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The great coronavirus hackathon

The great coronavirus hackathon

Good morning! This Thursday, the tech industry starts a coronavirus hackathon, fusty old government websites crash everywhere, and somebody actually paid money for Moviefone.

Don't forget to sign up and tune in to our second Virtual Meetup! We'll be live at 3 p.m. ET / noon PT today talking all things cloud.



People Are Talking

Semiconductor companies need to be classified as essential businesses so they can go back to work, said Semiconductor Industry Association president John Neuffer:

  • "Since the semiconductor supply chain is highly globalized, semiconductor shortages created by operating restrictions in one region cannot be readily made up by production in other regions."

Amazon and Whole Foods could slow the spread of coronavirus just by offering paid sick leave, said Massachusetts AG Maura Healey:

  • "By limiting paid sick leave to only those employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who have been placed into quarantine, the Companies are placing their other employees, their customers, and the public at large at significant risk of exposure to COVID-19."

Act now or your company will be gone before you notice, warned Drive Capital's Chris Olsen:

  • "If you overcorrect now, the cost of doing so is relatively minimal when you consider that the alternative is you gradually discover that you've gone out of business."

Don't miss this week in the life of a tech CEO in a thread from Slack's Stewart Butterfield:

  • "Thursday: Board meeting. Debated and approved plan for this fiscal year — hiring, budgets, targets, forecasts, etc. Got feedback on our prepared remarks and guidance for next week's earnings call; felt confident! 👍 Didn't know it, but for most, our last meeting in the office."

The Big Story

The tech industry's weekend project: fixing coronavirus

It started small enough. Sam Lessin and his team at Slow Ventures asked a few company founders in their community to have their teams spend two work days and a weekend "hacking solutions for some of the problems we are clearly starting to see from the broader COVID crisis," as Lessin described it to me.

The project is now the #BuildforCOVID19 Global Online Hackathon, and it's happening with participation from Facebook, Microsoft, Slack, Pinterest, Twitter and many more.

  • Projects will fall into six specific themes: health, vulnerable populations, businesses, community, education and entertainment. There's also an "other" category, just in case.

As of last night, there were more than 2,000 people in the official hackathon Slack, introducing themselves and making plans. It's been a hive of activity all week:

  • A few names I recognized: Aditya Agarwal, a crucial early engineer at Facebook; Alex Chung, the CEO of Giphy; Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch. (And that's just in the A's.) There are engineers from Facebook, Uber, Google, and elsewhere; doctors and entrepreneurs working on medical tech; founders of all kinds of startups; and much more.
  • A #project-ideas channel is non-stop. A geo-targeted system for volunteering! An app for applying to all available benefits! A better system for physical distancing-friendly food pickup! More than anything, the ideas are centered on marketplaces for people to find the supplies, money, work, or benefits they need in an easier way. Also: how to share virus-related data in a way that respects people's privacy.

The hackathon is accepting official submissions starting today, after which judges will select a few projects for everyone to work on next week. Lessin told me the goal is twofold: to find "some useful projects and tools that can be built in four days and address some of the 6 areas of focus we outlined," and then to identify good proofs of concept that can be turned into much longer projects. There are no prizes for winning, but that doesn't seem to bother anybody.

I'll be keeping an eye on the hackathon, but if you're involved I'd love to hear about what you're up to! Send me a note: david@protocol.com.

Coronavirus

Tech companies up their bandwidth game

My internet went down for a few minutes today, and it was a true crisis situation. And while companies keep saying they're prepared for the uptick in bandwidth from so many people in lockdown, Protocol's Janko Roettgers tells me many are making plans just in case:

  • So far, the internet has been fine, Netflix's Dave Temkin said on a webinar on Wednesday. "Generally, nothing is absolutely melting down," he added. There's been some anecdotal evidence of cable customers clogging upstream bandwidth with video chats, but overall the network seems to scale as it should.
  • Zoom's Alex Guerrero said the company has long planned for events like these. "We probably had 50% more capacity than we needed to begin with," he said. But still: "At this point, it is just go for it, get as much bandwidth as you can."
  • It's not just bandwidth, either. Working from home impacts network architecture, Dropbox's Dzmitry Markovich said. Instead of sending files over the open internet, those companies prefer direct peering agreements.
  • And servers are the new toilet paper: When the Bay Area started sheltering in place, Netflix, which builds its servers in Santa Clara, had to look for a new supplier. The same is true for many other companies, but Temkin cautioned against stockpiling hardware. "There are a lot of other things going on that are potentially more important than Netflix," he said.

We've seen lots of companies commit to reducing bandwidth to help alleviate the problem. I asked YouTube, which is doing so globally for the next 30 days, how exactly that works. Turns out it's pretty simple:

  • The most effective move is the simplest one, the company tells me: It's going to stream in standard-def by default, and users will have to choose to go HD.
  • Lowering bandwidth usage has been a focus of YouTube's for years, actually — it's built adaptive streaming tools that can tweak throughput to speed up buffering or work better on bad connections, which was helpful in places like India long before it mattered to people on gigabit Wi-Fi.

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Cloud

The house of cards supporting your unemployment website

In 2008, layoffs came in waves. Now, they're piling on all at once. The number of unemployment claims in the U.S. reached an estimated 2.25 million last week, up from 281,000 the week before. Unemployment websites are buckling under the increased traffic.

  • Protocol's Mike Murphy found that at least five states' employment and labor sites have slowed or crashed for people looking to apply for benefits. The same is happening in the U.K. and Australia.
  • Some states are scrambling to add server capacity and increase bandwidth. Others are finding workarounds: In New Jersey, applicants are being asked to log on at different times of the day based on the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Would it surprise you to hear that government websites aren't built on cutting-edge tech? No? "Very often these back-end systems are running on technology that could be 30, 40 or 50 or more years old," IT analyst Josh Chessman told Mike. The approach has been largely: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And now … it broke.

These problems could have been avoided — but Mike found it's tough to get organizations of all kinds to embrace better technologies before it's too late.

  • The same is true for companies looking to spin up delivery services, online ordering, or any other coronavirus-proof way of continuing to do business — particularly those that haven't spent the last few years investing in cloud services.
  • "It's not that the people are slow — it is because it touches six systems on four different release cycles, and by the end of it, they have to wait six months just to get that small change in," Wipro Digital President Rajan Kohli said.

Making Moves

From Protocol: Tech employees are being laid off over Zoom. Biz Carson wrote about what it felt like for the 100 or so TripAction employees who were fired virtually on Tuesday.

StubHub furloughed 450 employees, only about a month after being acquired by Viagogo. Employees were told the furlough could last until late June.

Groupon CEO Rich Williams and COO Steve Krenzer are no longer in charge after failing to bring about a turnaround at the company. Aaron Cooper is the new interim CEO.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: Employees at nine Amazon warehouses have coronavirus — but Amazon's not closing them all. Tesla wants to re-open in New York ASAP. People in the U.K. will soon be able to order an at-home test for the virus. China is re-releasing blockbuster movies to get people going to theaters again. SpaceX is making and donating hand sanitizer and face shields. Apple sourced millions of masks for the U.S. and Europe. 33 state attorneys general called on Amazon, Walmart, Facebook and others to stop allowing price-gouging. France launched a support plan for startups. Tencent will spend $100 million fighting the virus. Singapore is giving away to developers the contact tracing tech that helped it slow the spread. Folks who planned to attend MWC are getting refunds. And as part of the U.S. stimulus package, the CDC is working on a "surveillance and data collection system" to fight the virus.
  • Did you see that Michael Arrington tweet? The one from the other night about private coronavirus testing for Silicon Valley insiders? Turns out it comes from DCVC, which offered its investors expedited testing through portfolio company Carbon Health. DCVC apologized for the tone of the email — but didn't take back the offer.
  • In the midst of SoftBank's ongoing financial strangeness, Moody's downgraded the company's outlook. SoftBank did not approve: "SBG believes that Moody's ratings action is based on excessively pessimistic assumptions regarding the market environment and misunderstanding and speculation that SBG will quickly liquidate assets without any thorough consideration and without making improvements to its financial condition." Well then!
  • Julian Assange was denied bail. His lawyers said he should be released from a London prison because he is highly susceptible to coronavirus, but the court ruled that the pandemic didn't provide grounds for his release.
  • Moviefone (which still exists!) has a new owner: Cleveland O'Neal, a daytime TV producer. He bought the company for $1 million — in other words, almost certainly less than Michael Richards has made from that "Seinfeld" episode where Kramer became Moviefone.
  • Does tweeting complaints at a CEO work? Seems so! Don't miss this story from CNET about gig workers who are being denied the sick-leave pay they were promised — and how one person got it by tweeting at Dara Khosrowshahi.

One More Thing

Physical distance meets delivery efficiency

Drones may not be ready to carry a heavy package, or even a pizza, but they can apparently carry a roll of toilet paper across San Francisco. That's what Ian Chan, an engineering director at Branch, and Skycatch's David Chen discovered on Wednesday. The video Chan made of the delivery (from a couple of angles, lest you scream FAKE!) is definitely one of the best things I've seen on Twitter in a while. And a business idea, too: Can someone please drone me a beer?

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Protocol brings to life our Braintrust franchise with guests from the Protocol Braintrust, hosted by Associate Editor Kevin McAllister and Senior Reporter Tom Krazit. Our first Braintrust conversation will focus on where cloud computing is headed, the opportunities in cloud app investment and development, and the implementation strategies most effective across businesses. We will be joined by Jonathan Heiliger, General Partner at Vertex Ventures; Abby Kearns, CEO and Executive Director at Cloud Foundry Foundation; and Sash Sunkara, VP of Product and BD at Kontain.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.