound inferno of sound, wind and scary starts following you around.
A lot of the best new tech has come from both commercial outfit and military applications.

There have got to be easier ways of taking a selfie.

There have got to be easier ways of taking a selfie.

“Infra red, thermal cameras and low-light tech all came from the military,” Cordey lists. “They have deep pockets and all the time in the world. Where possible, we take what they’ve done and adapt it for ergonomics so we can bring it to where we need it to be to capture the animals”

Security technologies have come in handy more than once, too.

“You can’t use white light on most animals,” Cordey says. “But filming in IR gives a pretty nice feel. Best of all, a lot of wildlife don’t see the IR light sources, so we can film them as much as we like. The downside is that it’ll all be in black and white. For some sequences, we’re now thinking about using the next-generation Sony A7 for shoots late in the evening or early in the morning.”

Still some ways to go

Cineflex? More like Eleflex.

Cineflex? More like Eleflex.

Not every problem has been fully solved. Camera equipment manufacturers, if you’re paying attention, here’s how to make your next generation of sales.

“Every year, drones get better,” Cordey says, but adds that he does have a wish list for improvements. “With a helicopter, we can fly for a couple of hours. For drones, we have to bring them back within six to seven minutes, which isn’t enough. I also wish they were quieter, so I can bring them closer to the animals, and I’d love better stabilization and zoom lenses.”

Other tech where the BBC is butting against the edges of what’s technically possible is filming at night. A lot of nocturnal animals haven’t been properly documented and I got the very distinct sense that Huw Cordey and his team would love to do a whole series focusing exclusively on those that only come out at night.

“Give me a gyro-stabilized long-lens camera on a silent drone and you’ve hit the jackpot,” Cordey laughs.

If you want to see The Hunt in full, tune in to BBC America, Sundays at 9/8c.

The other pipeline

The other pipeline

C

hrisfino Kenyatta Leal never thought he would end up in prison. What he did envision, he tells me, was dying before the age of 25 or 30. 

“I saw so many people around me dying at such a young age that my long-term vision just wasn’t in focus,” Leal tells me. “I was just focused on what was right in front of me.”

In 1994, Leal was pulled over by the police for “being black and driving a nice car in an area where they probably thought I shouldn’t have been,” he says. A friend of Leal’s was in the car, and the police found a gun on him. Even though the friend testified that it was his gun, Leal was charged for constructive possession. It was his third strike. Sentence: 25 years to life.

Nineteen years later, at the age of 44, Leal walked out of prison. Against all odds, he made his way into the tech industry. You could say he’s one of the lucky ones.

When you hear about a “pipeline problem” in tech, it is often in regards to the lack of diversity in the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem. The crux of the pipeline argument is that there are not enough underrepresented minorities and women pursuing knowledge in computer science and programming.

Tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook love to cite the so-called pipeline problem as the reason for the discrepancy between underrepresented minority groups and white people among their staff. Just this month, Facebook’s global head of diversity once again blamed the company’s meager amount of black and brown employees on a lack of available talent. This was met with criticism and anger among diversity and inclusion advocates across the tech industry.

While the pipeline is certainly a small part of the problem, there are other elements that impact diversity in tech — inclusion and belonging. It’s one thing to hire underrepresented minorities, but it’s another thing to make them feel included and wanted. What often results is the so-called “leaky bucket” phenomenon, which describes people of color entering a space and eventually leaving because of the unconscious biases they experience at the hands of their colleagues.

In the past year, the tech industry has started addressing unconscious bias in the workplace. Facebook, for example, has even gone so far as to build a resource site called “Managing Unconscious Bias,” with the idea that other tech companies can tap into Facebook’s best practices.

We have a criminal justice system that is inherently infected with racial bias.

— Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director, ACLU of N. California

What’s missing from the conversation, however, is the other pipeline — the criminal justice system. Systemic racism is at the root of this multi-faceted, other pipeline. It results in the disproportionate amount of underrepresented minorities, particularly black people, ending up behind bars — sometimes directly from the classroom.

Across the nation’s public schools, there are more than 43,000 school resource officers, which includes career law enforcement officers with the authority to arrest children and send them to jail, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report. This school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects young black and brown people.

“School discipline issues are still an important driver,” Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, tells me. “Regressive and highly punitive school discipline policies have a tendency to funnel certain youth into a certain direction, and that’s the basis of the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Meanwhile, the lack of data makes it nearly impossible to quantify the effects of systemic racism on the criminal justice system. As it stands right now, there is no way of measuring and demonstrating patterns.

“I believe we have a criminal justice system that is inherently infected with racial bias, and that is a huge contributor. Whether or not it’s a pipeline, I don’t know, but it’s a huge contributor,” she says. “We’ve had some really highly punitive laws in place and tools for law enforcement to ensure certain people are going to be incarcerated.”

Zamora says it’s difficult to identify what is going on because we don’t actually have the information and so we can’t determine the patterns. There is a lack of data in the criminal justice system. In fact, there is barely any at all.

“We can’t analyze how and why law enforcement are making certain decisions or why certain people are charged with a felony and other people are charged with a misdemeanor for the exact same crime,” Zamora says. “This is information we need access to.”

The criminal justice system plays a significant, behind-the-scenes role in the lack of diversity in the tech industry today. And we can’t efficiently tackle diversity and inclusion in tech without first examining the criminal justice system.

T

he number of black people under the control of the correctional system is staggering. Today, there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison, jail, on probation or on parole — “than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began,” writes legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” citing numbers by the Pew Charitable Trust report “the Pew Center on the States.”

In the late 1950s, segregationists started to use law-and-order rhetoric geared toward getting white people to oppose the civil rights movement. They were responsible for the narrative that civil rights protests were a criminal act rather than a political one, their argument being that the protests were contributing to the spread of crime.

While there was an increase in crime during this time, the reasons for it were complex. The Baby Boom generation accounted for a spike in young men in the 15-to-24 age group, which has historically been responsible for most crimes. Alexander refers to this period, and the mass incarceration that has resulted from it, as “the new Jim Crow.” 

“The surge of young men in the population was occurring at precisely the same time that unemployment rates for black men were rising sharply, but the economic and demographic factors contributing to rising crime were not explored in the media,” Alexander writes in her book (page 41). “Instead, crime reports were sensationalized and offered as further evidence of the breakdown in lawfulness, morality, and social stability in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.”

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which formally ended discrimination in public spaces, employment, voting and education, the public focus shifted to crime. When riots erupted after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the racial imagery in the media associated with them helped to fuel the segregationists’ argument that civil rights for blacks led to an increase in crime. Meanwhile, between the 1960s and 1980, conservatives began to question welfare, pitting hard-working white people against black people who didn’t want to work.

“The not-so-subtle message to working-class whites was that their tax dollars were going to support special programs for blacks who most certainly did not deserve them,” Alexander writes in “The New Jim Crow” (page 48).

The turning point came in 1971 when President Richard Nixon called for a war on drugs and referred to illegal drugs as “public enemy number one.” Crime and welfare ultimately became the major themes of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980, which used racially coded rhetoric and strategies.

President Ronald Reagan followed through with Nixon’s desires. Despite the fact that drug use was on the decline, in 1982 he officially declared a war on drugs, stating that illicit drugs were a threat to national security (“The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America” by Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson, page 163).

Between 1980 and 1984, the FBI’s anti-drug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million, according to the Budget of the U.S. government in 1990 (Katherine Beckett, Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics, page 53). In contrast, funding for agencies in charge of drug treatment, prevention and education was reduced. The budget for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, went from $274 million in 1981 to $57 million in 1984, according to 1992 data from the U.S. Office of the National Drug Control Policy.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, inner-city communities were suffering from an economic collapse. Black inner-city communities were the ones that felt the impacts of globalization and deindustrialization the most.

As late as 1970, more than 70 percent of blacks working in metropolitan areas held blue-collar jobs (William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor). By 1987, the employment rate for black men dropped to 28 percent (John Kasarda, “Urban Industrial Transition and the Underclass,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 501, no. 1 [1990]).

In 1985, a few years after Reagan announced the war on drugs, crack cocaine hit the streets. Investigations have since suggested that the government played a role in embedding crack on the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods, as described in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s book, “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press” and by Michelle Alexander.

“The CIA admitted in 1998 that guerrilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the United States — drugs that were making their way onto the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods in the form of crack cocaine,“ Alexander writes in her book (page 6).

The lack of legitimate job opportunities in low-income black neighborhoods, combined with the infusion of illegal drugs into these neighborhoods, created an incentive to sell drugs. Reagan’s administration jumped on the opportunity to publicize the crack cocaine epidemic, sensationalizing its emergence. These sensationalized media campaigns continued to 1989.

During that time, the racism against blacks was fueled by the job loss created by the economic collapse and the crack epidemic that struck the streets of black neighborhoods. With that in mind, white people were in support of “getting tough on crime” initiatives, as well as anti-welfare measures. The war on drugs ultimately gave white people an easy way to discriminate against blacks and express hostility without being accused of racism.

This general attitude of getting tough on problems affecting people of color started in the 1960s, and it was mostly conservatives engaging in that sort of rhetoric. But by the late 1980s, Democrats hoping to take political control from Republicans began to participate. In order to do that, they had to win back the swing voters who were leaning toward the Republican Party because of its stance on crime and drugs. With both parties on board the “get tough on crime” train, jail and prison populations dramatically increased.

people-in-prisons-and-jails-for-drug-offenses-1980-and-2014

The number of people incarcerated for drug crimes in the U.S. went from 41,000 in 1980 to almost 500,000 in 2014, according to the Sentencing Project. The increase in the prison population disproportionately affected the African-American community, with one-fourth of young black men between the ages of 20-29 under the control of the criminal justice system in 1990, according to the Sentencing Project.

And according to a 2000 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 6.4 percent of whites, 6.4 percent of blacks and 5.3 percent of Hispanics used illegal drugs. But despite these similar rates of drug use, black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at more than 13 times the rate of white men. There is a reason for the disparity.

When Bill Clinton was running for president, he said he would never let any Republican be perceived as tougher on crime than he was. During his first term in office, he signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The bill included the three-strikes provision that mandated a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole for offenders convicted of three felony crimes or more. That $30 billion bill also introduced a number of new federal capital crimes and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of state and local police forces.

The Clinton administration’s policies on crime led to the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any American president in history, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

President Clinton then turned his attention to welfare policies, signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The bill imposed a five-year limit on welfare assistance, as well as a lifetime ban on eligibility for food stamps and welfare for anyone convicted of felony drug use or possession, including possession of marijuana.

Clinton also made it easier for the government to refuse public housing to anyone with a criminal history. As a result, millions of poor people, especially the racial minorities targeted by the drug war, ended up homeless. Someone with a criminal record also has limited eligibility for federal student aid and must indicate if they have a felony conviction on their record when applying for jobs.

In 2002, more than 2 million people were behind bars in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Additionally, as a result of Clinton-era policies, millions more were still held prisoner of the criminal justice system once they were released by way of discrimination in employment, housing and access to education. And given the legal, discriminatory nature of society in the U.S., recidivism rates remain high.

Today, black and Latino people comprise about 1.5 million of the total 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. adult correctional system, or 67 percent of the prison population, while making up just 37 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the Sentencing Project. That’s because black people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people.

us-vs-prisoners-population-percentage2

But black people aren’t incarcerated at higher rates than white people because they’re committing more crimes. Five times as many white people are using drugs as black people, for example, but African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people.

Also, blacks serve almost as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as white people do for a violent offense (61.7 months). There are millions of black adults who are thus unable to explore opportunities in tech, whether they want to or not.

Meanwhile, youth of color make up over 63 percent, or 22,669, of those committed to juvenile facilities, according to 2013 data from the Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement. That’s not including those who were sent to adult jails and prisons. As of 2014, there were 5,235 youth in adult jails, according to data analyzed by the Sentencing Project. Nationwide, blacks represent 37 percent of youths in jails, which brings that to 1,936 young black men in adult jails.

At the same time, young people of color who are impacted by the criminal justice system early in life are more likely to end up incarcerated later in life, are at risk of sexual assault and abuse in these juvenile centers and suffer from mental health issues (almost 70 percent) according to Child Trends Data Bank.

As is the purpose of any racial caste system, the function of mass incarceration is to define what race is, and it accomplishes the same thing that Jim Crow laws achieved: segregation of black people from mainstream society.

As Alexander writes, slavery in America defined black people as slaves, the Jim Crow era of discriminatory laws defined blacks as second-class citizens and the era of mass incarceration — our present-day racial caste — defines blacks as criminals.

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n the U.S., the tech industry employs more than 6.7 million people and is a big part of the country’s economy. It has grown consecutively for the last five years, with tech today accounting for 7.1 percent of the U.S. GDP and 11.6 percent of total overall payroll in the private sector, according to nonprofit IT trade association CompTIA. This year, employment in the tech industry hit its highest growth rate in more than a decade.

Black people make up just 2 percent of the employee populations at Facebook, Google and Dropbox. We know this because, in the last couple of years, tech companies have become more willing to release their EEO-1 diversity data and put out diversity reports. Another recent trend has been the hiring of heads of diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, these efforts seem to be falling short, as not much improvement has been made in terms of representation of people of color at tech companies. 

Meanwhile, the number of underrepresented minorities at the board level is even lower. In 2014, there were only three black people and one Hispanic person sitting on the board of directors across 20 major tech companies, according to a survey by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Jackson has played a big role in the push for diversity in tech by persistently demanding that companies release diversity data and commit to the hiring of underrepresented minorities at all levels of the company, including the board of directors.

Jackson and his organization have committed to this push because diversity in tech, he says, is the civil rights issue of our time.

“One civil rights movement was to end legal slavery,” Jackson told me in April. “Another was to end legal Jim Crow and the lynching season. That was a civil rights movement of that day. Another was the right to vote. You can abolish slavery, get rid of Jim Crow, and vote, and be broke and impoverished without access to capital, industry and technology, and deal flow and relationships. This is the civil rights of our time: access to capital, access to computers, how to make them, how to sell them.”

The absence of black people from tech is not a function of lack of interest, knowledge, skill or drive. Instead, there are a couple of issues at hand, both of which relate to systemic racism and discrimination. First is the fact that the tech industry is underutilizing the diverse talent pool.

“While there is some truth to the ‘pipeline’ theory and anxiety over the ability of the US educational system to provide a sufficiently large, well trained, and diverse labor pool, there are additional factors at play,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s latest report, Diversity In High Tech, states.

“For example, about nine percent of graduates from the nation’s top computer science programs are from underrepresented minority groups. However, only five percent of the large tech firm employees are from one of these groups. This presents the unlikely scenarios that either major employers in the field are unable to attract four out of nine underrepresented minority graduates from top schools or almost half of the minority graduates of top schools do not qualify for the positions for which they were educated.”

We’re fighting really systemic racism that’s been built into the fabric of not just these companies, but our nation in general.

— Kimberly Bryant, founder, Black Girls Code

Second is the institutionalized racism that has led to millions of people of color disappearing into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that, when committed by white people, are largely ignored.

As a result, underrepresented minorities are either locked up behind bars or caught in the grasp of this country’s criminal justice system thanks to institutionalized racism, or they’re locked out of the tech industry thanks to prejudice and several covert acts of individual racism.

“We’re fighting really systemic racism that’s been built into the fabric of not just these companies, but our nation in general,” Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant told me in February.

Being under the control of the criminal justice system negatively impacts one’s life chances and makes it legal to be discriminated against when applying for jobs, housing and loans. As a result, thousands of young people of color are missing out on opportunities to participate in traditional school, hackathons, coding schools and internships at tech companies.

To ensure that everyone has a fair chance to get into the tech industry, we need to focus on the other pipeline — the pipeline that leads to a disproportionate number of black people and other minorities ending up in prison.

O

riginally sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, Leal served 19 years of his sentence — first at Pelican Bay and then at San Quentin — thanks to both the enactment and amendment of California’s Three Strikes sentencing law.

Leal first entered the criminal justice system in 1991, when he pled guilty to two counts of robbery for stealing money from a safe and a cash register at one restaurant. That’s two counts for one robbery. Leal was released in 1994, which is when the Three Strikes Law was enacted, so those two counts for one robbery meant two strikes.

“I always had hope that I would get out,” Leal says. “That was something that stayed really, really clear in my head. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t care how much time they gave me or what anybody else said. I always believed that I was going to get out. I just didn’t know when. So it was really all about preparing myself for that opportunity so that when it did come, I’d be ready.”

In 2010, 16 years into his life sentence with no sign of getting out of prison anytime soon, Leal helped start The Last Mile inside San Quentin with Transmedia Capital General Partner Chris Redlitz. The Last Mile teaches people how to code and start their own companies. It partners with tech companies to help place participants in internships and paid roles once they’re released from prison. Leal graduated with the first cohort of men in 2012.

“When we were finishing our first class and we had guys who were preparing to get out, I went to some of the people in my portfolio and said, ‘We’ve got these guys. I think they’re prepared, but they’ve been in prison over 15 years and they don’t really know technology and they haven’t had a job in a long time’ and I really asked a favor of [tech companies] to participate in our internship program,” Redlitz tells me.

The former prisoners ended up excelling once they joined these tech companies. Leal is one of those employees Redlitz is referring to.

In 2012, California voters approved Proposition 36, which led to the amendment of the three strikes provision of the 1994 crime bill. Two main changes made to the law were that the third strike needed to be a serious or violent felony and that those currently serving a third-strike sentence could petition the court for reduction of their term to a second-strike sentence — if they would have been eligible for second-strike sentencing under the new law.

For Leal, that meant that he could meet with a judge for potential re-sentence. In 2013, Leal met with the same judge who originally sentenced him to 25 years to life. The judge re-sentenced Leal to seven years and a week later, Leal was released from prison.

“That was probably the best feeling I’ve ever felt,” Leal tells me. “It’s amazing. It’s one thing to be in prison, but to be in prison with a life sentence — I can’t even begin to explain how tough that is because you could literally die in prison. Who the hell wants to die in prison? There was the uncertainty of not knowing when you’re going to get out, which was really hard, so when I did walk out of there, it was probably one of the best moments of my life.”

While at The Last Mile inside San Quentin, Leal met RocketSpace CEO Duncan Logan, a friend of Redlitz’s, who says he had never been to a correctional facility before. RocketSpace is a co-working accelerator that has housed startups like Uber, Spotify and Leap Motion.

“I actually went in before the demo day to do some coaching,” Logan tells me. “That was when it kind of struck me. It just shattered all of my illusions of what I thought I would see or experience.” He tells me he sees the criminal justice system in a different way. Before, he was in the bucket of “if we remove [criminals], it’ll be a better place,” he tells me. “I was in a fairly common misunderstanding of what was going on with crime. Certainly in a total misunderstanding of what a correctional system is and what it could be — I think I’ve gone through a total transition on that.”

When demo day came around, Logan returned to San Quentin and was impressed by Leal’s presentation. Logan told Leal that if he ever got out, he would hire him. He kept his word. Of Leal, Logan says: “He’s achieving more than most of the staff sitting here.”

Leal joined RocketSpace in 2014, a year after he was released from San Quentin. Since then, he’s gone from moving furniture at RocketSpace to setting up IT equipment and doing some programming as RocketSpace’s manager of campus services. In transitioning from prison to the tech industry, Leal has seen a number of parallels.

It’s one thing to be in prison, but to be in prison with a life sentence — I can’t even begin to explain how tough that is because you could literally die in prison.

— Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal

“One of the things that I noticed immediately about RocketSpace and this whole tech hub at RocketSpace is there’s a lot of energy there,” Leal says. “In prison there’s a lot of energy. The big difference is that so much of the energy in prison is chaotic. Inside RocketSpace, everything is focused on these goals and trying to get this product to market, raise money, be successful.

“So I think that inside prisons there’s this attitude of just making the most of whatever you have to work with. In prison, it’s all about the minimal viable product. There’s a parallel there as well. I think that one of the biggest parallels I’ve found about the entrepreneurship and tech world is that failure isn’t a bad thing. Failure is actually a good thing. You can learn things from failure.”

People in the tech industry have made some steps toward creating opportunities for those who have gone through the criminal justice system. It’s time to focus on what happens before people enter the criminal justice system.

In total, black people are more likely than white people in America to be arrested and, once arrested, blacks are more likely to be convicted, according to The Sentencing Project. And once convicted, blacks are more likely than whites to face harsh sentences.

lifetime-likelihood-of-imprisonment-by-race

Technology and data could play a big role in dismantling the system that leads to a disproportionate number of black men ending up in prison.

According to the ACLU’s Zamora, there is a lack of uniform data collection on the various phases of the criminal justice system.

“Everything from when people are stopped to all the way through a trial, as well as how decisions are made throughout the process and how those decisions are affecting different communities,” Zamora says. “So, there’s a big data void in criminal justice.”

With the help of technology, there could be a lot more transparency to the criminal justice system simply by surfacing the data the government does have.

Right now, a lot of people feel like there’s a bit of a black box around what’s going on in local police forces and in the system at large, Justin Erlich, special assistant attorney general, in the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, tells me. That’s because, Erlich says, a lot of the tech and infrastructure that criminal justice agencies use are pretty old.

“It’s not necessarily that people are trying to hide or not share the data as much as it’s actually amazingly difficult, manually, to get out and extract data,” Erlich says. “I think that making sure we are all working together to get modern technology into all of these agencies is critical for us to really then be able to use APIs or extractions of the cloud to analyze and research what is going on.”

Erlich led the team that recently relaunched OpenJustice, an effort by the California Department of Justice to make law enforcement data more transparent. But in order to make serious strides, and move toward real-time criminal justice data reporting and better policies, Erlich says, we’ll need more public-private partnerships between the government and leading tech companies.

Getting more technology and the tech industry involved in criminal justice efforts pays dividends.

— Justin Erlich, special assistant attorney general, office of AG Kamala Harris

So far, Erlich says there has been some high-level support from companies like Facebook, for example, but a lot more support is needed.

Technology could also be helpful with better understanding how to reduce the number of those entering the criminal justice system through pre-trial and bail reform.

“Instead of locking people up, we can use technology to better keep track of folks, so they don’t have to enter the system in the first place,” Erlich says. “And on the backend, we can start training folks that will help diversify the technology pool. That’s not just simply from a demographic perspective but also from a worldview perspective. I think it’s important that a lot of people who end up touching the system are then put in places where they can take action to reform it.”

Not everybody goes through the criminal justice system, so there’s a lot of value in sharing that perspective with others, Erlich says.

“Getting more technology and the tech industry involved in criminal justice efforts pays dividends both for society itself but also directly to the tech industry,” Erlich says.

Meanwhile, the White House recently challenged artificial intelligence experts to help reform the criminal justice system. Speaking at a Computing Community Consortium workshop, Lynn Overmann, head of the White House Police Data Initiative, said AI and data analytics could be useful in improving questions on parole screenings, analyzing police body camera footage and in analyzing criminal justice data. Oakland, California, for example, has seen a drop in the use of force by both police and citizens since deploying body cameras.

That said, inserting technology into the criminal justice system doesn’t necessarily mean good will come from it. In certain states throughout the country, courts are using algorithmic software to predict the likelihood of someone committing a crime in the future. In analyzing risk scores from Broward Country, Florida, for instance, the investigative team at ProPublica found that the software used in the sentencing process is biased against blacks. However, the private company behind the software could work to overcome this bias if they decided to implement updates. 

By reforming the criminal justice system, there’s also an opportunity to fill the so-called labor shortage in the tech industry. Through programs like The Last Mile and other proactive approaches to teaching tech skills to former prisoners, the tech industry could gain access to untapped talent while also tackling diversity.

“Unfortunately, we know we’ve sort of got two distinct diversity issues,” Erlich says. “One is in the tech sector. We don’t have the diverse labor set that we would hope for many reasons. Similarly, unfortunately, also again for many societal reasons, those who are entering the criminal justice system are not diverse in a different way, which is, they’re disproportionately minority and African-American and I think both of those results are an example of broader societal issues that we’re struggling with.

And they are sort of an opportunity for us to really focus on addressing both of those, which is how can we use technology better to understand how to reduce those entering the system.”

Addressing the problems of inequity and racial justice in the criminal justice system would allow for more opportunities for communities of color to thrive in many different ways.

”The criminal justice system really embodies a lot of our problems with race in our country,” Zamora says. “So if we can fix that, I do think we’ll see a lot of positive changes.”

Featured image by Bryce Durbin / photos by Yashad Kulkarni

Source: TechCrunch