How Google, Microsoft, and Big Tech Are Automating the Climate Crisis

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In a deal that made few ripples outside the energy industry, two very large but relatively obscure companies, Rockwell Automation and Schlumberger Limited, announced a joint venture called Sensia. The new company will “sell equipment and services to advance digital technology and automation in the oilfield,” according…

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City audit: Westin hotel at DIA evaded Denver officials’ attempts to dig into its operations and finances

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City auditors came up short in their attempts to dig into the finances and operations of Denver International Airport’s on-site hotel because of resistance from the operator, according to a new report out Thursday.

The publicly owned facility was part of a $720 million project that also constructed a transit center beneath the Westin-branded hotel as the terminus of a commuter rail line to downtown Denver. Hotel profits above a certain threshold are supposed to go to DIA to help repay project bonds — a milestone that the 519-room hotel hasn’t yet passed, despite better-than-projected revenue each year since its November 2015 opening.

“This is a transparency and accountability issue,” Denver Auditor O’Brien said in a statement. “If we could not get the documents needed for the audit in a timely manner, how could the airport be doing regular monitoring on its own to assure the proper care and management of the hotel?”

The new audit report says auditors ran into a significant hurdle in trying to assess not only the Westin’s balance sheet but how the hotel is run: DIA’s contract with Marriott International, which owns the Westin brand, contradicts the city charter by restricting the city’s ability to perform a full public audit. It allows Westin to guard proprietary information.

As a result, “auditors were met with significant pushback and delays regarding documentation and information requests that would have allowed us to provide assurance over Marriott’s and Westin’s internal control structure and ensure financial transactions and operations are in compliance with the hotel management agreement,” the audit says.

In some cases, auditors could look at records only if they agreed to confidentiality provisions or took limited notes, falling short of the city’s auditing standards.

Denver’s city charter gives the elected auditor the authority to publicly audit city operations and assets. During an audit committee meeting Thursday morning, DIA officials and city attorneys could not answer how DIA’s contract came to contradict that voter-provided authority.

City auditors’ chief recommendation was for the renegotiation of the 2011 contract with Marriott to allow for a full and open city audit. Patrick Heck, DIA’s chief commercial officer, says the airport will start those talks soon, with a goal of reaching agreement on an amendment by May.

“I hope you will take these (recommendations) with the spirit with which they are intended,” O’Brien said during Thursday’s meeting, noting that the hotel is a public asset. “If you don’t, it’s going to become a liability, and I don’t think any of us want to see that happen.”

But there is no guarantee Marriott will agree to the contract changes.

“It’s not just something we can absolutely change,” Heck said, speculating that Marriott could ask for concessions before agreeing.

In the meantime, DIA, through an oversight manager, hired two external auditors last year to look at the hotel’s financial performance and other aspects, but it’s unclear if those will be public when they are complete. The city audit questions those as “potentially unnecessary” costs.

It also recommended several steps DIA should take to strengthen its policies, procedures and monitoring of the Westin contract to ensure the operator is complying with its agreement. DIA agreed to each of those recommendations.

Controversial hotel has been successful, DIA says

DIA’s hotel and transportation project for years was clouded by controversy due to cost overruns and changing scope.

In 2016, a final outside review commissioned by the auditor’s office pegged the final price tag at about $719 million, or about 7 percent higher than a budget approved in 2013 by the City Council.

But DIA officials say the hotel, which accounted for $203 million of the cost, is beating revenue goals outlined in the Westin’s operating agreement.

Thursday’s audit backs up that assertion, saying that according to Westin-provided figures, the hotel’s revenue has increased from $43.2 million in 2016 to a projected $51.9 million last year.

Westin’s agreement requires it to share some revenue with DIA once it has built up an operating reserve equal to two months of expenses. A footnote in Thursday’s audit says that threshold should be met based on 2018 revenue, resulting in “excess funds sent to the airport for the first time” — but it does not specify how much.

Competition looms in Gaylord

The hotel includes an expansive conference center. DIA officials have talked about the potential for another large hotel on the airport’s expansive property in the near term, but the December opening of the 1,501-room Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center — also operated by Marriott — has introduced new competition just over the city line in Aurora.

Thursday’s audit report says DIA has postponed consideration of any additional on-site hotels.

Marriott’s dual involvement in those competing hotels raised some audit committee members’ eyebrows.

“There might be a potential conflict of interest in terms of controlling customer flow from one hotel to the other,” vice chair Rudolfo “Rudy” Payan said. “I don’t know how we address it, but I want to safeguard Denver’s asset instead of Aurora’s.”

Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ features hit more devices, including Samsung Galaxy S10

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Google’s latest effort to help users monitor and control their screen time, Digital Wellbeing, is making its way to more devices. Initially available exclusively to Pixel and Android One device owners, Digital Wellbeing’s feature set is now rolling out to Nokia 6 and Nokia 8 devices with Android Pie, as well as on the new Samsung Galaxy S10.

The site NokiaPowerUser was first to spot the addition to Nokia devices, which was picked up by XDA Developers and noted on their blog. XDA also noticed Digital Wellbeing was available in the Samsung Galaxy S10‘s device settings, which makes it the first non-Pixel or non-Android One phone to ship with Digital Wellbeing installed.

Digital Wellbeing, by way of background, is basically Google’s version of Apple’s Screen Time, and one of the key ways the company is addressing consumer concerns over device addiction.

This has been a hot topic in the tech industry in recent months, as people have become more aware of our unhealthy behaviors with regard to our use of smartphones and their apps. In fact, a number of those involved with mobile apps’ creation have since come out to say that they were complicit in building apps that exploited weaknesses in the human psyche for the sole purpose of addicting users.

One former Google exec, Tristan Harris, kicked off a whole movement focused on this problem. He also created the Center for Humane Technology, which encourages the implementation of new design principles that help put users back in control of their technology.

In the meantime, companies are rolling out features to give us control over our behaviors around existing technology.

For example, Facebook last year changed how its News Feed operates to reduce time spent on its site in favor of wellbeing. And Facebook-owned Instagram introduced a time well spent feature, by informing users “you’re all caught up” instead of offering an endless scroll. YouTube lets you schedule reminders to take a break.

We also have OS-level features like Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Digital Wellbeing for more comprehensive control and monitoring.

Specifically, Digital Wellbeing allows you to track your device addiction in several ways, including how often you check your phone, how many notifications you receive, how often you use apps, and more, and allows you to set limits on usage, and configure settings like a nightly “Wind Down” mode and Do Not Disturb settings.

Announced at Google I/O 2018, this feature set first debuted on Pixel devices last year as part of Android Pie. It later came to Android One devices last fall.

According to the standalone Digital Wellbeing app’s release notes, it exited beta on February 19. However, the note didn’t indicate it was coming to non-Pixel, non-Android One devices.

Google has not yet responded to a request for comment about the expansion of Digital Wellbeing.

Daily Crunch: Samsung unveils Galaxy S10 lineup

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The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Here’s everything announced at Samsung’s Galaxy S10/Galaxy Fold event

Samsung announced five new phones, some new earbuds, a virtual assistant and a watch.

And one of those phones is foldable. Folded, the handset sports a 4.6-inch display that only takes up about three-fourths of the front. Unfolded, it turns into a 7.3-inch tablet. Pricing starts at $1,980.

2. Lyft reportedly plans to debut on Nasdaq next month

Two reports, one from Reuters, the other from WSJ, indicate Lyft plans to list its shares on Nasdaq next month. The WSJ, citing unnamed sources, reported Lyft may make the filing public as early as next week.

3. Clutter confirms SoftBank-led $200M investment for its on-demand storage service

There’s plenty of speculation right now around apparently disgruntled investors in SoftBank’s Vision Fund, but the drum continues to beat and the checks continue to be written.

4. Highlights & transcript from Zuckerberg’s 20K-word ethics talk

Zuckerberg said it would feel wrong to charge users for extra privacy controls.

5. Companies including Nestlé, Epic and reportedly Disney suspend YouTube ads over child exploitation concerns

Days after a YouTube creator accused the platform of enabling a “soft-core pedophilia ring,” several companies have suspended advertising on the platform. Other advertisers, including Peloton and Grammarly, said they are calling on YouTube to resolve the issue.

6. Trump calls for 6G cellular technology, because why the heck not?

6G isn’t a thing. But … maybe it could be?

7. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Patreon

TechCrunch’s media consultant Eric Peckham spent dozens of hours interviewing Patreon’s management team and investors, as well as poring over data, in order to write this deep analysis of the company and the lessons learned. (Extra Crunch subscription required.)

About.me acquired by mobile-first small business startup Broadly

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Personal homepage startup About.me has been acquired. Again! The company, once bought by AOL for a reported $35 million, decided a couple years after the deal to go it alone, and spun About.me back out to become an independent company. Today, About.me announced it’s being acquired by the Oakland-based startup Broadly.

About.me founder and True Ventures partner Tony Conrad called the deal “definitely a meeting of the minds,” as About.me has been more recently focused on helping people and companies showcase their professional talents and skills, while Broadly creates tools that help small businesses stay connected to their customers.

Today Broadly offers web chat, text, email, online review collection and team messaging — all in its own mobile app.

However, its biggest draw is its online review platform that makes it easier for happy customers to quickly leave the business a positive review on any review site, including Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor and others.

Last September, Broadly raised $10 million in Series B funding, co-led by original investor Foundry Group and new partner Calibrate Ventures. The funding was allocated toward further product development and hiring — both things which an About.me acquisition can now help to expedite. The company also last year launched its small business-focused web chat feature in its app, and snagged the No. 107 spot on the 2018 Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S., which cited its 2017 revenue as $4.7 million.

Terms of the About.me deal were not disclosed, but it is an all-stock acquisition we understand, and one Conrad feels positive about.

In addition, the majority of About.me’s team is joining Broadly as a result of the acquisition, which will bring Broadly’s total team to more than 75. This includes About.me’s CEO Mindy Lauck, whose background includes time at Adobe Systems, NBCUniversal and E*Trade Financial. She becomes Broadly’s vice president of Product following the deal’s closure.

Conrad said he wanted to find About.me a new home with a company that was a good fit.

“It was important to the About.me leadership team to join forces with a company that had a strong go-to-market strategy and a similar level of passion for serving small business owners, who are an integral part of
keeping our economy strong and vibrant,” said Conrad. “We found that in Broadly and see the very real potential for powerful future growth as a result of this alignment,” he added.

At Broadly, Lauck will be focused on expanding the company’s existing product suite to support the full range of the small business owners’ needs — that will include About.me’s technology. The plan is to offer the About.me pages to Broadly’s small business user base going forward.

“The About.me product is another frictionless mechanism for helping small businesses promote themselves and start capturing leads, which aligns well with our mission and brand,” said Josh Melick, CEO and co-founder of Broadly, in a statement. “More personally, we’re thrilled to welcome the About.me team to the Broadly family – we’re even stronger together,” he added.

Verizon will launch 5G in 30 cities this year

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Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg

Verizon finally offered some details about its 5G launch this morning: it plans to deploy the next-gen wireless technology in 30 cities by the end of 2019. The carrier didn’t say which cities those would be, how thoroughly 5G would be deployed throughout those cities, or when exactly the launch would begin, but Verizon did say that each launch would include some deployment of super fast millimeter wave radios.

“It’s just gonna be a total different experience in speed and throughput than you have ever seen before,” Hans Vestberg, Verizon’s CEO, said during a meeting with investors this morning. Spokespeople for Verizon confirmed that the company is not yet identifying which cities the service will launch in.

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Colorado AG files brief supporting stronger vehicle fuel standard opposed by auto dealers

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Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has filed a legal brief in support of stronger vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, saying the state recently adopted its own rules because the Trump administration is pushing for weaker ones.

The friend-of-the-court brief Weiser filed Feb. 15 says the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to replace Obama-era rules has left states scrambling. In response, Colorado adopted a standard similar to California’s to boost gas mileage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the brief says.

The brief supports a lawsuit by California and 17 other states that challenges rolling back rules intended to significantly boost gas mileage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

“The abrupt and arbitrary switch of EPA causes states like Colorado to scramble to evaluate, and in Colorado’s case adopt, California’s approach” of stronger rules, according to the brief.

The EPA didn’t follow the law when it announced in August that it would roll back the standards, a decision that “will cause more greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the severity of climate change and polluting our state,”  the brief states.

But Colorado’s decision to adopt California’s fuel-efficiency rule will drive up costs for Colorado car buyers and reduce their choices, the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association argues. A lawsuit by the association seeks to repeal low-emission rule approved late last year.

A consultant hired by the association to review the rule eventually approved by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission said the rule will add an average $2,110 to a new vehicle’s sticker price in the state. The report by Energy Ventures Analysis in Virginia said adopting California’s standard for model years 2021 to 2025 would cost Colorado a cumulative $2.86 billion while saving less than $1 billion in fuel costs.

“Part of the added cost is having multiple standards,” said Tim Jackson, the association’s CEO and president. “It costs more to make different cars for different parts of the country.”

The report also says that Colorado regulators failed to address the effects of the state’s high altitude, which means the benefits of lower emissions and fuel costs could be overstated.

And there’s the fact that unlike California, about 75 percent of the vehicles sold in Colorado are trucks or sports utility vehicles, Jackson said.

When the Obama administration proposed boosting gas mileage, the EPA projected that the average per-vehicle cost would be roughly $1,100. In 2017, the agency estimated that people who took out a five-year car loan would see a payback within the first year and a net savings of $1,650 over the lifetime of the vehicle

“Unless you’re not planning to drive your car, we know that a fuel-efficient car will save you money over the long run,” said Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said a more fuel-efficient vehicle might cost slightly more upfront, but the state’s new rule should result in average savings in gas costs of $2,700 per Colorado household by 2030.

Advances in technology mean that the costs of making vehicles more fuel-efficient will likely be lower than the estimates by federal agencies, according to a report by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The costs will likely be from 34 percent to 40 percent lower than projected, said the nonprofit research organization that works on climate change and public health issues.

The Obama administration developed rules to nearly double vehicles’ mileage and reduce emissions that contribute to climate change.

In August, the EPA announced plans to replace the Obama-era rule with what it called more realistic standards that would give “a much-needed time-out from further, costly increases.” The administration said its proposal would cut regulatory costs by more than $250 billion and save car buyers $2,340 overall.

The administration is also targeting the waiver that allows California, which has long struggled to reduce smog, to set its own standard. States without waivers, like Colorado, can approve a separate standard as long as it’s identical to California’s.

Federal officials have conceded that easing the Obama administration’s rule would boost national fuel consumption by about a million barrels of oil per day and increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new Colorado rule requires automakers to boost fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon, which is the target goal on paper. The actual number for vehicles in real-world conditions works out to be roughly 39 miles per gallon. The rule will start affecting new lightweight and medium-duty vehicles in 2022.

Later this year, state regulators are expected to consider a rule based on California’s requirement that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the state be electric.

Meet the lawyer-turned-artist behind classical cryptocurrency paintings

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Over the past 10 years cryptocurrency, blockchain, and art have become the most surprising and unlikely of bed fellows. Street art, graffitti, and memes are quite common, but the words cryptocurrency and fine art rarely appear in the same sentence. But that’s changing as one artist is making these worlds collide to produce something as individually unique as a Bitcoin wallet private key. Toronto-based fine artist – Nelly Baksht – is one of a growing community creating works specifically for the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry. But she hasn’t always been interested in the decentralized technology. For Nelly her love of…

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Loop acquires Screenplay to build its streaming library

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A new streaming startup called Loop Media is announcing its first acquisition — it’s bought a 30-year-old company called Screenplay.

While you may not have heard of Screenplay, the company has licensed a library of 200,000 music videos and movie/game/TV trailers, which it broadcasts in thousands of venues for partners like Hard Rock Cafe, Norwegian Cruise Line, Yard House, Buffalo Wild Wing and Caesars Entertainment.

This announcement comes just a week after Loop officially came out of stealth — and in fact, co-founder and CEO Jon Niermann (previously an executive at EA and Disney) said he’s always seen Screenplay’s content library as the foundation for Loop business.

It also sounds like this deepens an existing relationship, with Loop previously making a minority investment in Screenplay. The idea is to preserve and even grow Screenplay’s existing business — bringing video to out-of-home locations — while also introducing new technology into the mix, including a mobile app for short-form video.

“[Screenplay] is a company that generates millions in top-line revenue, it’s profitable,” Niermann said. “As technology has evolved and been updated, we want to come in with our team and really help them grow that.”

There are plenty of other mobile apps featuring short videos, but Niermann said Loop can now take advantage of Screenplay’s content library, and also connect the venue experience with the app. In addition, he said Loop will is building “a very streamlined, slick app” that offers better curation than most video services, as well as “a strong social component.”

The acquisition was for an undisclosed price, combining both cash and stock. Niermann noted that “the Screenplay team remains intact,” with founder and chairman Mark Vrieling joining Loop as its chief content officer.

He added that existing Screenplay customers will not experience any interruption in their service. The plan is to launch the Loop app and an improved Screenplay screencast system in the next six months.

“[The business] is going to be a hybrid,” he said. “We wanted to continue to have the business roots, so to speak, but everybody’s mobile, everybody’s viewing everywhere. The question for us is, how do you create something that’s unique, that truly is a seamless experience?”