Apr 30, 2020

Axios Login

Axios will host a live virtual event on the impact of the coronavirus on modern work life. Join Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei and Axios business reporter Erica Pandey today at 12:30pm ET for this discussion featuring Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield and Verizon chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg.

Today's Login is 1,394 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Contact tracing will demand apps and a human army

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As some states take steps to partially re-open their economies, public health officials and local governments are trying to aggressively ramp up contact tracing to track the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, Axios' Kim Hart and Margaret Harding McGill report.

Why it matters: Identifying who has come in contact with people infected with the disease is critical to isolating the coronavirus while also allowing some semblance of daily life to resume. 

Between the lines: State and city budgets are being hammered by the economic fallout of COVID-19, making it harder to find the resources to hire and train people to contact trace or acquire needed technologies.

  • Some governments are recruiting volunteers, retirees and students to do the work. But the sheer number of people needed — at least 100,ooo across the U.S., per Johns Hopkins — and the open-ended duration of the work makes that a very daunting task.

State and county public health officials are ramping up tracing efforts now that testing availability is improving — since tracing only works with widespread testing.

What's happening: Other countries are relying on tech to varying degrees to augment contact tracing.

  • Singapore, Australia and Iceland have all launched contact-tracing apps. South Korea used phone GPS records, credit card transactions and closed-circuit television to augment patient interviews for its contact tracing effort.

In the U.S., a joint effort from Google and Apple will most likely form the basis of any widespread, tech-enabled contact tracing.

  • The two companies are sharing an early version of what they're calling COVID-19 exposure notification technology with certain developers working with public health authorities. Apple and Google want to release the first phase of the project, which will enable users to opt in to Bluetooth-based contact tracing, by mid-May.
  • MIT researchers, who launched a project to perform private automated contact tracing, are using their expertise with radar to help figure out how Bluetooth can show the distance between users.
  • Marc Zissman, associate head of the Cyber Security and Information Sciences Division at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, said Google and Apple's effort appears to be incorporating the privacy principles researchers have called for, including sending randomized data that is not personally identifiable.
  • "Our best guess is that when Google and Apple release this, this is going to be what it is," Zissman said.

The success of the effort will depend on widespread adoption of the technology so people will be notified when they come in contact with someone who tests positive.

What to watch: Zissman said MIT researchers will reverse-engineer the Google/Apple programs to ensure they are following the privacy protocols, and also expect pilot testing in limited settings like hospitals or universities before states begin implementing.

  • It may also take a public service campaign featuring trusted voices to encourage Americans to opt in.

The bottom line: "There's a lot of doubts," said Josh Michaud, associate director for Global Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "One, that people's privacy concerns can be addressed sufficiently, and two, that enough people would download the app to make it helpful and actually provide the service it's supposed to provide."

2. Lots of tech profits, but uncertainty abounds

With a host of fresh earnings reports this week, it appears many of tech's big publicly-traded companies fared reasonably well through the earliest days of the pandemic, but the rest of the year remains a question mark.

What's next: Apple and Amazon are both scheduled to report earnings today.

3. Aesthetic aims to automate design drudgery

A sample of Aesthetic's automation-infused design work. Image: Aesthetic

For his latest startup, entrepreneur and Pinterest veteran John Milinovich is betting automation can help even the highly human task of creative design.

Driving the news: Milinovich's new company, Aesthetic, aims to automate normally costly steps in building out companies' brand identities. It will announce today it has landed $3.1 million in seed funding to test out the premise, led by A.Capital with strategic investment from Y Combinator.

How it works: Humans would still be needed to come up the core brand elements. But Aesthetic, Milinovich said in an interview, would then tap AI to take those basic pieces and turn them into documents and web templates.

  • Aesthetic says it can deliver a basic brand identity and guidelines in four business days for $3,000 — well below what a typical design firm would charge, and in far less time.
  • Milinovich said he hopes that will make good design accessible to even small startups.
  • In addition to the software firm, Aesthetic's structure includes a separate, independent design outfit.

Background: Milinovich started the company with Andrew Look and Nathanael Smith, his fellow co-founders from an earlier company, "deep linking" developer URX. Pinterest acquired URX in 2016.

Yes, but: Other startups have tried and failed to automate skilled white-collar work.

  • Atrium, the legal startup launched by Twitch co-founder Justin Kan, shut down in March after failing to prove itself more efficient than the established way of doing business.

The other side: Milinovich said that his company is trying to take things more slowly and not run up costs too soon. And he acknowledges the challenges: "Anytime you use the word automation in the same sentence as creativity and design, you are met with a lot of skepticism."

4. Wireless pioneer is 1st woman to win Marconi Prize

Photo: Marconi Society

Andrea Goldsmith, an innovator in the improvement of wireless networks, has won this year's Marconi Prize, one of the highest honors in the telecom industry.

Why it matters: Goldsmith, who has helped WiFi and cellular networks adapt to changing conditions, is the first woman to get the award in its 45-year history.

Driving the news: A co-founder of mesh networking startup Plume, Goldsmith has 29 patents and wrote the book when it comes to her field. Her textbook, "Wireless Communications," is used in engineering schools around the world.

Goldsmith plans to donate the $100,000 prize money back to the Marconi Society to launch an endowment that will fund technology and diversity initiatives.

  • "I want to inspire diverse people to pursue engineering and to ensure that everyone who is creating these technologies has the same path to success and recognition," Goldsmith told Axios. "We need perspectives from the brightest minds in the world.”
5. Take Note


  • In yesterday's Login, we wrote that Uber was considering laying off up to 20% of its 2,700 employees. We dropped an important zero there — Uber actually has around 27,000 employees.

On Tap

  • Earnings reports include Apple and Amazon, as mentioned.

Off Tap

  • Salesforce has canceled its remaining 2020 in-person events, including the giant Dreamforce, which takes over downtown San Francisco, draws 170,000 attendees and generates $150 million in annual spending, per the San Francisco Chronicle.


  • Ride-hailing service Lyft and scooter company Lime are among the latest companies making cuts to their workforce. (Axios)
  • Apple and Google released a beta version of their coronavirus "exposure notification" technology designed to help with contact tracing efforts. (Axios)
  • Amazon is cracking down on mass communication among employees amid a spate of worker activism. (Vox/Recode)
  • Zoom has admitted that it doesn't actually have 300 million daily active users after previously reporting that figure, which likely counted many users more than once. (The Verge)
  • Facebook is rolling out a tool for users in the U.S. and Canada to transfer their images and videos to Google Photos. (The Verge)
  • Amazon calls Trump blacklisting a "personal vendetta." (Axios)
  • ChowNow offers diners memberships to help out restaurants. (Axios)
6. After you Login

For those who really miss the office experience, you can always try this.