Using AI responsibly to fight the coronavirus pandemic

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has left the world in turmoil. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has reached virtually every corner of the world, with the number of cases exceeding a million and the number of deaths more than 50,000 worldwide. It is a situation that will affect us all in one way or another.

With the imposition of lockdowns, limitations of movement, the closure of borders and other measures to contain the virus, the operating environment of law enforcement agencies and those security services tasked with protecting the public from harm has suddenly become ever more complex. They find themselves thrust into the middle of an unparalleled situation, playing a critical role in halting the spread of the virus and preserving public safety and social order in the process. In response to this growing crisis, many of these agencies and entities are turning to AI and related technologies for support in unique and innovative ways. Enhancing surveillance, monitoring and detection capabilities is high on the priority list.

For instance, early in the outbreak, Reuters reported a case in China wherein the authorities relied on facial recognition cameras to track a man from Hangzhou who had traveled in an affected area. Upon his return home, the local police were there to instruct him to self-quarantine or face repercussions. Police in China and Spain have also started to use technology to enforce quarantine, with drones being used to patrol and broadcast audio messages to the public, encouraging them to stay at home. People flying to Hong Kong airport receive monitoring bracelets that alert the authorities if they breach the quarantine by leaving their home.

In the United States, a surveillance company announced that its AI-enhanced thermal cameras can detect fevers, while in Thailand, border officers at airports are already piloting a biometric screening system using fever-detecting cameras.

Isolated cases or the new norm?

With the number of cases, deaths and countries on lockdown increasing at an alarming rate, we can assume that these will not be isolated examples of technological innovation in response to this global crisis. In the coming days, weeks and months of this outbreak, we will most likely see more and more AI use cases come to the fore.

While the application of AI can play an important role in seizing the reins in this crisis, and even safeguard officers and officials from infection, we must not forget that its use can raise very real and serious human rights concerns that can be damaging and undermine the trust placed in government by communities. Human rights, civil liberties and the fundamental principles of law may be exposed or damaged if we do not tread this path with great caution. There may be no turning back if Pandora’s box is opened.

In a public statement on March 19, the monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint statement on promoting and protecting access to and free flow of information during the pandemic, and specifically took note of the growing use of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. They acknowledged that there is a need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, but stressed that “it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected.”

This is not an easy task, but a necessary one. So what can we do?

Ways to responsibly use AI to fight the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Data anonymization: While some countries are tracking individual suspected patients and their contacts, Austria, Belgium, Italy and the U.K. are collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. This option still provides governments with the ability to track the movement of large groups, but minimizes the risk of infringing data privacy rights.
  2. Purpose limitation: Personal data that is collected and processed to track the spread of the coronavirus should not be reused for another purpose. National authorities should seek to ensure that the large amounts of personal and medical data are exclusively used for public health reasons. The is a concept already in force in Europe, within the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but it’s time for this to become a global principle for AI.
  3. Knowledge-sharing and open access data: António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has insisted that “global action and solidarity are crucial,” and that we will not win this fight alone. This is applicable on many levels, even for the use of AI by law enforcement and security services in the fight against COVID-19. These agencies and entities must collaborate with one another and with other key stakeholders in the community, including the public and civil society organizations. AI use case and data should be shared and transparency promoted.
  4. Time limitation:  Although the end of this pandemic seems rather far away at this point in time, it will come to an end. When it does, national authorities will need to scale back their newly acquired monitoring capabilities after this pandemic. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his recent article, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.” We must ensure that these exceptional capabilities are indeed scaled back and do not become the new norm.

Within the United Nations system, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) is working to advance approaches to AI such as these. It has established a specialized Centre for AI and Robotics in The Hague and is one of the few international actors dedicated to specifically looking at AI vis-à-vis crime prevention and control, criminal justice, rule of law and security. It assists national authorities, in particular law enforcement agencies, to understand the opportunities presented by these technologies and, at the same time, to navigate the potential pitfalls associated with these technologies.

Working closely with International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNICRI has set up a global platform for law enforcement, fostering discussion on AI, identifying practical use cases and defining principles for responsible use. Much work has been done through this forum, but it is still early days, and the path ahead is long.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated several innovative use cases, as well as the urgency for the governments to do their utmost to stop the spread of the virus, it is important to not let consideration of fundamental principles, rights and respect for the rule of law be set aside. The positive power and potential of AI is real. It can help those embroiled in fighting this battle to slow the spread of this debilitating disease. It can help save lives. But we must stay vigilant and commit to the safe, ethical and responsible use of AI.

It is essential that, even in times of great crisis, we remain conscience of the duality of AI and strive to advance AI for good.

The space in between: The stratosphere

We have airplanes and drones in our airspace and satellites in space, but what about the space in between: the stratosphere?

There are platforms, such as blimps, balloons and high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms that can duplicate functions now performed by drones or satellites in a more technically and commercially viable manner.

Commercial drones operate in our airspace below 400 feet. Commercial aircraft fly between 9-12km (30,000-39,000 feet). Satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO, 500-1200km), mid Earth orbit (MEO, 2000-36,000km) and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO, 36,000km).

But what about the vast space in between our air space and LEO? The approximately 488km of space known as the stratosphere, is, at present, largely uninhabited and underutilized.

The problem

Imagine if a platform wants to loiter over a single point on the Earth for an extended period of time, either to maintain situational awareness and consistent surveillance over an area of interest or maintain communications. For example, after a natural disaster, it would be invaluable and life saving to have eyes, ears and a voice in the sky monitoring and helping the afflicted. Or what if the platform were able to monitor a natural disaster before it made landfall to collect better data on the storm’s size, location and path?

Other reasons why it might be advantageous to have persistent real-time video from the sky is surveillance of vast maritime regions and borders, identification of objects of interest and monitoring events, including storms, fires and environmental disasters, on behalf of first responders and enforcement agencies.

Another example could be global internet connectivity. If platforms mesh together and talk to one another, they could connect the world below in a much more effective and efficient manner than ground-based fiber optic cables. It could monitor our oceans or protect vulnerable people from exploitation. And the potential military, intelligence and governmental applications are obvious and substantial.

In short, the applications are abundant and the potential market for this type of platform massive.

Possible existing solutions

Right now, the prevalent existing airborne platforms are drones and planes, and the prevalent existing space-based platforms are satellites. Each platform has various benefits, but none are optimized for many of the missions described above and, thus, do not necessarily accomplish those missions in the most efficient and effective manner.

Quadcopter drone

  • Pro: Cheap, close to the ground
  • Con: Can fly for only on average 30 minutes (unless you are using Impossible Aerospace’s US-1 that has over two hours of flight time), needs access to the ground below, small field of view from 400 feet, can be easily detected

Image Credits: Impossible Aerospace

Uncrewed plane

  • Pro: Larger field of view from 30,000 feet
  • Con: Can fly for only the number of hours fuel is available, expensive, can be detected

Image Credits: alxpin (opens in a new window) /Getty Images

Constellation of LEO satellites

  • Pro: Large field of view from 500-1,200km
  • Con: One would need hundreds or thousands of satellites in orbit for full-world coverage since the 90-minute orbits have access only over a single point on the Earth for ~15 minutes of the ~90 minute orbit; also, the satellite needs to be successfully launched from a rocket, escape Earth’s velocity and operate for years in the radioactive vacuum of space (which, while easier and less expensive than a GEO satellite, still requires a fair amount of effort and expense)

Image Credits: Spire Global

GEO satellite

  • Pro: Covers one-third of the Earth
  • Con: Large (school-bus sized), expensive (many millions of dollars), takes years (sometimes decades) to design/build/launch and does not provide the necessary low resolution or short latency

The solutions above are optimized for other types of critical missions. For example, drones are great for monitoring crops or inspecting infrastructure (as Drone Deploy software enables) or delivering emergency medical supplies (which Zipline and Google Wing are doing). Remotely-operated planes like General Atomics MQ-1 Predator have offensive military applications.

Constellations of LEO satellites in space, like Spire Global, can provide maritime, aviation and weather monitoring and prediction, or take photos of the world, as Planet Labs does. Lastly, GEO satellites can also be used for monitoring weather, communication and surveillance, but at a high level, not localized.

Possible future solutions

There are a handful of companies working on solutions specifically optimized for the mission of loitering over a single point. These solutions include balloons, blimps and HALE (high-altitude long endurance) platforms in the stratosphere.

Balloons


Image Credits: WorldView

Companies like Loon, WorldView and WindBorne use air currents in the stratosphere to loiter over a single point. Their platforms have no propulsion on board and the structure consists of two balloons, a lift and a ballast balloon. The lift balloon contains either helium or hydrogen and is sealed with special UV-coated material. They use a compressor to add or remove air from the ballast balloon so that it becomes lighter or heavier to make the balloon go up or down depending on wind speed and direction and which air current they would like to ride.

  • Pro: You cannot see these balloons from the ground with the naked eye or with most types of current ground-based tracking systems. They are fairly cheap, can be launched easily and can loiter over a single area for days or even months at a time.
  • Con: Without propulsion, balloons are difficult to navigate through intense stratospheric winds, so it might be hard to precisely navigate and keep the balloons over the specific area of interest. The balloons are not recoverable when the flight terminates, although when the balloon bursts and returns to Earth you might be able to recover the payload.

Blimps

Image Credits: MR1805 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

  • Pro: They are fairly large so they can carry heavier payloads and provide more power to the payload. You can re-land the entire platform to either fix or recover the payload, and launch it multiple times.
  • Con: They can be seen from the ground because they are so large, which makes them vulnerable to being shot down. Companies like Sceye and Altaeros are using the Goodyear Blimp with some tech upgrades. Their airships either have propulsion or are tied to the ground below, so they can better control where they are going, and they have upgraded UV and ozone-resistant skin.

HALE fixed-wing

Companies like Zenith and Skydweller are working on high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms. These high-aspect-ratio aircraft (which means long but slender wings) are powered by sunlight hitting the solar panels on the wings. The power that is generated can either power the plane and payload or be stored in the batteries. Therefore, if enough power is generated and stored during the day to last throughout the night, the plane can fly indefinitely.

  • Pro: They can be precisely controlled by a pilot.
  • Con: They have limited power for the payload, as most of the power generated is needed to power the aircraft.

*TRL: technology readiness level

For all of these platforms, there will be additional challenges in the areas of manufacturing and mission management. The platforms need to be manufactured and launched cheaply, quickly and reliably. This takes time and money. Additionally, there are issues relating to who will monitor the platforms once they are in the stratosphere — the company that built the platform or the customers whose payload the platform is holding?

Another issue that platforms that operate in the stratosphere will face relates to who regulates the stratosphere. Obviously, putting and operating platforms in the stratosphere raises a number of regulatory and legal questions that will have to be resolved.

I believe there is enough room in this market (and certainly in the stratosphere) for all of these platforms to be successful. They complement existing platforms such as drones and satellites and, for certain critical missions, can be more effective and efficient than their counterparts that operate in the airspace or in LEO/GEO.

A former chaos engineer offers 5 tips for handling online disasters remotely

I recently had a scheduled video conference call with a Fortune 100 company.

Everything on my end was ready to go; my presentation was prepared and well-practiced. I was set to talk to 30 business leaders who were ready to learn more about how they could become more resilient to major outages.

Unfortunately, their side hadn’t set up the proper permissions in Zoom to add new people to a trusted domain, so I wasn’t able to share my slides. We scrambled to find a workaround at the last minute while the assembled VPs and CTOs sat around waiting. I ended up emailing my presentation to their coordinator, calling in from my mobile and verbally indicating to the coordinator when the next slide needed to be brought up. Needless to say, it wasted a lot of time and wasn’t the most effective way to present.

At the end of the meeting, I said pointedly that if there was one thing they should walk away with, it’s that they had a vital need to run an online fire drill with their engineering team as soon as possible. Because if a team is used to working together in an office — with access to tools and proper permissions in place — it can be quite a shock to find out in the middle of a major outage that they can’t respond quickly and adequately. Issues like these can turn a brief outage into one that lasts for hours.

Quick context about me: I carried a pager for a decade at Amazon and Netflix, and what I can tell you is that when either of these services went down, a lot of people were unhappy. There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem. I can also tell you that working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

There are many articles about best practices aimed at a general audience, but engineering teams have specific challenges as the ones responsible for keeping online services up and running. And while leading tech companies already have sophisticated IT teams and operations in place, what about financial institutions and hospitals and other industries where IT is a tool, but not a primary focus? It’s often the small things that can make all the difference when working remotely; things that seem obvious in the moment, but may have been overlooked.

So here are some tips for managing incidents remotely:

There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem… working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

Dear Sophie: How do we craft a strong H-1B petition? If I’m not selected, what are my options?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Most “Dear Sophie” columns are only accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

If I’m selected in this year’s lottery, how do we craft a strong H-1B petition? If I’m not selected, what are my other options?

— Hoping in Hayward

Dear Hoping:

Thank you for asking the questions that are on the minds of many H-1B first-timers. Don’t worry! Several options exist if you’re not selected.

It’s really important, especially for early-stage companies, to work with experienced attorneys to guide them through this process. Now that USCIS has changed it’s system, if you’re already selected, then having a great attorney is really important to mitigate any remaining risk in the rest of the process. There are lots of wonderful, experienced immigration lawyers out there to choose from.

This year’s new H-1B online lottery registration process ended on March 20. By March 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will notify companies whose H-1B candidates have been selected.

If USCIS selects you, your sponsoring employer will have 90 days to submit a complete H-1B petition. Employers can file an H-1B petition up to six months before a candidate’s intended start date.

Sophie Alcorn Alcorn Immigration Law Silicon Valley San Francisco 03

Immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn

It’s great that you’re already here in the U.S. H-1B candidates living outside of the U.S. seeking consular processing may face delays coming here for their employment start date depending on when coronavirus-related consulate closures and travel restrictions are lifted. These situations need to be addressed individually.

If meeting a deadline during any step of the process becomes difficult or impossible due to COVID-19, it’s possible to request special handling from the government. The federal government grants extensions under special circumstances, such as floods and hurricanes. The COVID-19 pandemic is a special circumstance.

Because COVID-19 is prompting policy and procedural changes with little or no warning, I recommend consulting an immigration attorney for assistance.

If you haven’t already, assemble the necessary documents as soon as possible. Obtaining documents may take longer now that most universities and companies are closed due to the pandemic.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms.

Your sponsoring employer will need to assemble documents that demonstrate the appropriate policies and cash flow to hire you. Startups need to be extra careful to meet all the requirements. You should have easily accessible:

  • Current resume
  • Transcripts
  • Diplomas and certificates
  • Passports used to enter U.S.
  • Past immigration documents (I-20, DS-2019, I-797, etc.)

A Labor Condition Application (LCA) approved by the U.S. Department of Labor is required with all H-1B petitions. For the LCA, your startup must promise to pay at least the prevailing wage to you and ensure that your employment conditions won’t negatively affect other workers.

If this is a startup and it’s the company’s first H-1B, it must get its Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) verified by the Labor Department’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification before starting. That process typically takes a week or so. Timing is key to filing an LCA. Keep in mind that the Labor Department typically makes a decision on whether to certify an LCA within seven business days.

Employers do not need to submit evidence to the Labor Department for an LCA, but they must post a copy of the H-1B notification, which can be done electronically, as well as keep all supporting documents in a file and make it available for public viewing.

The employer will also need to fill out Form I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker), and assemble compelling evidence and supporting documents. Check and double check the form and your documents to avoid mistakes and omissions, which can prompt USCIS to deny a petition. Make sure the info contained in the LCA matches Form I-129. Remember to include all required signatures.

USCIS recently announced that scanned or photocopied signatures will be allowed on all documents and petitions during the COVID-19 emergency. Make sure you pay the proper fees and send your package to the correct address with a way to track that package.

USCIS recently announced the temporary suspension of premium processing for H-1B petitions. The agency expects to resume premium processing for individuals changing status from an F-1 student visa by May 27, and all others by June 29. For an extra fee, premium processing enables employers to receive a decision on a petition within 15 days. Without premium processing, the USCIS California Service Center is currently taking two to four months.

If you don’t get selected in the H-1B lottery, relax! Your startup can sponsor you for an H-1B again next year because there’s no limit on the number of years you can be entered in the lottery, whether you’re inside or outside the U.S. and whether you’re currently employed by them or not. In the meantime, several other visa options exist for individuals like you who qualify for an H-1B:

  • O-1A Visa: If have “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, education or business, you could be eligible for an O-1A. However, the bar for qualifying for an O-1A is higher than for an H-1B.
  • J-1 Visa: Most employers cannot directly sponsor an individual for a J-1 visa, which is a work-and-study visitor exchange program. The U.S. State Department designates public and private sponsor organizations to supervise the exchange programs and application process that can be used to support a J-1 at a specific company.
  • L-1 Visas: If your employer has an office outside of the U.S. — or you can set up one for them — and you can work in that overseas office for 12 months or more, your employer can then transfer you back to the U.S. under an L-1A visa for executives and managers or an L-1B visa for employees with specialized knowledge. No annual quotas exist for L-1 visas, and these visas are “dual intent” and can lead to a green card.
  • F-1 Visa: You could become a full-time student at an accredited college or university under an F-1 visa. Some graduate programs require Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or allow Optional Practical Training (OPT). Both training programs enable students to gain work experience in their field of study.

The following options are available to you if you’re a citizen of Chile, Singapore, Australia, Canada or Mexico:

  • H-1B1 Visa: If you’re a citizen of Chile or Singapore, you’re eligible for an H-1B1. Each year, 1,400 H-1B1 visas are reserved for Chileans and 5,400 are reserved for Singaporeans. Rarely are those visas exhausted.
  • E-3 Visa: If you’re an Australian national, you’re eligible for an E-3 for “specialty occupation” professionals who have specialized theoretical or practical knowledge. An LCA is required. A maximum of 10,500 E-3 visas is available annually, but they rarely are exhausted.
  • TN Visa: If you’re from Canada or Mexico, you could work temporarily under a TN (Treaty National) visa for certain occupations. TN visas have no annual quota and allow for unlimited extensions as long as the employer and conditions of employment remain the same.

Fingers crossed that you get selected in the lottery!

All my best,

Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here; we reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms; if you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

We must consider secure online voting

The list of states delaying primaries and elections is quickly increasing, with New Jersey adding local elections to the list. Even Congress — in a break from tradition — is rethinking what it means to vote safely in this new paradigm, stirring calls for remote voting for its upcoming legislation around the pandemic.

This debate, however, lacks important context: Many U.S. citizens are already voting online at home and abroad. In fact, 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow some voters to return absentee ballots via email, while five others permit some voters to do so using a web portal.

We are election officials in two states that require us to offer an online method to some of our voters. For these voters, the argument is not an academic one, but an issue of necessity — traditional voting methods simply don’t work for those living abroad, deployed in the military or those with disabilities. As election officials, it’s our duty to stand up for the constitutional rights of our citizens, whatever their circumstances, and the reality is that online voting dramatically improves the opportunities for these two groups to engage with our democracy.

We should not be debating whether online voting should exist, but rather asking: What is the most secure way to facilitate electronic voting? Because it’s already being done. And because it’s needed by some voting groups — whose volume might expand in the near future.

As a country, we currently have three million eligible voters living abroad, and only 7% cast ballots in the 2016 elections, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s biennial Overseas Citizen Population Analysis. This same analysis found that removing logistical barriers to voting would raise participation by 30%. A different analysis separately found that while nearly one million active-duty military are eligible to vote, only around 23% of them actually did in 2018.

The traditional system of mailed-in absentee ballots and centralized polling places is failing these voters, and they aren’t alone among the disenfranchised. The turnout story is also grim for the 35 million U.S. voters with disabilities. An October 2017 Government Accountability Office report also found widespread barriers to disabled voting, such as machines that could have made it impossible to cast votes privately. It’s no wonder that, as a 2017 Rutgers University study found, disabled voting participation has declined in each of the last two presidential elections, dropping from 57.3% in 2008 to 55.9% in 2016.

New technologies offer promise to expanding and securing access for overseas citizens and voters with disabilities. Consider MacCene Grimmett, who is, at 106, Utah’s oldest voter. When she was born in 1913, women did not have the right to vote. Homebound since she broke her ankle two years ago and unable to hold a pen steadily, she was able to cast her ballot last year thanks to an app on a mobile device. The technology empowered her, helping her execute — independently, anonymously, securely and with dignity — her most basic duty as a citizen.

Pilots and tests are happening at different scales in localities around the country, and early results are demonstrating positive outcomes. In 2019,Utah County’s offering mobile-phone voting to overseas citizens resulted in a marked increase in participation rates. In fact, turnout rates for voters using the app overseas were higher than for those who went to the polls in-person on Election Day. Oregon also successfully permitted its citizens to use app-voting in 2019.

Importantly, all pilots include the ability to rigorously audit the results so we can ensure 100% accuracy along the way.

The challenge, ultimately, is how to continue leveraging technology in a secure and innovative way to maximize access. Safety is paramount: We are deeply aware that we live in an interconnected world where foreign adversaries and other malicious entities are using information technology to try to undermine our political system. It’s our responsibility to understand the environment in which we operate as we forge ahead.

But while these concerns can be valid, they should not outweigh both the necessity and potential benefits of internet-based voting. Just as we cannot place blind faith in the infallibility of our technologies, we also cannot fall into a senseless, all-encompassing mistrust that would both disenfranchise millions of voters and shake trust in our elections.

Rather than making sweeping judgments, we need to weigh each case individually. Why, for example, should Iowa’s failure, which involved poor training, lack of testing and trouble reporting caucus results on one specific technology platform by a political party adversely affect whether a disabled Utahn or an Oregonian soldier can cast their vote — and verify it — by app?

Expanding voter participation by ensuring ballot access for all citizens is paramount to protecting our democracy. In the 21st century, that will necessarily include electronic methods, particularly as we face challenges with voters abroad and contemplate emerging challenges at home like COVID-19, where large public gatherings — and long lines — spark new threats to consider.

We must continue trials and experiments to broaden access for voters, while hardening the system and making it more resilient, and that means beginning with small-scale pilots, seeing what works, stringently auditing the results and then employing that knowledge in new rounds of testing. App-based voting, for example, is already more secure than returning a ballot by email, and it also preserves voter anonymity in a way that email makes impossible (because whoever opens the email to hand-copy the vote onto a paper ballot for tabulation knows who sent it).

These are the everyday successes that internet-based voting is producing right now. And they ought to be driving the discussion as we move forward slowly, responsibly and confidently.

Attract, engage and retain employees in the new remote-work era

When looking for answers, where do people first turn? For many, it’s Google.

During the first half of March, we saw Google searches for “work from home” reach a 12-month high, garnering at least 50% more search interest than the anticipated peak, which usually occurs within the first week of January. This number will continue to grow as outside circumstances evolve.

This search behavior reflects the world around us. Today, employees and employers alike are grappling with the new norm — at least for the short-term — which is working remotely. While having a remote-ready model in place was once viewed as a competitive advantage to attract talent, it’s now a must-have to keep organizations afloat.

With vacant positions costing organizations around $680 daily, the impact that interrupted recruiting efforts can have on a business’ bottom line is jarring. As such, HR professionals were early adopters of successful remote communication practices, learning lessons that can be applied across the business to successfully make personal connections without being in-person. Employers are doing all they can to address their existing employee base at this critical time, while also working hard to maintain their hiring efforts.

Having the right technology in place to sustain work-from-home practices is more important now than ever before. There are four steps that employers can take to successfully integrate and adapt successful virtual hiring technologies into their business continuity plans, considering all outside circumstances, and without sacrificing their productivity and unique company culture.

Prepare and plan. Employers have an obligation to provide their people with clear direction in times of disruption.

When is it time to stop fundraising?

No one wants to prepare for their fundraising round to fail. Many founders spend months (or even years) getting their businesses to a point where they’re ready to pitch investors. But there are times when, no matter how hard you try, you’re just not going to be able to close a deal.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the entire VC community is in a state of uncertainty, and there is no clear answer when it comes to the question, “can I still raise funds for my company?” However, there’s hope for early-stage startups. We used the 2020 DocSend Startup Index to track Pitch Deck Interest among investors and found that last week, despite seismic changes across the country, pitch deck interest has only been 11.6% lower than the same week in 2019 so far.

We will be monitoring the Pitch Deck Interest Metric in the coming weeks, but if you’re an early-stage startup and you were planning to raise, there is still opportunity to come away with a term sheet. But if things don’t go as planned, how do you know if it’s time to give up or if you just need to push through?

According to recent DocSend data, you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s time to call it quits. While the average founder who was successful in fundraising contacted 63 investors during their process, startups that weren’t able to raise funds stopped at 27. Why stop? Because the founder listened to the feedback they were getting. If you hear the same concern or piece of feedback twice you should take it to heart, but if you hear it three times you probably need to stop and rethink things.

time spent reading pitch decks

The Pitch Deck Interest Metric declined 11.6% compared to the same week in 2019

According to our study on the fundraising process of pre-seed startups, founders who were unsuccessful in raising had just nine meetings. That should give you enough feedback to know if you have a deal breaker in your deck.

But negative feedback doesn’t mean all is lost. In fact, of startups studied in the 2020 DocSend Startup Index, 86% reported that they were going to try to fundraise again after addressing the feedback they’d received.

Now might be the perfect time to rethink your fundraising approach

Many founders will have kicked off the new year with a new fundraising round. According to the data we shared last year, March, October and November were the months when VCs were reviewing the most decks.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has ground to a halt many industries, and there are even warnings that this will affect the next two quarters in regards to fundraising.

We’ve reviewed the data in our 2020 DocSend Startup Index and we’ve begun tracking the Pitch Deck Interest Metric. With San Francisco under a shelter-in-place order and many VCs scrambling to adjust their processes to an all-remote world, we saw pitch deck interest drop 11.6% when compared to the same week in 2019. While there has been a drop in interest so far, there is still a lot of activity, and VCs seem to still be reading pitch decks.

We will be monitoring the Pitch Deck Interest Metric in the coming weeks, but if you’re an early-stage startup and are in the middle of your fundraise, or are about to fundraise, there are some things you can do to help insure your startup is ready for funding before you meet with any (more) investors.

time spent reading pitch decks

The Pitch Deck Interest Metric declined 11.6% compared to the same week in 2019

Expectations have shifted and will continue to do so

If you were about to kick off a fundraising round, you should have been prepared to contact 50 or more investors, have 20-30 meetings and spend somewhere around 20 weeks before you signed your term sheet. That’s a lot of time and energy to invest, especially when the economy is poised for a downturn and you’re most likely needed in other parts of your business.

If you’ve already started your round and are wondering if you should push through, I’ve written a piece on knowing when to quit and recalibrate versus when to push through (Extra Crunch membership required).

Many factors play into navigating a successful fundraising round, and the expectations of investors are constantly changing — specifically when it comes to the pre-seed round.

Investors are now looking for market-ready products and want to see pitch decks that feature the content they’re expecting. We expect to see this focus intensify over the coming months as VCs have more time to spend not just to review pitch decks, but on due diligence for companies in which they plan to invest. Our new report outlines advice for pre-seed startups that are looking to adjust their fundraising strategy.

Focus on an MVP, not just a great PowerPoint

Our analysis reveals a shift in the level of readiness required by institutional investment to receive pre-seed funding. In the past, pre-seed startups could get by with just an MVPP (Minimum Viable PowerPoint). But now, investors are placing their bets on pre-seed startups that have already entered the market and developed an alpha, beta or shipping product.

In fact, 92% of companies with successful pitch decks had either an alpha, beta or shipping product, where only 68% of companies with unsuccessful pitch decks presented the same type of product readiness.

stage of product development mvp vs mvpp

As the economy moves closer to a downturn we can expect VCs to be more cautious with their investments. The current data already shows a preference for companies that have live products; it’s worth the time and effort to be product-ready coming into a pre-seed round or if you’re a startup ready to tackle the round again with a fresh perspective.

Rethink your deck

That said, even if you do have an MVP, rethinking your pitch deck may be something else to consider. Here’s a good test. Using your pitch deck, spend three to four minutes (that’s all the time you’ll get from a VC) to pitch your business to a friend or family member who knows nothing about your business. Afterward, ask them for a one-sentence description of your company. If they’re not clearly describing what your company does and the problem it’s trying to solve, you probably need to rethink your pitch deck.

According to our recent report, a “less is more” attitude toward creating a compelling pitch deck for meetings could mean more success in pre-seed fundraising.

Your pitch deck will be your main calling card right now. As community events are being replaced with online gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can expect to see less one-to-one engagement at these events. So pitching a VC in person is not likely to happen anytime soon. Whether you’re sending them a cold email, or getting a warm intro from a portfolio company, you’re going to need to lead with your pitch deck.

Despite the product taking a more prominent role in the fundraising round, the pitch deck is still a focal point and should be tailored to tell your story in the most effective way, as investors are spending less time evaluating them. On average, investors are spending just 3 minutes and 21 seconds on the pitch deck and the average deck is just 20 slides.

If you are in the process of reevaluating your pitch deck, it could be helpful to make sure your slides feature the right content in the right order. Investors spend nearly 50% more time on the product slides in successful pitch decks and over 18% longer on the business model in unsuccessful pitch decks. Additionally, investors spent more time on solution slides in successful decks than unsuccessful decks.

time spent on successful decks

It’s a numbers game… to a certain extent

Another area that could benefit from reevaluation is the number of investors contacted, meetings held and the number of weeks spent in a funding round. Generally speaking, the average amount of investors contacted for successful fundraising rounds is 56, resulting in 26 meetings. On average, successful pre-seed startups will spend 20.5 weeks on fundraising.

When it comes to fundraising, there are diminishing returns for investor outreach. You shouldn’t need to send your deck to more than 60-70 investors and have more than 20-30 meetings. If you’re doing more than that, the ROI on your time just isn’t worth it. Because the current crisis is affecting VCs’ willingness to invest, you’re better off finding a small list of investors who are active and targeting your pitch to them. If you’ve reached out to more than 70 investors, but you’re still faced with a wall of “nos” you’re better off pausing your fundraising and addressing the feedback you’ve received so far. For more on when you should quit and reevaluate versus push through you can read my article here (Extra Crunch membership required).

how long does a pre seed round take

Another area pre-seed startups should evaluate is the number of founders of a company. Our data shows investors still prefer teams of two-three founders, though our data shows that being a solo founder is preferable to having too many founders. For teams of five founders, they averaged earning $195,085 while founding teams of three garnered $511,522.

This may be the right time to find a co-founder. With many people working from home or out of work, this could be the opportunity to take your idea and bring on the technical founder you need. There are online groups and events popping up everywhere in response to social distancing. If you’re worried being a solo founder is going to hold you back, you may want to invest time in those new communities.

meetings and amount raised

Get some perspective

For many startups, especially if you are not in Silicon Valley where a substantial amount of funding happens, the process of fundraising can be very opaque. DocSend’s purpose in analyzing this data is to bring some transparency to the process. This in turn provides perspective.

But what founders should do, if they haven’t done so already, is to get some additional perspective. Talk to experts outside your immediate circle of influence. Don’t have a mentor or advisors? Find them. Get a different take on your product idea or the market conditions. Especially now that community events are going virtual, location doesn’t have to hold you back from joining the startup community and finding people to offer feedback on your product or company.

Fundraising is both an art and science. Combining the insights from our data with the benefit of your own community can help you get back on your feet and pitching your company with hopefully a better outcome.

Not all entrepreneurs are 30-year-old guys

All co-working isn’t WeWork . And not all entrepreneurs are 30-year-old guys.

I know this well, having built my first startup in the mid-1980s after a potential employer said women wouldn’t be accepted in technical sales. Within five years, their large computer manufacturing business was gone, but we were selling our products around the world.

About twelve years ago, my partner and I saw how the workplace was changing as laptops and WiFi allowed people to work anywhere. At the same time, endless commutes and long office hours were separating families, generating excess CO2 emissions and making work-life balance almost impossible.

We understood that enabling people to work close to home, rather than in their home, could address these issues while reducing isolation and distractions. We could apply our startup, manufacturing, building and operations backgrounds to this problem to develop automated, welcoming workspace centers in neighborhoods and small-town cores, and we could make this replicable.

This was 2008 — nearly a decade before Masayoshi Son plowed billions into WeWork with the directive to be crazier, go bigger. Our model was very different from WeWork’s model of large centers in large cities that primarily targeted large corporations. It was more than a real estate play and with an interesting problem to solve: community focused centers were valuable to regular people, but could these be created sustainably and profitably over the long term?

We thought it could. So we built it.

The crux of what we developed was smaller, replicable, technologically-enabled and automated centers, outside big cities, that could meet the needs of their members and do it profitably and with minimal staffing. We developed our co-working management software, Satellite Deskworks, along with our now patented tracking and automation, to run any type of shared use center, and to do it simply, intuitively, and comprehensively.

I do not get funded. Several guys — without cynicism — suggested that I get a 30-year-old front man.

With the model proven, we began working on funding to scale the enterprise. The business plan, slide deck and pro forma were written. The pitches started, all the while running and growing the business from personal and generated funds. More pitches. And more pitches. Clearly we weren’t making it interesting enough. Or it was too early. Or the people with funds didn’t understand how important this was for the vast majority of workers and their local communities. Or perhaps there was just something wrong with us, since the business was already working.

Some of the pitch meetings felt like walking through the looking glass: One VC group provided us with an internal sponsor who advised us to only talk about software. Then his associate took over and said that advice was all wrong: our strength was in the combination of real-world and software.

On pitch day, before our presentation, a single-function app was pitched — just an idea, no product. It got funded. Subsequently, even though we had three profitable centers and several software clients, I was told that we weren’t far enough along to validate the market. Another group declined to fund us, then a year later asked me back as an expert on co-working to explain this emerging industry to them. But, again, no funds were forthcoming.

Over and over again, I’d be told that the presentation was spot-on, and yet, no funds.

I’m an older woman. I got my undergraduate degree at 43 years old and a masters at 46. I had started, run and sold my first startup to a large multinational by the time I was 40. I am good at what I do; I build and scale businesses.

Another group declined to fund us, then a year later asked me back, as an expert on co-working, to explain this newly emerging industry to them.

But I do not get funded.

This is not a complaint. This is a fact. I understand what happened at those pitches. Despite our scalable, successful business model, the decision makers were trying to gauge what others at the table would do, how they would perceive me. And the double-whammy of being older and a woman was a bridge too far.

Like picking at a scab, I talk to people knowledgeable in venture who nod their heads at the idea that I’d have trouble getting funded, no matter how well the model worked or the software functioned.

Several guys — without cynicism — suggested that I get a 30-year-old front man. But instead, I focused on growing my business organically, perhaps missing the opportunity to truly scale something that communities of all sizes need.

There is a serious flaw in how businesses are funded, and it is the same discussion we had twenty and thirty years ago about who was at the table in managing businesses.

Vibrant, innovative concepts and businesses are frequently started by people who aren’t happy with their options inside the box of the corporate world. 45% of small business owners are from minority ethnic groups. Women start businesses at twice the rate of men, yet female founders got 2% of VC dollars in 2017. Black women are the most educated group in the U.S., yet they receive about 0.2% of VC funding.

Older founders are seen as less dynamic, less adventurous, while the reality is that half the startups in the U.S. are by people over 50 — and older entrepreneurs are actually more likely to succeed.

Despite the fact that many acknowledge this as a problem, the solutions seem elusive. But they shouldn’t be. Corporations are stronger because of bringing diversity to boards, and the VC model would be stronger by employing many of the same tactics. The likelihood that funded startups will succeed increases by appealing to a broader audience, and the best way to do that is to fund a broader segment of entrepreneurs. Although these shouldn’t be new concepts, let me propose a few ideas:

Set up and support funds at an intermediate level. There is a crying need for funding in the $1 million – $3 million range, particularly for women- and minority-owned businesses. We know how to successfully bootstrap, but however good we are, it takes investment to scale.

If you measure it, you get it. Set up metrics. 10% of your board will be women within a year, 30% within three years, and 50% within six years. Set up similar metrics for ethnic and racial diversity. Set a goal for the percentage of your portfolio that will be minority- and women-owned startups each year over the next five years. And measure the performance of these startups against the past portfolio.

Increase the diversity of VC management and boards. By including decision-makers at the table from a broad range of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and genders, the industry should get to a more diverse portfolio with a greater likelihood of overall success.

Get to critical mass. Token diversity accomplishes little. You need enough people to truly provide a voice and echo. It’s easy to ignore a single voice from a different perspective. Research has shown that for a group to even hear a woman’s voice in a meeting at least 30% of that group needs to be women.

So, yes, I walk into the VC pitch rooms, and I know I’m not walking out with funding. No one is going to wire me a generous seed round and tell me to go break things.

Because of who I am and how this particular world perceives me, I have to build a business that works, that stands on its own from the beginning. This is not the end of the world. Businesses should work.

But the VC model needs to work, too.

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.