All posts in “Apps”

Facebook launches “Hunt For False News” debunk blog as fakery drops 50%

Facebook hopes detailing concrete examples of fake news it’s caught — or missed — could improve news literacy or at least prove it’s attacking the misinformation problem. Today Facebook launched “The Hunt For False News”, in which it examines viral B.S., relays the decisions of its third-party fact checkers, and explains how the story was tracked down. The first edition reveals cases where false captions were put on old videos, people were wrongfully identified as perpetrators of crimes, or real facts were massively exaggerated.

The blog’s launch comes after three recent studies showed the volume of misinformation on Facebook has dropped by half since the 2016 election, while Twitter’s volume hasn’t declined as drastically. Unfortunately, the remaining 50 percent still threatens elections, civil discourse, dissident safety, and political unity across the globe.

In one of The Hunt’s first examples, it debunks that a man who posed for a photo with one of Brazil’s senators had stabbed the presidential candidate. Facebook explains that its machine learning models identified the photo, it was proven false by Brazilian fact-checker Aos Fatos, and Facebook now automatically detects and demotes uploads of the image. In a case where it missed the mark, a false story touting NASA would pay you $100,000 to study you staying in bed for 60 days “racked up millions of views on Facebook” before fact checkers found NASA had paid out $10,000 to $17,000 in limited instances for studies in the past.

While the educational “Hunt” series is useful, it merely cherry picks random false news stories from over a wide time period. What’s more urgent, and would be more useful, would be for Facebook to apply this method to currently circulating misinformation about the most important news stories. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently began using Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool to highlight the top 10 recent stories by engagement about topics like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

If Facebook wanted to be more transparent about its successes and failures around fake news, it’s publish lists of the false stories with the highest circulation each month and then apply the Hunt’s format more explaining how they were debunked. This could help to dispel myths in societies understanding that may be propagated by the mere abundance of fake news headlines, even if users don’t click through the read them.

The red line represents the decline of Facebook engagement with “unreliable or dubious” sites

But at least all of Facebook’s efforts around information security including doubling its security staff from 10,000 to 20,000 workers, fact checks, and using News Feed algorithm changes to demote suspicious content are paying off.

  • A Stanford and NYU study found that Facebook likes, comments, shares, and reactions to links to 570 fake news sites dropped by over half since the 2016 election while engagements through Twitter continued to rise, “with the ratio of Facebook engagements to Twitter shares falling by approximately 60 percent.”
  • A University Of Michigan study coined the metric “Iffy Quotient” to assess the how much content from certain fake news sites was distributed on Facebook and Twitter. When engagement was factored in, it found Facebook’s levels had dropped to early 2016 volume that’s now 50 percent les than Twitter.
  • French newspaper Le Monde looked at engagement with 630 French websites across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit. Facebook engagement with sites dubbed “unreliable or dubious” has dropped by half since 2015.

Of course, given Twitter’s seeming paralysis on addressing misinformation and trolling, they’re not a great benchmark for Facebook to judge by. While it’s useful that Facebook is outlining ways to spot fake news, the public will have to internalize these strategies for society to make progress. That may be difficult when the truth has become incompatible with many peoples’ and politicians’ staunchly-held beliefs.

In the past, Facebook has surfaced fake news spotting tips atop the News Feed and bought full-page newspaper ads trying to disseminate them. The Hunt For Fake News would surely benefit from being embedded where the social network’s users look everyday instead of buried in its corporate blog.

Microsoft’s new expense tracker Spend hits the App Store

The team behind mileage-tracking app MileIQ, a company Microsoft acquired a few years ago, is out with a new application. This time, the focus isn’t on tracking miles, but rather expenses. The new app, simply called “Spend,” arrived on the App Store on Thursday, offering automatic expense tracking for work reimbursement purposes or for taxes.

Spend doesn’t appear to be a part of some grand Microsoft plan to take on expense tracking industry giants, like Expensify or SAP-owned Concur, for example. At least, not at this time.

Instead, the app is a Microsoft Garage project, the App Store clarifies.

Microsoft Garage is the company’s internal incubator when employees can test out new ideas to see if they resonate with consumers and business users.

Through the program, a number of interesting projects have gotten their start over the years, like the Cortana-based dictation tool, Dictate; mobile design creation app Sprightly; short-form email app Send; the Word Flow keyboard for smartphones; a Bing-backed alternative to Google News; and dozens more.

The new Spend app, at first glance, looks well-designed and easy to use.

Like most expense trackers, it offers features like the ability to take photos of receipts, expense categorization features, and reporting.

However, what makes Spend interesting is the app’s automated tracking and matching, and its user interface for working with your receipts.

The app begins by automatically tracking all your expenses from a linked credit card or bank account. You can then swipe on the expenses to mark them as personal or business. These expenses are automatically categorized, and you can add extra tags for added organization.

You can also add notes to purchases, split expenses, and customize expense categories, in addition to tags.

And the app can generate expense reports on a weekly, monthly or custom bases, which can be exported at spreadsheets or PDFs. There’s a web dashboard for when you’re using the app at your computer, but Spend doesn’t appear on the MileIQ main website at this time. It does, however, have a support site.

The company says the new app is an early version, and they plan to revise it going forward as they make improvements. Microsoft has been asked for more details on its plans with Spend, and we’ll update if they have more to offer.

Virtual reality makes food taste better

In another example of VR bleeding into real life, Cornell University food scientists found that cheese eaten in pleasant VR surroundings tasted better than the same cheese eaten in a drab sensory booth.

About 50 panelists who used virtual reality headsets as they ate were given three identical samples of blue cheese. The study participants were virtually placed in a standard sensory booth, a pleasant park bench and the Cornell cow barn to see custom-recorded 360-degree videos.

The panelists were unaware that the cheese samples were identical, and rated the pungency of the blue cheese significantly higher in the cow barn setting than in the sensory booth or the virtual park bench.

That’s right: cheese tastes better on a virtual farm versus inside a blank, empty cyberia.

“When we eat, we perceive not only just the taste and aroma of foods, we get sensory input from our surroundings – our eyes, ears, even our memories about surroundings,” said researcher Robin Dando.

To be clear, this research wasn’t designed to confirm whether VR could make food taste better but whether or not VR could be used as a sort of taste testbed, allowing manufacturers to let people try foods in different places without, say, putting them on an airplane or inside a real cow barn. Because food tastes differently in different surroundings, the ability to simulate those surroundings in VR is very useful.

“This research validates that virtual reality can be used, as it provides an immersive environment for testing,” said Dando. “Visually, virtual reality imparts qualities of the environment itself to the food being consumed – making this kind of testing cost-efficient.”

Embracing multimodality, Uber pioneers ride recommendations

For the first time, Uber will make contextual, personalized suggestions about the best way to get from point A to point B. The startup offers more than just cars now, and it’s starting to understand the tradeoffs between price, speed, convenience, and comfort amidst its multi-modal fleet. Most noticeably, you’ll now see JUMP bikes get premier billing right alongside Uber’s other vehicles. Going a short distance and there’s a charged up bike nearby? Uber will suggest you pedal. Might need extra room for luggage on your way to the airport? UberXL and SUV will appear. Always take cheap Pools? It won’t show you a pricier Black car.

Uber is finally getting smart. It has to if it’s going to make sense of its growing patchwork of ride types without overwhelming passengers with too many options. Uber’s algorithm can help them choose. “We think there’s a lot to be gained by being a one-stop shop to get somewhere” says Uber director of product Nundu Janakiram.

Uber now dynamically recommends different ride types

In particular, Uber could block disruption by scooter-specific startups like Spin, Bird, or Skip. If those apps have no vehicles nearby or you’re going to far, they’ve got nothing to offer. But Uber can provide a competitively priced Express Pool when there’s no open-air ride available, while convincing its existing UberX riders to try a bike or scooter for quick trips when congestion is thick thanks to its new in-house traffic estimates.

Uber Director Of Product Nundu Janakiram

Previously, you’d get a static set of three ride options from the price class you booked from last, regardless of your destination. Meanwhile, bikes and scooters were buried in Uber’s hamburger menu sidebar or an awkward toggle at the top of the screen. The company hans’t done a good job of communicating the definition of Select (nicer normal-sized cars) or Express Pool (walk and wait for a discount) either.

Now Uber’s homescreen can cherry pick the most relevant ride suggestions from across all price classes and vehicle types based on your trip length, destination type, and your personal ride history. Along with better explanations of the different options, this could get users experimenting with modes they’d never tried before.

To make room for more recommendations, the Uber Pool option will unfold to offer both Pools and Express Pools. Uber will even point you to nicer vehicles like Black cars or XLs if UberX is surging to the point that their prices are similar. If you want to compare all the options manually, you can tap to see a list with all the specs and prices lined up.

Beyond ride recommendations, Uber is moving the address bar to the bottom of the screen so its closer to your thumbs (which is great as phones keep getting bigger). Finally, in the coming weeks Uber will add a dynamic message bar to the center of the homescreen. Here depending on your pickup and drop off, it could show instructions for hailing from an airport, a discount offer, a birthday message, or just a friendly “Good Morning”. 

Eventually, Uber hopes to integrate public transportation ticketing like through its partner Masabi, car rentals, and even multi-leg trips into its recommendations. Maybe a JUMP bike to the train, then an UberPool that’s waiting to take you to your final destination is quicker and cheaper than any one mode alone. If you’re looking at an hour-plus Uber, it might cost less to just rent a car through its partner GetAround and drive yourself. And if a scooter is by far the best ride for you but all of Ubers are rented out, it could recommend one from its partner Lime.

A new communication box is coming to the center of Uber’s homescreen

Uber’s data shows users are rapidly embracing the multi-modal future. A study found the introduction of JUMP bikes to one city led to a 15 percent increase in total Uber + JUMP trips, even though Uber use dropped 10 to 15 percent.

Even if Uber sometimes cannibalizes itself by recommending cheaper options, it’s a smart long-term strategy. Janakiram laughs that “If we wanted to optimize for revenue, we wouldn’t have shown UberX, Pool, and Express Pool first for every user for the last few years.” The lifetime value of ridesharing users is so high that’s worth losing a couple of bucks here or there to keep users from straying to multi-modal competitors like Lyft. Retention will be a key metric under scrutiny as it eyes a 2019 IPO at a potential $120 billion valuation.

“The big picture is that we want your phone to replace your personal car” Janakiram concludes. “If we want to be a true transportation platform, we need to be everywhere our riders need to be as well. The right ride for the right context, and what’s the right ride for you.”

[Disclosure: Uber’s Janakiram and I briefly lived in the same three-bedroom apartment 5 years ago, though I’d already agreed to write about the redesign when I found out he was involved.]

Spotify’s Premium app gets a big makeover

Spotify has given its app a big makeover, with a focus on making the experience better for its paying subscribers. The company has simplified the app’s navigation by reducing the numbers of buttons and has revamped its Search page, which now incorporates elements previously found in “Browse,” like favorite genres or music to match a mood. And it’s given its Radio service a redesign as well, with the addition of new and easy-to-use Artist Radio Playlists.

The most immediately noticeable change is the app’s navigation.

Spotify has always felt a bit cluttered, with its five navigation buttons – Home, Browse, Search, Radio and My Library. The new app has chopped this down to just three buttons – Home, Search, and My Library.

Recommendations will appear on the Home page, following the update, while discovery is powered by Search.

The Search page lets you seek out artists, albums and podcasts by typing in queries, as before. But the page is also now personalized, showing your own “Top Genres” beneath the search bar – like R&B, Rock, Hip-Hop, Kids & Family – or whatever else you listen to. This is helpful because users’ tastes can change over time, or they may share their individual Spotify account with others (instead of opting for a Family plan), which can garble their recommendations.

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The “Browse” section has moved to this Search page in the redesign, and points to things like top charts, Spotify’s programmed playlists, your own personalized playlists, plus music by mood, genre, activity and more.

The Radio section got an overhaul, too.

With the update, you can search for a favorite artist or song, then immediately start listing to one of the brand-new Artist Radio playlists. These are personalized, endless streams based on your own tastes – and they’re updated regularly to stay fresh, Spotify notes.

This latter feature appears to address a recent challenge from Pandora, which tapped into its Music Genome to create dozens of personalized playlists for its users. Spotify, effectively, is turning its radio stations into personalized playlists now, too. Instead of asking users to thumbs up/down its selections, it will just create stations it knows you’ll like, based on the data it already has. These radio playlists also work offline, the company says.

The updated app for Premium users follows a redesign of the app for its free customers, announced back in April. That redesign made it easier for free users to access over a dozen playlists with songs on demand, which also included the option to skip tracks. It also reduced the number of tabs in the bottom navigation.

Spotify says the redesign for Spotify Premium is rolling out to all Premium subscribers on iOS and Android globally starting today.