The best designers I know always start a project with a concept (or conceptual model). What’s your design concept for this project? How do you envision people interacting with your product? What model are you trying to emulate in your UI?
“A conceptual model is a representation of a system, made of the composition of concepts which are used to help people know, understand, or simulate a subject the model represents.” — Wikipedia
But other designers go straight into crafting what the interface will look like, before defining a solid vision on the conceptual model for that system.
Interfaces that are conceived and designed on autopilot — interaction patterns that aren’t strategically aligned, user paths that don’t follow a clear logic, screens that are inconsistent and do not ladder up to a consolidated metaphor or concept.
Defining a concept upfront can help shape everything that follows: the interactions, the relationship between elements, the tone of voice and copy, the transitions, the animations, etc. Once you have a strong concept, all these aspects start to align.
But conceptual models are abstract.
It can be hard for designers to get used to thinking this way.
Here are a few examples:
Tinder’s cards model. The user has a deck of cards in their hands, and they start to split those cards in two other groups: the chosen ones, and the discarded ones. Great, that’s the concept. This informs the visuals (digital cards that actually look like cards), the interactions (swiping left means “discard”, swiping right means “choose”), the UI transitions, and so forth.
Google Earth’s planet model. Nothing more obvious if you’re trying to navigate around Earth than letting users “play god” and rotate the planet in each and every direction. This affects the visuals (the planet is floating on a dark background when you first load the application), the interactions (dragging and dropping the map will reposition it on the screen), the transitions (when you “release” the planet, it continues to spin for a little bit, emulating a physical globe), and so forth. This concept has also had ripple effects on Google Maps for mobile and web.
There’s a chance some of the most memorable interfaces you have played with remind you of another interaction model you have used in real life.
Concepts are simply metaphors that designers use to help people understand how a system will work.
But conceptual models can make stakeholders anxious, because they are not necessarily interfaces. They require time, and thinking, but they don’t necessarily look like the interface people will interact with (sometimes they look like a diagram, or like boxes and arrows, or just a few paragraphs of text).
Still, they are important.
Products that start with a conceptual model have bigger chances of remaining consistent as they evolve and as new features are added. Creative concepts act as a north star to align everyone in the team in regards to how the product should evolve.
Having a creative concept doesn’t mean that the product has to always look the same. Quite the opposite. It’s interesting to see how certain products evolve, visual design trends come and go, functionalities expand — and yet, the conceptual model can remain consistent over time.
What’s the concept behind the product you’re working on right now?
Sheyda Brown had seen the ads for BetterHelp time and time again, on social media platform after social media platform, before she decided to sign up. Though she’d never tried text therapy before, the service’s allure was hard to deny. Who wouldn’t want a caring licensed therapist at their fingertips, only a simple text away, all-day every day? Especially if it was supposed to cost, as explicitly promised by nearly all text therapy sites, “significantly less money than traditional therapy.” Brown had a busy schedule and found the cost of traditional therapy to be way too high, so she figured BetterHelp was at least worth a shot. “I just wanted something more in the moment,” Brown told The Outline. “Like a conversation in the moment while i’m thinking about an issue. To kind of like, work through it right then and there.”
The Outline spoke with 6 current and former clients of Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Pride Counseling (one of BetterHelp’s many subsidiaries). Each turned to text therapy after being inundated with ads for the service on social media. All but one expressed concern over the inadequacy of the care they received while using text therapy, and the exorbitant price associated with that low-quality care. Some of those interviewed requested anonymity given the stigmas surrounding mental health.
Most of the ads Brown saw lauded the company’s seven-day free trial — a promotion she confirmed was legit after reading dozens of reviews — so she figured there was no harm in trying and signed up. “I kind of thought it would be like a tech service, like while I was texting someone it would be be an ongoing conversation, and so one of the things that I really disliked about the service was that it wasn’t that way at all,” Brown told The Outline in a phone interview. “Someone would check in maybe once a day, so basically it would be just like one long message that I would send and then they would send one long message back — and I didn’t even hear back from anyone until the second day.”
This is the most ridiculous service.
After three days of sporadic and generally unhelpful “counseling,” Brown tried to quit; the service obviously wasn’t for her. Seconds before hitting cancel she realized that, despite the fact that she had clicked on the seven day trial ad to sign up, BetterHelp had already charged $250 — a month’s worth of text therapy fees — to her credit card. She was instantly furious. Her therapist pointed her to a customer support line, which denied her claim to the seven day free trial (apparently they “don’t offer the trial to everybody”). Customer service insisted that a total refund was out of the question; she at least had to pay for her first week, as she did use the service for three days. Brown called her credit card company and reported it as a fraudulent charge.
“Honestly at this point I’m more frustrated than when I came to you all and you’re exacerbating any issues I had previously. ” thought Brown at the time. “This is the most ridiculous service.”
Unfortunately, Brown’s experience is anything but out of the ordinary. In the sketchy and seemingly-boundless world of text therapy, unresponsiveness, frustration, and confusion are practically industry standards.
The lengthy FAQs hidden in the navigation bar of most text therapy sites are often peppered with CVS-receipt-long lists of studies (most of which have glaringly small sample sizes) comparing text therapy to traditional. While there are a few which claim the two forms have similar success rates, there’s a noticeable lack of peer-reviewed research on the matter that has both robust participant pools and smartly designed control groups. Text therapy is also relatively new phenomenon, so there aren’t many studies comparing its effectiveness long-term to more traditional methods.
An ad for BetterHelp on Instagram.
Another (somehow more disturbing) ad for BetterHelp on Instagram.
“I first found out about them because they partnered with a semi-large YouTube channel I subscribe to,” said one former BetterHelp client, who spoke to The Outline over private message on the condition of anonymity (given the various stigmas surrounding mental health).
“This channel advertised them as basically somewhere to seek help online when you didn’t have money or the means to get therapy face to face.”
The BetterHelp ad is wedged into the tail end of a video entitled “[ASMR] DOG EATS TOAST(+Special Announcement).” After roughly a minute of a Shiba Inu loudly crunching on some slightly burnt bread, the (human) YouTuber announces his new partnership with BetterHelp, describing the online service as the perfect alternative to pricey traditional therapy.
“I was under the impression that it would be a LOT cheaper than seeking face to face help,” the former BetterHelp client said. But she soon found that the service she had signed up for was significantly more expensive than she’d anticipated. Text therapy through BetterHelp (or through any of its offshoots, like Pride Counseling, Faith Counseling, or Teen Counseling) costs between $140 and $280 a month, depending on the plan purchased (perhaps cheaper than paying out of pocket for a real-life therapist, but not by very much). As exorbitant as that may seem, Talkspace, another popular text therapy site, charges even more: a month of text therapy costs between $196 to $316. This is a considerable increase from Talkspace’s 2016 prices, which were $128 and $276 respectively.
So what does hundreds of dollars a month get you in the world of online therapy? For most, not much.
“Talkspace does not have a free trial, and offers subscriptions that renew every one, three, or six months,” Michael Kuznetsov, VP of Marketing at Talkspace, said in a statement to The Outline over email. (BetterHelp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Specifics regarding these fees are also rather difficult to parse before signing up. I spent multiple hours combing through BetterHelp’s many websites, and I was unable to find details regarding exactly which pricing tiers were available and what the differences between them were.
So what does hundreds of dollars a month get you in the world of online therapy? For most, not much. “I only interacted with one counselor, who basically seemed to be uncomfortable with text-based interaction,” a former Pride Counseling client told The Outline over private message. “I got the impression that she was on mobile, as she could not type quickly. She asked me many times to do a video chat” — a request some text therapy companies require their therapists to make, according to The Verge, as it apparently costs more — “which I repeatedly said I was not comfortable with. She also didn’t give me any substantial feedback and justified it by saying her job was to ‘let [me] talk it out.’ What it boiled down to is that she seemed to be half-assing it and wasn’t a good listener.”
Compare this to what one current BetterHelp client, Andrea Lambert, told The Outline. “The quality of care I receive from Pride Counseling is excellent and uniquely tailored to my special needs,” she said over email. “We communicate through email, which I can do as much or as little as I need to. My counselor always responds in a timely fashion, usual a few hours later the same day… The first week I was emailing my therapist nonstop and she kept up, giving me a bunch of great breathing exercises for my anxiety and PTSD that have really helped.”
An Instagram ad for Pride Counseling.
Online reviews of the apps paint a different picture. “Kept seeing ads for this on social media, figured I’d try it out,” wrote one user about Pride Counseling. “I fill out their survey, give them my email, and then they tell you the subscription price lol. They charge you monthly, so the initial payment is $180. I’m upset because I already gave them my email and I don’t need the spam. Had they just been upfront at the beginning of their screening survey that they were gonna charge more than the price I see a face to face therapist for, I would have known to stop proceeding…”
“This company charged my account for services I asked to cancel before I received anything,” wrote another. “I have not heard back from them. I have repeatedly tried multiple types of communication with no response. Unacceptable. Fraudulent. Do not use this app…”
What it boiled down to is that she seemed to be half-assing it and wasn’t a good listener.
The quality of care experienced by text therapy users is anything but consistent. What holds true for one client is rarely applicable to the next. Part of issue is that text therapy companies like BetterHelp and Talkspace may seem like medical providers, when in reality they’re merely platforms. Customers may think they’re getting matched up with a BetterHelp employee when they sign up for the service, they’re actually just paying BetterHelp to put them in a private chatroom with an independent contractor.
BetterHelp’s Terms and Conditions agreement quite literally says that it “do[es] not control the quality of the Counselor Services and [it does] not determine whether any Counselor is qualified to provide any specific service as well as whether a Counselor is categorized correctly or matched correctly to you.” The company repeat time and time again that it’s merely a platform for connecting customers and independent contractors — not a mental health services provider — and forces any potential user to explicitly acknowledge that BetterHelp “do[es] not represent to verify, and do[es] not guarantee the verification of, the skills, degrees, qualifications, licensure, certification, credentials, competence or background of any Counselor.”
These sorts of details are likely why platforms such as BetterHelp and Talkspace don’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to taking care of their independent contractors. A 2016 investigation by The Verge into Talkspace “described an atmosphere of micromanagement and disillusionment, a therapy clinic placing too big an emphasis on client retention at the expense of therapists’ well-being. All but one of the therapists” interviewed by The Verge “expressed concern that the company doesn’t place enough focus on patient safety.”
Despite the fact that the fleet of (supposedly) licensed therapists employed by text therapy companies make up one half of the whole business, and the clients the other, neither group seems to be adequately served by the services provided. The ad practices and signup tactics employed by these companies could be described as predatory at best, and potentially dangerous at worst, leaving both clients and contractors hung out to dry in the name of profit.
On any given day, there could be a half dozen autonomous cars mapping the same street corner in Silicon Valley. These cars, each from a different company, are all doing the same thing: building high-definition street maps, which may eventually serve as an on-board navigation guide for driverless vehicles.
These companies converge where the law and weather are welcoming—or where they can get the most attention. For example, a flock of mapping vehicles congregates every year in the vicinity of the CES technology trade show, a hot spot for self-driving feats. “There probably have been 50 companies that mapped Las Vegas simply to do a CES drive,” said Chris McNally, an analyst with Evercore ISI. “It’s such a waste of resources.”
Autonomous cars require powerful sensors to see and advanced software to think. They especially need up-to-the-minute maps of every conceivable roadway to move. Whoever owns the most detailed and expansive version of these maps that vehicles read will own an asset that could be worth billions.
Which is how you get an all-out mapping war, with dozens of contenders entering into a dizzying array of alliances and burning tens of millions of investment dollars in pursuit of a massive payoff that could be years away. Alphabet Inc.’s Google emerged years ago as the winner in consumer digital maps, which human drivers use to evade rush-hour traffic or find a restaurant. Google won by blanketing the globe with its street-mapping cars and with software expertise that couldn’t be matched by navigation companies, automakers and even Apple Inc. Nobody wants to let Google win again.
The companies working on maps for autonomous vehicles are taking two different approaches. One aims to create complete high-definition maps that will let the driverless cars of the future navigate all on their own; another creates maps piece-by-piece, using sensors in today’s vehicles that will allow cars to gradually automate more and more parts of driving.
Alphabet is trying both approaches. A team inside Google is working on a 3-D mapping project that it may license to automakers, according to four people familiar with its plans, which have not previously been reported. This mapping service is different than the high-definition maps that Waymo, another Alphabet unit, is creating for its autonomous vehicles.
Google’s mapping project is focused on so-called driver-assistance systems that enable cars to automate some driving features and help them see what’s ahead or around a corner. Google released an early version of this in December, called Vehicle Mapping Service, that incorporates sensor data from cars into their maps.
For now, Google is offering it to carmakers that use Android Automotive, the company’s embedded operating system for cars. Google has named three partners for that system to date, but other automakers are reluctant to hand their dashboards over to the search giant. So Google is looking to expand the features on the mapping service and find other ways to distribute it, these people said.
“We’ve built a comprehensive map of the world for people and we are working to expand the utility to our maps to cars,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. She declined to comment on future plans.
At the same time, Waymo and the other giants with sizable driverless research arms—including General Motors Co., Uber Technologies Inc. and Ford Motor Co.—are all sending out their own fleets to create rich, detailed HD maps for use in driverless cars. There are also smaller startups hawking gadgets or specialized software to build these maps for automakers that find themselves farther behind. Still other suppliers are working on mapping services for conventional cars with limited robotic features, such as adaptive cruise control or night vision.
These self-driving maps are far more demanding than older digital ones, prompting huge investments across Detroit, Silicon Valley and China. “An autonomous vehicle wants that to be as precise, accurate and up-to-date as possible,” said Bryan Salesky, who leads Argo AI LLC, a year-old startup backed by a $1 billion investment by Ford. The “off-the-shelf solution doesn’t quite exist.”
The Cartographic Arms Dealers
Making a driverless map, like making a driverless car, is a laborious task. Fleets of autonomous test cars, loaded with expensive lidar sensors and cameras, go out into the world with human backup drivers and capture their surroundings. Plotting the results helps train the next fleet, which will still have safety drivers at the wheel—and, in some cases, scores of additional humans sitting behind computer monitors to catalog all the footage.
It’s an expensive ordeal with a payoff that’s years, if not decades, away. “Even if you could drive your own vehicles around and hit every road in the world, how do you update?” asked Dan Galves, a spokesman for Mobileye. “You’d have to send these vehicles around again.”
Unlike conventional digital maps, self-driving maps require almost-constant updates. The slightest variation on the road—a construction zone that pops up overnight, or a bit of debris—could stop a driverless car in its tracks. “It’s the freak thing that happens that’s going to make autonomous not work,” said McNally, the analyst.
Mobileye argues that it’s more efficient and cost-effective to let the cars we’re driving today see what’s ahead. In January, the Intel Corp. unit announced a “low-bandwidth” mapping effort, with its front-facing camera and chip sensor that it plans to place in 2 million cars this year. The idea is to get cars to view such things as lane makers, traffic signals and road boundaries, letting them automate some driving.
Mobileye says this will take less computing horsepower than building a comprehensive HD map of the roads would; Mobileye’s Galves said the company will pair its sensor data with the maps from navigational companies and, over time, create a map that a fully driverless car could use.
That’s also the tactic of Google’s longtime mapping foes: HERE and TomTom NV. These two European companies have positioned themselves as the primary alternatives to Google Maps, selling the dashboard screen maps to automakers today. Yet these “static” maps see only broad street shapes and capture snapshots in time. Now both companies are working on replacement products: “dynamic” maps that represent lanes, curbs and everything else on the road. The hope is that car manufacturers will stick with old-guard mapmakers as vehicles move from somewhat intelligent to fully automated vehicles without steering wheels.
HERE, owned by a consortium of German automakers, has a few examples on the road. Its mapping system enables limited hands-free driving for Audi AG, one of its co-owners, and plans to support safety features this year for Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, another co-owner. (Intel also took a 15 percent stake in HERE last year.)
Tesla Inc. is the car company most eagerly embracing the incremental march toward autonomous driving with its driver-assistance software, Autopilot. Tesla relies on cameras and sensors on its vehicles but has eschewed lidar. The company hasn’t disclosed what mapping service it’s using for Autopilot, and a company representative declined to comment. Tesla had a nasty public split with Mobileye two years ago.
But Tesla has leaned on at least one other company, Mapbox Inc., to help assemble its maps. Tesla paid $5 million to Mapbox for a two-year licensing deal in December 2015, according to a regulatory filing. Mapbox has mostly sold its location data to apps such as Pinterest and Snapchat. Fresh off a $164 million financing round, the startup has started to inch into automotive maps. Through its software installed on phones, Mapbox said it has plotted some 220 million miles of road data globally.
“We have more sensors on the road today than the entire connected car space will have by 2020,” said Chief Executive Officer Eric Gundersen. Its pitch to carmakers is to use that location data as a base layer for future maps—pairing it with camera systems, such as Mobileye’s, or their own sensor data. And like other companies targeting automakers, Mapbox is happy to play neutral and work with anyone. “We don’t know who is going to win,” Gundersen said.
The New Hotshot Pathfinders
It’s not just that no one knows who will come out on top. The mapping industry doesn’t even know which strategy is best. Every self-driving map looks different because each one depends on the sensor system of the vehicle that creates it. And there isn’t a standard sensor package, said Spark Capital’s Nabeel Hyatt, an early investor in Cruise Automation, the autonomous-driving company bought by General Motors in 2016 for $581 million.
As a result, a slew of HD mapping companies are taking different stabs at the problem, each gobbling up venture capital and competing for lucrative contracts. Some of them disparage Mobileye’s approach, which relies on a seamless transition from semi-autonomous driving (what’s called Level 2 and 3) to driving without human assistance (Level 4 or 5). “It’s very hard to climb the ladder from 2 to 3 and then to 4,” said Wei Luo, CEO of DeepMap Inc. “There’s a very intense gap.” The best HD maps, Luo argues, are built with only driverless functions in mind.
Waymo is in this camp, too. The effort formerly known as the Google self-driving car project started on maps in 2009, with Waymo’s Andrew Chatham and one other engineer doing the “super tedious” work of crafting them from scratch—shipping cars packed with sensors to capture a city’s surroundings, then coding those 3-D images into a digital landscape. Chatham said cars may rely on perceptions systems alone to drive on the highway but would be helpless in other traffic conditions. Imagine pulling up to a busy, double-left-lane intersection you’ve never seen before. Now imagine a self-driving car trying to do that.
“That’s the advantage of having a detailed map,” said Chatham. “We can give the cars all the answers to the nasty questions.” He said Waymo is exploring solutions to mapping real-time factors such as construction updates, but declined to share details.
Thanks to its years of effort and artificial intelligence arsenal, Waymo is considered the leader in HD maps. But to date, the company has pitched its entire suite to prospective partners and landed few. Chatham declined to say whether Waymo is considering selling its map as a separate product.
Another potential force in this market is Uber. The ride-hailing giant is also working on HD maps for its driverless program, using test vehicles in a similar way to Waymo. Lisa Weitekamp, an Uber manager, said the private company is exploring ways to place map-generating sensors inside the millions of human-driven vehicles in its service. The maps those cars already use—the “static” navigation software in the app that takes in popular routes and driving decisions—helps inform Uber’s driverless maps, Weitekamp added. “It gives us a leg up,” she said.
That would make access to ride-hailing maps a valuable asset. Currently, Uber uses a combination of TomTom, Google and its own data for the maps its drivers and riders see. The contract between Uber and Google is set to expire this year, according to two people familiar with the deal. Representatives from both companies declined to comment.
Plenty of newcomers are pitching carmakers on the need to catch up with front-runners such as Waymo and Uber. DeepMap Inc., started by veterans of Google and Apple, is banking on its intelligent software to cut down the time and cost involved in converting the images pulled from self-driving car sensors into a single, high-resolution landscape. The startup said it’s working with Ford, Honda Motor Co. and China’s SAIC Motor Corp.
Civil Maps has tech that “fingerprints” sensor data, forming digital grids with each loop made by a mapping vehicle around the same area. It’s a bit like the way the mobile app Shazam recognizes a piece of music, said CEO Sravan Puttagunta. Ford is an investor and Puttagunta said his company is in the process of raising additional money.
For now, most car companies are testing the waters rather than cutting massive, multimillion-dollar deals for maps. A Ford spokesman described its work with startups as “research.” Argo, the automaker’s self-driving bet, has looked at a variety of suppliers but is currently relying on its own internal maps. GM spokesman Ray Wert said the company prefers to do its own mapping.
The new entrants know they can’t all survive. “It’s very similar to navigational maps or even the search engine,” said DeepMap’s Luo, a former Googler. “Whoever has bigger scale will have the advantage.”
— With assistance by Gabrielle Coppola, Ian King, David Welch, and Dana Hull
The day’s must-read political news and opinion pieces
are scattered across hundreds of news outlets and blogs,
too many for any one person to read.
Fortunately, memeorandum arranges all of these links in a single, easy-to-scan page. It auto-generates a news summary every 5 minutes, drawing on experts and pundits, insiders and outsiders, media professionals and amateur bloggers.
Pregnant women often say they get a lot of smiles. They’ll talk about people opening doors for them, or offering them a seat on a crowded subway. They’ll talk about friends and relatives patting their belly. It is decidedly less often they’ll talk about being propositioned for sex. But, of course, it does happen.
It’s no secret that some men harbor a fetish for pregnant women. According to porn industry analytics, searches for pregnancy-related content have shot up by nearly 20 percent since 2014; and the term “pregnant” is now the 107th most popular porn search in the United States, putting it right up there with “redhead” and “babysitter.” Unsurprisingly, the NSFW corners of Reddit are filled with thousands of posts containing erotic images and ideas relating to women who are expecting.
The pregnant form has been worshipped by societies for millennia, be it via fertility goddesses or simply treating women who are expecting with the adoration often reserved for kings and queens. But that was mainly due to the fact that women can carry and deliver children, and thus prolong the bloodline. What is it that drives such fervent fetishization of pregnant women in society today?
“With some fetishes, we believe there’s an imprinting process,” explains Michael Aaron, a NYC-based sex therapist who specializes in alternative sexualities. “Something very impressionable may have happened when they were young, and they eroticized it.”
In 2010 study that was later published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, a team of researchers found that early exposure to pregnancy and lactation can lead to an adult interest in pregnant women down the line. Older siblings, researchers found, are more likely to develop this kind of attraction than those who never witnessed the birth of a baby brother or sister.
In his book Modern Sexuality, Aaron explains that testosterone has been shown to influence a predisposition to fetishistic interests, which is why members of the pregnancy fetish community appear to be overwhelmingly male. “We don’t have much research on it, but most accounts indicate that men have much higher prevalence of object-oriented fetishes,” he explains. “That tends to come out as their sexuality develops. Men may be more likely to fetishize a round belly, or larger breasts heavy with milk.”
As it happens, lactation has been so frequently eroticized that adult breastfeeding have become somewhat of a staple in the community. Hell, this kind of kink has proved so popular that even certain devout Christians are getting into it.
“There are different aspects to the fetish just like there are different aspects to pregnancy,” explains Aaron. “You can have 10 different people in a room doing the same thing for 10 different reasons.”
Some people simply enjoy embracing the taboo Aaron explains, as such might make it more erotic. “Here you are having hot sex with someone who is preparing for motherhood,” he says. “It’s sort of like trying to have sex with a nun.”
Dating Pregnant Women (dot com), a personal site that connects interested individuals to pregnant women in their area, describes the adoration of expecting women as such: “There is something about pregnant women that is just so beautiful. Women look their best when they are carrying a child. Their skin is flawless, they have a happy sparkle in their eyes and the bigger they are, the better.”
And this hints at another dynamic at play, one that’s not nearly as kinky as the fetishists would have you think: Blood flow increases during pregnancy, giving some women that special “glow.” The influx of hormones can give you thicker nails and shiny hair, making them more attractive to the opposite sex. It’s also an obvious sign of fertility, something that strikes men looking to procreate. One study published in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality found that men desire their partners more so during pregnancy than ever before.
But this, of course, isn’t all about catering to the male gaze. The hormonal surge women experience during pregnancy can also make them horny as hell, making things like pregnancy porn and sex while expecting especially hot.
Indeed, those who fall into the niche community informally known as pregnancy fetishists want to have sex with women because they’re pregnant. But it’s worth noting that many more simply want to have sex with women because, well, they simply want to have sex with women, pregnant or not.
There is a bit of controversy surrounding the concept of loot boxes in video games. Loot boxes have been around for a while now, although in more recent times debate has arisen about the feature in which some wonder if it could potentially constitute as gambling. In Germany it seems that they do consider it as gambling and could be making moves to ban it.
In a report from Welt, a study by the University of Hamburg has found that there is an increasing amount of gambling-like elements in video games and as a result, the German Youth Protection Commission is now considering a ban on loot boxes. This is because if it does contain gambling elements, it could be seen as promoting gambling to children and adolescents, which is a violation of laws that prohibits such tactics.
No decision has been made yet, but the Youth Protection Commission is expected to render its decision in March, which means we should find out in about a month’s time. However we expect that even if they do decide to ban it, they will probably face a bit of resistance from developers and publishers who might launch appeals to try and reverse the ban.
It was once a San Francisco-based news site that covered news on a granular, neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. Hoodline’s work always had a technological bent to it, and its staffers looked hard at data and documents to surface the kinds of hyperlocal stories that people living in SF neighborhoods might want to know about. Did a favorite bakery re-open elsewhere? What’s happening with that new bus lane down the block? Those types of stories were Hoodline’s bread and butter.
Now, Hoodline’s major offering is an automated news wire service focused on the local stories that can be found by mining large data sets, whether from city governments or from private companies like Yelp and Zumper. It handles the raw data and data analysis side of things: collecting available public data sets, forming partnerships with private companies to use their data, and narrowing trends and other local news topics that might be worth pursuing as stories down to the neighborhood level. Then it generates articles from this cleaned-up data using automation software (with help from Automated Insights, also used by the Associated Press), which are then available to news organizations interested in data-backed stories helpfully localized for the communities they cover.
The origin story of the new Hoodline can be traced back to the late summer of 2016, when another startup, Ripple News, a newcomer to the local news scene, acquired Hoodline and much of its editorial staff (Ripple.co simply redirects to Hoodline now). Early on, Ripple had gotten into some trouble when it automatically scraped stories from the websites of news outlets like DNAInfo and Gothamist that hadn’t given the startup permission to reprint their stories. Joining forces, the Hoodline-Ripple News group still hoped to make the dream of a financially sustainable local news business that offers up substantive, original local stories work, and work at scale.
Last year, Hoodline joined a Disney accelerator. During that time, the team connected with Disney’s Wendy McMahon, now the president of ABC’s owned television stations group, which includes TV stations in Chicago, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, and San Francisco, and began testing its automated news wire service with these stations. (McMahon wouldn’t discuss the financials of the partnership.)
“Hoodline is so tapped in at the hyperlocal level. They have access to and are aware of news stories bubbling up at the neighborhood level that, say, we at KGO in the San Francisco and Bay Area might not be,” McMahon said. “What we’ve done with them works well from a resource-sharing perspective. If you think about our newsrooms: we need to be local brands. We have reporters who do their jobs fantastically well. But think about markets like New York or L.A., and how many neighborhoods there are in each, and that what’s relevant to someone in Orange County might not be relevant to someone in Pasadena or in Burbank. We can work with Hoodline to make sure news served to someone in Pasadena is Pasadena-based.”
The ABC channels have been in the process of improving their news apps to allow users the ability to better customize their news streams to their locations, which is where Hoodline also comes in: “If you say, hey, give me all the content for Orange County and L.A., there’s a good chance you’ll see Hoodline-created stories on Orange County. We’re using the partnership to help make these personalized experiences more robust.”
Disney’s ABC has been Hoodline’s biggest newswire partner so far, but it’s also testing the waters with other chains like Digital First Media and Hearst. (Hoodline’s own blog post about its product cites some improvements in clickthrough rates. Let’s wait and see.)
“There are so many stories news organizations could potentially do, that nobody can afford to, because it’s expensive and time-consuming to have that many people on the ground,” Eldon sad. “We’re starting with the simple stuff right now: New business openings, rental price trends — simple story types that we can produce using data sets that cover a lot of geographical places and then distribute to a lot of people. Over time, we’ll want to get more sophisticated with how we analyze the data we have.”
The ultimate sophistication of the local news stories will depend in part on how much data Hoodline is able to collect and clean; it’s in talks with half a dozen other companies about access to their data, according to Eldon. It’ll also depend on what Hoodline’s data scientists and editorial staff are able to glean from their subsequent analyses, which is the main bottleneck in the process of generating localized data news stories. Private companies like Yelp or Better Doctor, another SF-based company that provides healthcare directories and doctor reviews, might give Hoodline access to their data, but those data sets are structured for internal use.
“Take a story, for instance, comparing the typical house you could get in one neighborhood versus another. If we want to do that story, we could take Zillow data, or other real estate site data, and try to extract what we can, and not just do it for one house or a few particular houses, but run large-scale statistics on the whole set,” Shwetank Kumar, Hoodline CTO, said. Work on its data wire service started about a year ago, and the company now has around 13 people on the tech team, including four data scientists.
Kumar and Eldon were quick to rebut a fear I hadn’t actually raised. It seemed they were anticipating some backlash to the idea of automating some parts of local news. They stressed that, in the case of Hoodline, robots are definitely not going to take over human journalists’ work. Hoodline’s local news wire is meant to amplify the work local reporters are uniquely positioned to do.
“We’ve gone through a phase to figure out the stories we could write that would be of local interest in the first place,” Kumar said. “We have to make sure we’ve tested that the stories we write are interesting enough.”
The data wire is still in its pilot stage, so the business model has yet to really be tested. It’s run affiliate links on real estate–related stories, for instance, pointing back to real estate listings.
“We’ve been playing around with the business model, either giving it away for free, or at an economical rate that would work for everyone,” Eldon said. “We think we can do this at a large enough scale that local publishers would be able to greatly increase the number of data-driven stories they’re doing within the geographical area they cover. It would allow them to cover more ground, and could help with their traffic, and all of that could help with their own existing revenue models, as well.”