H! Lites — Issue #021: As Google strays from democracy, BIMA and Robinhood focus on democratising…
This week, we look at the implications of Google’s collaboration with the Chinese government in the project titled ‘Dragonfly’ and the new ways Facebook and Instagram promote greater digital well-being. We also discuss the ways in which companies are bringing financial services to the masses, both in the U.S and in developing countries.
Also, if you’re planning on cooking dinner tonight, be sure to check out our new Alexa Skill in partnership with BBC Good Food! With 11,000 recipes to choose from, we guarantee you’ll find one for every mood and every occasion!
We hope our dash of orange can cure your Monday blues!
Google’s Return to China?
They’ve partnered with Tencent, invested $500 million into JD.com, opened an AI lab in Beijing, and now, they are developing a censored search engine in collaboration with the Chinese government. This most recent project, codenamed ‘Dragonfly’, raises the concern that it sets a terrible precedent for other businesses looking to expand to China while still rejecting it’s censorship. The Intercept reports that Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai himself has attended at least one meeting with government officials in China.
This alleged search engine would block Western services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which have already been banned in China for years. While blocking news from sites such as the BBC and the New York Times, it would also be capable of identifying and censoring results for sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although a desktop version is possible later in the future, the current focus on the company is Android. Google’s main challenge will be both to gain the government’s approval as well as be in a position to compete with what is already available in China today.
Once upon a time, Google was at the forefront of the push for a free internet that was accessible to everyone. Today, it appears that has changed. The full implications of Google’s actions are still unclear as the product has not yet been released. Lockman Tsui, former head of free expression for Google in Asia, has a gloomy opinion: “The reality is that they will be serving the Chinese government”. Their aim is to capture a chunk of the 700 million internet user market that has grown quickly since Google left China in 2010. The real question is — at what ethical cost are they going to do so?
By Jeevan Jayaprakash, Strategy
Instagram and Facebook Time Limits
“It’s really important for people who use Instagram and Facebook that the time they spend with us is time well spent,” says Ameet Ranadive, Instagram’s Product Director of Well-Being. Both this statement and the title ‘Director of Well-Being’ reflect Facebook’s, who own Instagram, change in business strategy. In this post, we look at what that change is, its implementation and what its implications for the future are.
Some of you, perhaps the more avid Instagram fans, may have already noticed Instagram’s most recent well-being update appearing in the form of a notification which states that “You’re All Caught Up”, reminding you that you have already viewed all new photos on your feed. The new updates, which have been released in the US a couple of days ago, will allow you to track how much time you have spent on the app, to set a time limit and mute notifications for up to 8 hours at a time.
The fact that Facebook is taking these first steps towards digital well-being over financial gain is important, benefitting the company’s finances in the long-term also as these changes may perhaps encourage people to continue using the app rather than delete it. And yet, to live up to their promises of improving the way users spend their time on the platform, they will have to do more. Currently, this function doesn’t add any deeper analysis into how your time is being spent — surely 20 minutes on National Geographic is very different to the same time spent watching cat memes?
These updates represent a change in business strategy eventually all companies will have to make, as consumers are growing more concerned about the ethics behind the apps they’re using. Giving up both apps is more difficult than many of us realise, but perhaps with these new features guiding our behaviour in the app, connecting instead of isolating, Facebook could push us to become more mindful with our technology. Luckily for us, the Director of Well-Being agrees, “There may be some tradeoff with other metrics for the company and that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to live with, because in the longer term we think this is important to the community and we’re willing to invest in it.”
By Anastasia McLain, Strategist
BIMA — the startup providing insurance to those earning $2 dollars a day
Mobile payments are on the rise in Africa. According to a recent study by McKinsey, the number of active mobile money users in the continent has grown by more than 30 percent annually. In issue 12, we already spoke about the success of M-Pesa, which has established itself as the biggest financial service provider for African mobile users.
M-Pesa’s ability to attract over 22.7 million users has been because of its accessibility (it will work on a basic Nokia phone), its broad appeal (mobile penetration in e.g. Kenya is at almost 90%) and in its limited fees — sending money or taking out micro-loans is a lot cheaper via M-Pesa than via traditional banking systems.
Despite many on the African continent now having access to basic financial services via their phone, their ability to take the next step and sign up for additional services such as insurance and investment accounts are quite limited. The Swedish-British startup BIMA are now trying help those on low-income bridge this gap, by offering affordable insurances via mobile. For as little as 60 cents a month, users can get a $1,000 dollar life insurance — which can mean a lot for those earning $2 dollars a day working high risk jobs.
BIMA’s success (attracting 23m subscribers in Africa, Asia and Latin America since its launch in 2010) can’t be accredited to its use of mobile technology alone. The company has put in a large effort to educate its users, 75% of whom have never had an insurance product before, about the benefits of insurance — something which cannot be done via a 160 character SMS. Instead, BIMA employs agents from local communities, who are able to explain the product and its benefits to their peers using common terminology.
Let’s hope that other business follow BIMA’s lead, not only bringing technological innovation to the African continent, but at the same time offering education on its sustainable use to those who need it.
By Oliver Iyer, Strategy
Cool thing of the week: Robinhood app
Baiju Bhatt, co-founder of Robinhood, is trying to democratise the biased American financial system: “if you’ve ever tried to open an account or trade a stock on an online brokerage account, it’s like a Rube Goldberg machine. It becomes necessary to have enough money and financial knowledge to navigate these complicated services, which tend to be designed for people who make these brokerages the most money.”
Back in 2013, Bhatt and co-founder Vladimir Tenev launched Robinhood — an app that removes the barriers in place for the average American citizen to invest in stocks. By requiring no minimum balance and charging zero commission, Robinhood have been able to attract 3 million users with almost no marketing spend. Their referral scheme — sign up your friend and you will receive free stocks — has been a large part of their growth, especially in the Gen Z demographic.
Culture icons like Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Jared Leto and Nas have all invested in Robinhood, and are likely to heavily promote it to younger Americans going forward. A more in-depth review of the app can be found here — it’s definitely a space to watch!
By Oliver Iyer, Strategist
Originally written as part of Hi Mum! Said Dad’s weekly newsletter, H! Lites.
H! Lites hits you with a short, sharp, weekly dose of the latest and greatest across tech, business, design and other contemporary issues that we think would be of value to our readers.
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