In a world where, as a tech founder, seeking VC funding seems as natural as applying to college after graduating high school, Emmanuel Straschnov of Bubble maintains a rare and refreshing vision for his company. That vision is a revolutionary change in software engineering—a democratization so to speak—that allows anyone to translate their ideas into a website. Coupling this vision with patience, Emmanuel has opted to avoid the funding route in order to maintain his autonomy and create a business that truly disrupts the industry.

Bubble is a visual programming tool that seeks to make coding a website as easy as creating a PowerPoint presentation. In the words of Emmanuel, Bubble represents “coding without the code”.[i] Users can simply drag and drop to create visual components of websites that (with the correct usage) culminate into fully functional, and often beautiful, websites. Becoming proficient still requires practice, but much less than is the case with traditional coding.

Given Bubble’s democratizing effects on the market for code, the company’s current monetization strategy fits a natural gap in the market by assisting small startups and companies that may otherwise have outsourced their code and allow them to bring it back in-house. Using this tried and tested method, Bubble boasts several superb sites built using its software, and continues to grow its revenue with success in this area. Indeed, several third party development agencies have emerged using Bubble to meet market demand, highlighting the effectiveness of this monetization strategy. Yet, with ambitions of revolutionizing the entire concept of coding, the potential avenues for expansion are much greater than purely the case of helping small businesses design websites. Education is one such avenue.

The term computer science (CS) has become a buzzword in educational debates of recent years. As the US economy becomes increasingly specialized the value of CS skills has become ever more apparent. Computer science jobs not only fit the criteria for most job postings, but also stayed open longer than any other post with a “national non-STEM job opening is filled in about 33 days, compared to 56 days for jobs that require programming skills and 65 days for mobile developing”.[ii] Yet despite the need for CS graduates, such skills are rarely promoted in high schools. Indeed, it is striking that 79 percent of students wished they’d been offered a class in coding but never were.[iii]

There are myriad reasons why CS has been neglected in US high schools. School administration issues and outdated educational rationale lie among the more frustrating bureaucratic grievances. However, perhaps one of the greatest hurdles lies in student’s nervousness and stigma surrounding the subject. Despite so many students wishing they had the opportunity to learn how to code in school, like math or physics CS maintains an intimidating aura. This is one space where Bubble’s impact could be monumental. By reducing the more mundane basics required to develop fully functional components and sites, Bubble would allow students to make instant impacts, and in doing so encourage students to continue honing their skills.

The beauty of Bubble is that it can be used as a springboard for more nuanced CS skill development for students. Functionally Bubble doesn’t delete code, it merely masks it to streamline the process of development. As a result, Bubble represents the perfect framework to inspire students and then allow them to continue their code development using HTML or other coding languages within Bubble, and then even outside of the system should they wish to continue developing their skills.

Yet Bubble’s impact could be much greater than simply that of an introduction to CS; its democratizing qualities could represent a cornerstone of youth entrepreneurship within high schools across the country. Dovetailing the process of weaning to more nuanced CS skill development with a goal of equipping young entrepreneurs with the tools needed to create a minimum viable product (MVP), Bubble holds unprecedented power for students to convert their ideas into reality.

The value of entrepreneurship, like the creativity of our students, is not to be underestimated. Eighty-seven percent of young people expressed their desire to pursue entrepreneurship at some point in their career, however, the current K-12 curriculum isn’t designed to teach financial literacy or business skills.[iv] Importantly, from a policy standpoint this is not only beneficial, but necessary for US economic growth. In 2014 25 percent of young entrepreneurs started their companies as a result of being unemployed — up from 21 percent in 2011.[v] Bubble represents a unique and powerful way to spark innovation and bolster an entrepreneurial future, and in return integration into education represents an unparalleled marketing avenue in which to raise Bubble’s profile and revenue.

As the founder of IvyMinded –a small online educational company focused on skill development for high school students— I have recently begun working with Emmanuel to do my part in helping Bubble integrate into education across the world. At IvyMinded we are currently developing online courses and video lectures on how to use Bubble as an introduction to coding, but more importantly as entrepreneurial tool. We are set to launch our entrepreneurial track in February 2016 and through partnerships with schools in China hope to integrate both Bubble and our curricula in a flipped classroom model towards the end of 2016 using our online learning platform. We seek to follow Emmanuel’s lead and hold true to our vision, and in the process help both companies succeed.


[i] Straschnov, Emmanuel. “The Online Economy, Benjamin Edelman, Harvard Business School”. Monday, November 2, 2015.

[ii] Kohli, Sonali. “America Is failing Its Children by Not Teaching Code in Every High School.” Quartz. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web

[iii] Gerber, S. (2014, June 2). Here’s the Real Problem With America’s Educational System. Retrieved October 5, 2015

[iv] Gerber, S. (2014, June 2). Here’s the Real Problem With America’s Educational System. Retrieved October 5, 2015

[v] Gerber, S. (2014, June 2). Here’s the Real Problem With America’s Educational System. Retrieved October 5, 2015

By: Andrew Steele


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Foreclosures or real estate owned properties (REOs) represent a large, but broken marketplace. At the end of September, 470,000 homes in the United States were in some process of foreclosure.[1] However, using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac REOs as representative of the market, only 23% of their current inventory is available-for-sale; 40% of REO inventory cannot even be marketed due to owner-occupied, redemption or repair status.[2] For context, residential housing starts are around 1m annually.[3] Increased transparency in the REO process could have a huge impact on the existing market.

            The factors that limit market transparency in the REO space are the complexity of the foreclosure process, which differs by county, and the poor interfaces through which a prospective buyer can participate. Further, prospective buyers and former homeowners being foreclosed upon are fragmented parties. These barriers have created a system whereby incumbent lawyers and liquid cash investors are the only ones who benefit. This is not good for the homeowners, communities or prospective owner-occupant buyers.

Increased market transparency could improve the positions of various players within the market. For homeowners who face losing their homes, increased market fluidity can help them seek options – even making possible solutions such as equity sharing or alternative financing. Communities and home prices would be improved from houses not sitting vacant. Potential buyers – investors or owner-occupants – could feel better understanding the process. And there is pent-up demand: affordability of current real estate inventory for the median first-time buyer has fallen by around 20% in the past three years.[4]

Efforts have been made to increase market transparency. Websites such as Zillow or Redfin comb county data to find available and future foreclosed homes. However, the functionality of these sites is limited by the data available in county offices (additional REO information exists in the loss mitigation departments of lenders or at individual auction houses that have received a foreclosed property). Additionally, as our Zillow guests pointed out, last-mile delivery of services (or providing a prospective buyer more information than merely which houses are in foreclosure) is difficult. Zillow’s current solution is to direct consumers to a foreclosure specialist or to a county website where data is opaque and full of legal jargon.

To their credit, county websites have been investing in online functionality. County governments pay software companies like realauction.com or Grant Street Group to host online auctions but their interfaces are still very confusing and unnavigable by a novice foreclosure buyer. Some auction sites, such as auction.com, act as a foreclosure seller and buyer agent, but many prospective foreclosure buyers are unhappy with auction.com due to the irregularities and complexities of the foreclosure process and because of conflicts in interest in representing the seller and buyer.

While efforts have been made to find an internet-based solution to improve the foreclosure market, prospective buyers continue to have few viable options to participate in foreclosure opportunities. Fragmented party involvement and a niche target audience limits incentives for commercial improvements. However, the foreclosure market’s reach large enough that it should not end up as a tragedy of the commons.


[1] Corelogic, “National Foreclosure Report September 2015,” <http://www.corelogic.com/research/foreclosure-report/national-foreclosure-report-september-2015.pdf>, accessed November 23, 2015.

[2] Fannie Mae, Q3 2015 Quarterly Report, Sept. 30, 2015, p. 60-61, from Fannie Mae website, <http://www.fanniemae.com/resources/file/ir/pdf/quarterly-annual-results/2015/q32015.pdf>, accessed November 23, 2015.

[3] US Census Data, New Residential Construction, <https://www.census.gov/construction/nrc/historical_data/index.html>, accessed November 24, 2015.

[4] National Association of Realtors, Housing Affordability Index, <http://www.realtor.org/topics/housing-affordability-index>, accessed November 24, 2015.


By: Kerry Anne v Metzsch


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Imagine this: Two couples apply for a mortgage from the same broker to purchase a house. One couple is white, the other is black. The mortgage broker offers the white couple a prime rate loan, but steers the black couple to a subprime mortgage with higher interest rates and fees.

A clear case of discrimination based on race, right? In 2011, Bank of America paid $335 million to settle claims brought by the Department of Justice that one of their lending arms, Countrywide Financial, regularly charged black and Hispanic customers higher rates than equally qualified white customers for years during the height of the subprime mortgage boom. DoJ argued that Countrywide’s management should have caught the fact that brokers were pocketing fatter commissions by targeting minority borrowers. Closed and shut case (although Bank of America admitted no wrongdoing).

But what happens when an automated piece of software, like a creditworthiness algorithm, replaces the mortgage broker and begins negatively targeting a racial group even without being told to do so? Is the management equally at fault?

In his book The Black Box Society, lawyer Frank Pasquale discusses the many ethical and legal complications stemming from two converging trends: “the financialization of data, and the data-ization of finance.” With the enormous amounts of data now collected by technology companies, the opportunity for automation has become larger than ever before. Similarly, trendy fin-tech startups are using sophisticated creditworthiness algorithms to weed out applicants with higher default risk. This seems like a surefire way to improve the profitability of consumer lending for lenders and reduce the cost of borrowing for borrowers. But Pasquale warns that without aggressive policing by the public, large firms could easily abuse their access to troves of personal consumer data by denying credit on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.

And such discrimination happens not just in financial products. “Data brokers” such as Google allow for supposedly ‘precision targeting’ of customers in a variety of industries. In 2013, Harvard Law School professor Latanya Sweeney wrote a study detailing how Google AdSense returns ads suggesting an arrest record 81-95% of the time when a user searches for black-identified names (including her own) such as DeShawn, Darnell, and Jermaine compared to white-identified names. Assuming AdSense was not programmed with an explicit racial prejudice, its results display blatant biases. Some insiders in the tech industry believe that even the software engineers working for these companies have incomplete control over the results produced by their own algorithms.

How can our existing regulations keep up with these rapidly evolving technologies that blur the lines between personalized marketing and discrimination? After all, can a machine even be accused of racism? Is a company liable for not just the process, but also the outcome of its algorithms?

In the US, regulation for these new technologies has been nonexistent, with agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. Indeed, the power of data brokers looms large – unlike a credit report, which consumers can actively monitor and exercise their right to correct errors, no such rights exist when it comes to maintaining the accuracy of online profile information collected by data brokers. In fact, the Government Accountability Office notes that “consumers generally do not have a right to control what personal information is collected, maintained, used, and shared about them—even where such information concerns personal or sensitive matters about an individual’s physical and mental health.”

Conversely, the European Court of Justice has taken a stance on at least one related issue. Car insurance firms in the EU can no longer consider a customer’s gender when calculating premiums, ending a common practice of offering discounts to female drivers. One UK insurance provider called Drive Like a Girl has already used the ruling to its advantage by charging a premium based on an individual driver’s behavior – a black box in the car engine tracks whether the driver (male or female) speeds, and offers cheaper insurance to drivers who don’t exceed the limit. As a result, many British women may still be eligible for the discount, but not simply on the basis of their gender.

And let’s not lose all hope in technology or technologists. Computer scientists at the University of Utah recently made a breakthrough on understanding how a self-learning algorithm becomes biased. This may well be the first step in improving the fairness of algorithms to reflect the society that we wish to have: one with a more even economic playing field.

By: Upasana Unni


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During the last couple of decades, we have been introduced to technological innovations and tools that help us deal with daily activities much more easily and effectively. The way we shop and communicate with each other, consume information, travel, and pay bills has changed dramatically since the introduction of the Internet. Notwithstanding these innovations, when it comes to political elections we are stuck with the old-fashioned paper ballot system.

Internet voting would have eliminated problems related to distance and accessibility, allowing every eligible citizen to vote, regardless of their location at the moment. It would have also eliminated long queues and save time at polling stations, which eventually would have caused a meaningful increase in voter turnout. Moreover, Internet voting would have drastically reduced election expenses, which governments could direct toward education or investments in healthcare.

If we look at election procedures through the perspective of the younger generation, the entire process that involves physical voting ballots in school buildings looks unattractive and outdated. How can we expect the youth to show up at voting centers, stay in line for some time, and mark the name of certain politicians or political parties if they do almost everything with the involvement of digital tools?

So, after thinking about the aforementioned positive effects, it is quite logical to ask, “If we trust the Internet when we do money transactions, then what stops us from implementing voting over the Internet?” The answer is pretty obvious when we think deeper about online business and the philosophy of elections.

First, online transactions are not as safe as we think. Well, it is notably safer for consumers, but for merchants and financial institutions that are involved in e-commerce, it is quite risky and they lose billions of dollars every year. The reason why we have the perception that it is safe to spend money online is that these institutions never held consumers responsible for loses, and reimburse clients if losses occur.

Secondly, even though it sounds rational to compare e-commerce with the online voting, the procedures and requirements are significantly different, mainly in issues related to security, anonymity and verifiability.

Security. Losses from online transaction fraud could be acceptable for merchants, if they compare it with their overall profits. It is okay for them to have a few cases of theft amid thousands of transactions. However, it is not an acceptable ratio for elections, given how often candidates win with tiny margins.

Anonymity. It is a vital part of all political elections. Voting should be done anonymously, which prevents voters from being pressured and influenced before, during and after the elections. It turns out that nowadays, it is very difficult to build a system that will satisfy both the security and anonymity requirements of elections. Basically the more secure the system is, the easier it is to figure out who voted for whom.

Verifiability. Although the paper ballots look outdated, they are being used as physical proof that indicates that a “certain number of people in certain district voted for a certain political party or a candidate.” Is there any other way to verify votes after online voting, given that we also need to maintain anonymity of each voter? Experts say, “None so far.”

Essentially, online voting requires technology and security measures that we do not currently possess. But hopefully in the near future innovations that are being developed by businesses will respond to the security, anonymity and verifiability requirements of political elections, which will eventually help democratize the democracy.

Note: There are several countries, including the U.S. and U.K. that have been conducting experiments with online election at the local level. However, so far Estonia (the country where the Skype was built) is the only country that is conducting online voting countrywide. Unfortunately, the experts group that monitors online elections in Estonia found serious problems that basically question the legitimacy of online voting. 

References:

1. De Castella, Tom. “Election 2015: How feasible would it be to introduce online voting?” BBC. April 27, 2015
2. Gross, Doug. “Why can’t Americans vote online?” CNN. November 8, 2011
3. Cameron, Dell. “Online voting is many years away, thanks to widespread security concerns.” The Daily Dot. Jul 13, 2015
4. Duncan, Geoff. “It’s the 21st century! Why aren’t we voting online yet?” Digital Trends. November 5, 2012
5. Charlton, Alistair. “Election 2015: Why can’t we vote online?” International Business Times. April 17, 2015
6. Talbot, David. “Why You Can’t Vote Online. Fundamental security problems aren’t solved, computing experts warn.” MIT Technology Review. November 5, 2012
7. Arthur, Charles. “Estonian e-voting shouldn’t be used in European elections, say security experts.” The Guardian. May 12, 2014
8. Kobie, Nicole. “Why electronic voting isn’t secure – but may be safe enough.” The Guardian. March 30, 2015
9. Jefferson, David. “If I Can Shop and Bank Online, Why Can’t I Vote Online?” Verified Voting.

By: Vugar Salamli


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Amazon in Brick and Mortar

A New Era in Hybrid Retail: Amazon in Brick and Mortar

With the opening of the first Amazon brick and mortar store on November 3, 2015 in Seattle, a new era of the truly hybrid online/brick-mortar store has arisen. Amazon is following on the heels of smaller startups’ forays into hybrid online/brick-mortar expansion by Rent the Runway in August 2012, Birchbox in July 2014, and Bonobos with its 10 “guideshops.” Nonetheless, the giant retailer’s hop on the train makes the movement a trend to watch.

Original Online Model

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(Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

In 1994, Internet sales were growing at 2,300% annually, and 30-year old Jeffrey P. Bezos left Wall Street to start an online business soon to be named Amazon. He chose to sell books, since book inventory was too large to mail at a manageable price point and was therefore a strong value proposition and an ideal match for the Internet. With two-thirds of the online book market, Amazon is currently the dominating force in online book sales, per the Codex Group. In addition, eBook sales are expected to surpass that of printed books in two years, by 2017.

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Current Global Powerhouse

Growing from its origins as bookseller, Amazon now sells almost any product imaginable. The online retail powerhouse has become truly global, servicing the United States, Europe and China. Amazon’s annual revenue in 2014 was $89 billion.

4Amazon’s Fulfillment Center in Peterborough, England

(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Entering Brick and Mortar

The new Amazon Book Store in brick and mortar marries the online retailer’s beginnings as bookseller with its founding Seattle location. Amazon is moving forward on this newest chapter since the retailer’s founding over two decades ago. Focusing on consumers’ ability to test the Kindle in person, the Amazon Book Store implements a unique concept in that book prices are not marked in store, but instead can be price checked via app on the Amazon website. The idea helps to indelibly integrate the online/brick-mortar experience with the Amazon brand, as well as to track consumers’ browsing and buying habits.

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Pros:

In a brick and mortar Amazon store, consumers are given access to the physical experience of touching and flipping through the pages of actual books. They are able to try the Kindle in person and be motivated to buy a first Kindle or a newer more advanced model. With potential expansion through other Amazon products, patrons can touch and test merchandise, which may lead to impulse purchases. The convenience of in-store pickup and returns of online orders would further enhance the consumer experience.

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Kindle Fire HD during unveiling

(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Cons:

Amazon’s expansion into brick and mortar runs the risk of diluting the powerhouse’s branding as a global online company. The public may view Amazon as a conglomerate destroying physical stores in the name of online value, only to replace them with Amazon’s own storefronts.

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Yet, Amazon’s innovative integration of the online and in-store pricing experience, as well as the public’s eagerness to embrace new ideas, may overcome possible roadblocks.

Future of Hybrid Online/Brick and Mortar:

Online and physical storefronts both have appropriate uses and serve complementary functions. With the explosion of online retail and closing of well-known physical storefronts, the time may be ripe for a correction in equilibrium.

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Physical stores have been developing their online businesses consistently, and it seems inevitable that online stores now move into the physical world. With its first brick and mortar bookstore in Seattle, Amazon is heralding the truly online/physical hybrid into the retail world of today.

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 References:

Abbruzzese, Jason and Katie Nelson. “How Amazon Brought Publishing to Its Knees — and Why Authors Might Be Next.” July 30, 2014.

“Amazon.com Announces Fourth Quarter Sales Up 15% to $29.33 Billion.” January 29, 2015.

Clifford, Catherine. “Why These Ecommerce Front-Runners Are Building Brick and Mortar Stores.” Entrepreneur. Sept 29, 2014.

Hiltzik, Michael. “Government’s e-book case helps Amazon build toward a monopoly.” LA Times. September 12, 2012.

Johnson, Dennis. “The wrong goodbye of Barnes and Noble.” Melville House. January 7, 2013.

“Person of the Year.” Jeffrey P. Bezos. Time. December 27, 1999.

Roller, Emma. “Amazon Warehouses Are the New Factories.” Slate. December 17, 2013.

“Throbbing Hive with John Moe: Amazon goes bricks and mortar, but why?” The Current. Nov 10, 2015

By: Marcia Soviak


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