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Main article: Barcelona

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A list of MWC coronavirus cancellations so far

12:56 | 11 February

The world’s biggest mobile tradeshow, Mobile World Congress (MWC), is due to take place in Barcelona just under two weeks’ time, on February 24-27.

The annual international telco industry event typically attracts more than 100,000 delegates from around 200 countries across the conference’s four days — with every major telco and tech giant exhibiting (with the exception of Apple which prefers its own events).

But with international concern now focused on the novel coronavirus outbreak, which was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization late last month, a growing number of companies have announced they are pulling out of attending. Others, such as Telenor, TCL and ZTE, have cancelled press events or said they will scale back their presence though are still planning to attend.

MWC’s organizer, the GSMA, has announced a series of restrictions intended to reduce the risk of the coronavirus infections at the conference, including a ban on travellers coming from the province in China where the virus was first identified. It has also said it will implement temperature screening of attendees; require conference-goers self-certify they have not come into contact with an infected person; and is suggesting delegates adopt a ‘no hand shake’ policy in a bid to limit contact.

See below for a list of companies that have cancelled their attendance at the conference — we’ll update with any additions as we get them

Companies that have cancelled their attendance at MWC 2020

Accedian

Amazon

Amdocs

CommScope

Ericsson

Intel

LG

Nvidia

NTT Docomo

Sony

 


0

Sony latest phone maker to pull out of MWC over coronavirus outbreak

15:02 | 10 February

Japanese electronics firm Sony is the latest phone maker to announce it’s withdrawing from the Mobile World Congress (MWC) tradeshow — citing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

“As we place the utmost importance on the safety and wellbeing of our customers, partners, media and employees, we have taken the difficult decision to withdraw from exhibiting and participating at MWC 2020 in Barcelona, Spain,” Sony wrote in a press release.

MWC is due to take place in Barcelona between February 24-27.

Sony said it will now run a press conference planned for the event remotely, via its official Xperia YouTube channel, at the scheduled time of 8:30am (CET) on February 24.

“Sony would like to thank everyone for their understanding and ongoing support during these challenging times,” it added.

In recent days a number of companies have announced they’re pulling out or scaling back their presence at the conference as a result of concerns about the spread of the virus — including Amazon, Ericsson, LG, NVIDIA and ZTE.

The World Health Organization dubbed the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus a global emergency late last month.

At the time of writing the majority of infections and deaths from the virus remain in China, where the virus was first identified — in the town of Wuhan in the Hubei province.

Several Chinese tech companies, including ZTE and Xiaomi, have said they will make changes to their participation in MWC related to coronavirus concerns, such as placing limits on staff travelling from China or requiring they self isolate in the period before attending.

Yesterday the organizers of MWC, the GSMA, also announced stringent rules to try to safeguard attendees, including a ban on travellers from Hubei and a requirement that all travellers who have been in China must be able to prove they have been outside the country 14 days prior to the event.

Attendees will also be required to self-certify they have not been in contact with anyone affected. Temperature screening will also be implemented at the event.

Last year the annual mobile tech conference drew almost 110,000 attendees, from 198 countries.

“While further planning is underway, we will continue to monitor the situation and will adapt our plans according to developments and advice we receive. We are contending with a constantly evolving situation, that will require fast adaptability,” the GSMA also said.

Attendance at MWC has regularly broken 100,000 in recent years but 2020’s conference seems likely to mark a break with business as companies face pressure to rethink their travel priorities.

 


0

Amazon withdraws from MWC over coronavirus-related concerns

08:01 | 10 February

Amazon is the latest company to cancel its plans for the Mobile World Congress, which will take place later this month in Barcelona, over coronavirus-related concerns.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said “due to the outbreak and continued concerns about novel coronavirus, Amazon will withdraw from exhibiting and participating in Mobile World Congress 2020, scheduled for Feb. 24-27 in Barcelona, Spain.”

Other companies that have cancelled or scaled back their plans for MWC due to the outbreak include LG, NVIDIA and Ericsson. The event’s organizer, GSMA, recently issued a new statement about precautions it is taking, including a ban on visitors from Hubei province, where the epidemic is believed to have begun.

 

The vast majority of people affected by coronavirus are in China, where there have been 908 deaths and 40,171 confirmed infections, as of the time this article was posted. The outbreak has also led to a wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia across the world.

 


0

Spain’s Glovo grabs $166M Series E for its ‘deliver anything’ app

11:00 | 19 December

Spain’s Glovo, an on-demand delivery app platform which operates in Europe, LatAm and Africa delivering food but also other urban conveniences from groceries to pharmaceuticals, has bagged another €150 million (~$166M) in a fast-following Series E round led by Abu Dhabi state investment company, Mubadala.

The raise follows a €150M in Series D that was announced in April, and $134M in Series C in mid 2018. The total raised since the business was founded back in 2015 is now around $488M.

The Barcelona-based startup says the latest raise has pushed its valuation past $1BN — putting it into a very exclusive Spanish unicorn club, with the likes of ride-hailing giant Cabify. (Glovo reckons it’s only the second privately held business in the country to achieve such a valuation).

Co-founder Oscar Pierre would not disclose the exact valuation investors are putting on the business now — beyond publicly acknowledging the unicorn milestone. “We’ve decided not to disclose valuation,” he said. “Even internally, all these valuation things it’s not something we care a lot about… Crossing the billion, I guess, is something worth announcing but not more details.”

Glovo’s new investor, Mubadala, is investing from a $400M fund announced earlier this year for backing European startups — which is itself backed by Japanese conglomerate, Softbank. Mubadala was also a backer of Softbank’s Vision Fund. (And the latter has made some very big bets in the on-demand delivery space, ploughing funding into DoorDash in the US and Rappi in Colombia to name two.)

Asked whether Glovo sees opportunities for expansion in the Gulf region in light of Mubadala joining its investor roster, Pierre said: “It hasn’t been part of the thesis of investment — so we’re not linking it.”

Glovo’s market focus remains fixed on three core regions where it currently operates: South America, South West Europe, and Eastern Europe and Africa — the strategy having been to target regions where competitors hadn’t already established themselves as the go-to on-demand delivery platform.

“Middle East for us it seems already a bit too competitive to go now,” he told us. “All our expansion playbook has been focused on going first to markets… [or where our competitors] were a second player. And the online food delivery market in Middle East is very developed already.

“So, never say never, but short answer is we’re not planning in the short term to launch there.”

Speaking in an on stage interview at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin last week, Glovo’s other co-founder, Sacha Michaud, suggested the hyper competitive on-demand food delivery market is set for more consolidation in the short term. Though he said Glovo’s team will be head down “aiming for profitability” — rather than looking to go shopping for growth by buying rivals (or indeed being bagged themselves).

Pierre also told us the focus for the business in 2020 — now flush with Series E cash — will be achieving profitability. He said it’s hoping to achieve that in a little over a year’s time.

“Our plan is to use this money to go fully profitable as a company during early 2021,” he told TechCrunch. “I think that’s quite realistic. Still with a very high growth. So we’re expecting more than 2x-2.5x growth during next year.”

“Today we operate in 26 markets. And many of them are still in early stage, and they’re still in investment phase so I think first of all we’re going to use this money to take most of our countries to the positive operational profit stage,” he went on. “Our model is one where during the first 18 months you need to invest in a city — because you need to build the right capillarity, the right efficiency to start generating positive profits.”

Glovo launched its service in around eight new countries during 2019, per Pierre.

Which means there’s plenty of investment that still needs to go in to those markets over the coming year to bring them up to the required density to tilt for profitability.

So it looks likely that it will step off the gas a little on its blistering pace of growth and market expansions next year — as it puts more effort on deepening its footprint to push for the scale required to tip into positive margins.

Although Pierre also suggested there “might be a few new countries” it will ride into next year — noting, too, that it will have a larger marketing budget in 2020 vs this year.

“The rate of new cities that we’re currently launching is very high. Probably every week we keep launching at least ten cities — Italy for example has already like 60 cities launched and we think we can go to more than 200 so there’s a lot of cities still to penetrate,” he said. “We’ve had very good results in some African or Eastern European countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia. And there’s some similar markets that we could go to. [There are also examples] in Africa, like Ivory Coast. It’s been a great success.”

“We do expect a lot,” he added. “2019 on relative terms [growth] was very high. It was like 3.5x. It’s very hard to maintain that growth with the current size that we have but it’s still going to be very high — it’s probably going to be 2x-2.5x”

A big chunk of Series E funding will be ploughed into expanding Glovo’s engineer team — with a plan to hire around 300 additional developers by mid 2020. This will build on the circa 150 devs it already employs in Barcelona and a new tech hub it’s building out in Warsaw.

As a whole the business employs 1,500+ staff at this point — not including the thousands of self-employed couriers (who it calls ‘Glovers’) who make the deliveries — but 2020 will see it significantly grow headcount, with both up to 300 more engineers being added and potentially even more hires related to running the ‘dark stores’ it’s planning to significantly ramp up next year too.

Asked why this on-demand delivery business is so tech intensive Pierre said it’s all about eking out small gains to reduce friction and yield incremental savings by automating and optimizing platform and UX interactions which — cumulatively — make the difference for this type of thin margins business.

“Overall there’s a lot of complexity in what we do. So we deliver anything in your city in 30 minutes. And in this 30 minutes you need to co-ordinate a lot of things. A lot of things have to go well, like the restaurant or the store has to receive well information, they need to receive well the preparation time to get that ready, of course all the logistics and all the routing and the despatching of the orders with the couriers needs to work very well, and then the front end for the user — it’s an industry where there’s a lot of competition and we’re all developing better and better features. So that also has to work out very well.”

“If we had 400 engineers there’s many more specialized [product] teams that we would build,” he added. “On the other end we are by definition a super high volume, low margin business — and next year we’re talking about doing more than 100M orders, maybe close to 200M orders next year. Which means that you optimize every single order by 20 cents, which seems nothing in a €20 basket, and you’re generating €40M extra and a bit there. And most of the efficiencies — they come through tech.”

Groceries will be the other big focus for Glovo in 2020, with Pierre noting the category is it’s second biggest, after food (i.e. restaurant meal) deliveries.

Since 2018 Glovo has experimented with opening a handful of so-called ‘dark stores’ in key cities — such as Madrid and Barcelona. These are delivery-pick-up-only warehouses for convenience store style grocery shopping — be it toothpaste, snacks or soft drinks — with stores strategically sited to ensure speedy delivery across a city.

It has around seven cities with dark stores operational now, according to Pierre. The plan is to launch over 100 more of these ‘Super Glovos’ (as it calls them) in 2020 — focusing on larger cities.

“We are building our own dark stores and it’s a model that we like a lot,” he told us. “We think it works everywhere. So far we have basically been rolling it out in our biggest cities. And we’re going to keep with that focus.

“What we’re very focused on now is making sure that the biggest cities, we have enough capillarity of dark stores to guarantee super fast delivery time. And for us super fast delivery time means 15 minutes. So that’s what we’re focusing on… Before launching more cities we’re very focused on how do we guarantee this 15 minute delivery time.”

As noted above, ramping up on groceries will also add headcount to the business. Pierre confirmed the stores are staffed by employees — and said between four to five people are needed per store to work as packers and store managers. So that’s potentially another 500 staff Glovo will be adding to its books next year.

It also partners with supermarket giant Carrefour to offer full supermarket shopping on-demand via the app in select markets. But it sees dark stores as supplementary to that partnership model — playing to the push-button convenience its business encourages.

And — again with an eye on profitability — providing opportunities for cross selling to bulk up order size.

The dark store play piggybacks on convenience, using the fixed delivery fee as a lever to encourage users to add a few more staple items to an urgent shopping need, because, well, they might feel bad if they shell out to just get a bottle of mixer brought to their door. (Super Glovos stock a limited range of items (<1,000 SKUs) to help keep delivery times down.)

“There’s a lot of people that order because they need something very urgently — like for tonight, and since they’re ordering maybe four or five items I think we do a pretty good job at cross-selling and adding more,” said Pierre. “So it’s pretty basic things but that people need… tonight, tomorrow and maybe the day after that. They don’t do the big basket.

“In Super Glovo you can find things like oranges, potatoes, bananas. We have started selling some meat in some markets — like simple burgers. Actually we tested selling Impossible Burgers in Barcelona. But most of it is not perishable — like 90%.”

“We believe that the best for the user is to have both,” he added, discussing dark stores vs supermarket partnerships. “To have a very fast, 15 minute, more like convenience option and also offer them maybe one or two great retailers, like Carrefour — maybe for larger baskets or for their unique brands. I think that’s the best user experience possible.”

Beyond food, courier services will be another area of product focus for Glovo in 2020, per Pierre.

“Surprisingly enough there’s a lot of people that use us for courier,” he said.” Like I forgot my keys or just send some documents from point A to point B. This is a service where we want to improve our product a lot because it does take a lot of orders.”

But that’s just about going to be the limit. He suggested Glovo will have limited resources to fully implement some of the other stuff it’s experimenting with (or has plans to) — as it works towards its overarching vision of becoming an ‘everything app’ for urbanities. Because thin margins like plentiful orders.

For example, he said it’s currently testing its own brand on-demand scooters in Argentina.

“Our users in Buenos Aires there’s 500 scooters — yellow painted Glovo scooters in the streets — and they can use them with the same Glovo account. It’s a test for us to learn about a new industry and stuff.”

“Here in Barcelona we are looking at the possibility to sell ticketing — like last minute tickets for cinema, for theatres, for football matches,” he added. “And of course sell digital tickets not printed tickets. So we like everything that gets the user closer to their city and makes it basically easier. And we’re going to be testing things but I think not rolling out, scaling massively.

“We have a mentality of testing things. But we don’t think we’re going to have resources during 2020 to do a full rollout.”

Asked what he sees as the end game for Glovo if, as he hopes, it achieves profitability in 2021– whether it’s an IPO or exit via acquisition — Pierre said the team is focused on staying independent, however that can be achieved.

“We’re very focused on that point where we can basically decide our future. More or less investor independent. I think we can reach that,” he suggested. “And then decide what we want to do. Glovo’s one of these projects that it’s so fun and there’s so much entrepreneurship in terms of launching new services and verticals. The reality is that’s, for us, very important — and we don’t see ourselves doing anything else.

“So I think our dream would be stay as independent. Maybe IPO. It’s a tool for us to give liquidation to all our shareholders and employees. But it’s not a goal per se. We have 18 months to be profitable, depend on us, and keep having a very big impact.”

 


0

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

16:00 | 7 November

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model, after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system that is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening up the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a ‘bloom’ gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation ‘holographic processing unit.’

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors that allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latencies when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

 


0

Glovo is opening a tech hub in Poland after gobbling a local food delivery rival

16:08 | 6 November

Barcelona-based on-demand delivery startup Glovo is beefing up its engineering capacity by opening a second tech hub, its first in Poland — with an initial plan to hire 40 additional engineers and have a total of 50 tech and product experts working predominantly out of its Warsaw office.

Glovo says it expects the Polish engineering hub to make up half of its technology capacity in time. It will have a main focus on developing user-facing features for its marketplace product and for partners operating on the platform, it adds.

It also has plans for further expansion of the facility down the line — and an overarching roadmap for its business of a 300-strong engineering team to support building out its on-demand service offering.

Its pitch is “everything” delivered on-demand, from fast food to groceries or pharmaceuticals, so long as it’s small and light enough to be handled by one of the couriers picking up jobs on its platform.

While there’s little doubt that fast food makes up the bulk of Glovo orders right now the startup has been trying to push into online grocery deliveries, to compete with giants like Amazon — including setting up its own warehouses capable of fulfilling orders within 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. (It calls these ‘dark supermarkets’ SuperGlovo — ‘super’ meaning ‘supermarket’ in Spanish. Though its ‘dark’ model has also attracted attention from Barcelona City Council for lacking a correct permit.)

In August Spanish media reported that Glovo had itself been shopping — picking up Polish food delivery platform, Pizza Portal, for an acquisition price-tag that’s billed as up to €35M (~$39M).

Glovo raised a $169M Series D back in April which included investment from Drake, owner of global pizza franchise Papa John’s — giving it the means and the motive to gobble smaller rivals in the food delivery space.

Poland being one of its existing markets in Europe. (Albeit Pizza Portal offers various types of fast food for delivery, not just pizza.)

In all, Glovo operates in more than 20 countries at this stage, though its densest markets of operation remain its home market of Spain and also Italy.

In Poland it operates in just eight cities — so the Pizza Portal acquisition looks intended to beef up its footprint there, with the latter slated as the largest food-service platform in the market — even as Glovo doubles down on expanding its engineering capacity by tapping up local tech talent.

At the same time, competition for on-demand delivery, and especially food delivery, remains fierce in Europe where a number of players — including the likes of Deliveroo, JustEat and Uber Eats, are battling it out for territory. And, in some instances, consuming each other to carve out a bigger share of lunch in key markets.

Where Glovo doesn’t operate in Europe highlights some of that ongoing food fight, with no offering in Germany or the UK, for instance. Its regional strategy focuses on the South and East. It has also been building up an international business, opening in markets in LatAm and the Middle East and Africa.

Scaling fast is certainly core to Glovo’s playbook, though. It says it launched in a new city every four days on average last year, while the 2015-founded startup now employs over 1,300 people in all.

Glovo founder Oscar Pierre will be joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in December to chat about growing an on-demand delivery business — you can find out more about Disrupt conference passes here

 


0

Github removes Tsunami Democràtic’s APK after a takedown order from Spain

13:30 | 30 October

Microsoft-owned Github has removed the APK of an app for organizing political protests in the autonomous community of Catalonia — acting on a takedown request from Spain’s military police (aka the Guardia Civil).

As we reported earlier this month supporters of independence for Catalonia have regrouped under a new banner — calling itself Tsunami Democràtic — with the aim of rebooting the political movement and campaigning for self-determination by mobilizing street protests and peaceful civil disobedience.

The group has also been developing bespoke technology tools to coordinate protest action. It’s one of these tools, the Tsunami Democràtic app, which was being hosted as an APK on Github and has now been taken down.

The app registers supporters of independence by asking them to communicate their availability and resources for taking part in local protest actions across Catalonia. Users are also asked to register for protest actions and check-in when they get there — at which point the app asks them to abide by a promise of non-violence (see point 3 in this sample screengrab):

image1 2 1

Users of the app see only upcoming protests relevant to their location and availability — making it different to the one-to-many broadcasts that Tsunami Democràtic also puts out via its channel on the Telegram messaging app.

Essentially, it’s a decentalized tool for mobilizing smaller, localized protest actions vs the largest demos which continue to be organized via Telegram broadcasts (such as a mass blockade of Barcelona airport, earlier this month).

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic previously told us the sorts of protests intended to be coordinated via the app could include actions such as go-slows to disrupt traffic on local roads and fake shopping sprees in supermarkets, with protestors abandoning carts filled with products in the store.

In a section of Github’s site detailing government takedowns the request from the Spanish state to remove the Tsunami Democràtic app sits alongside folders containing historical takedown requests from China and Russia.

“There is an ongoing investigation being carried out by the National High Court where the movement Tsunami Democràtic has been confirmed as a criminal organization driving people to commit terrorist attacks. Tsunami Democràtic’s main goal is coordinating these riots and terrorist actions by using any possible mean,” Spain’s military police write in the letter sent to Github.

We’ve reached out to Microsoft for comment on Github’s decision to remove the app APK.

In a note about government takedowns on Github’s website it writes:

From time to time, GitHub receives requests from governments to remove content that has been declared unlawful in their local jurisdiction. Although we may not always agree with those laws, we may need to block content if we receive a valid request from a government official so that our users in that jurisdiction may continue to have access to GitHub to collaborate and build software.

“GitHub does not endorse or adopt any assertion contained in the following notices,” it adds in a further caveat on the page.

The trigger for the latest wave of street demonstrations in Catalonia were lengthy jail sentences handed down to a number of Catalan political and cultural leaders by Spain’s Supreme Court earlier this month.

These were people involved in organizing an illegal independence referendum two years ago. The majority of these Catalan leaders were convicted for sedition. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but sentences ran as long as 13 years nonetheless.

This month Spanish judges also reissued a European arrest warrant seeking to extradite the former leader of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, from Brussels to Spain to face trial.  Last year a court in Germany refused his extradition to Spain on charges of rebellion or sedition — only allowing it on lesser grounds of misuse of public funds. A charge which Spain did not pursue.

Puigdemont fled Catalonia in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid and has remained living in exile in Brussels. He has also since been elected as an MEP but has been unable to take up his seat in the EU parliament after the Spanish state moved to block him from being recognized as a parliamentarian.

Shortly after the latest wave of pro-independence demonstrations took off in Catalonia the Tsunami Democràtic movement’s website was taken offline — also as a result of a takedown request by the Spanish state.

The website remains offline at the time of writing.

While the Tsunami Democràtic app could be accused of encouraging disruption, the charge of “terrorism” is clearly overblown. Unless your definition of terrorism extends to harnessing the power of peaceful civil resistance to generate momentum for political change. 

And while there has been unrest on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan towns and cities this month, with fires being lit and projectiles thrown at police, there are conflicting reports about what has triggered these clashes between police and protestors — including criticism of the police response as overly aggressive vs what has been, in the main, large but peaceful crowds of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The police response on the day of the 2017 referendum was also widely condemned as violently disproportionate, with scenes of riot gear clad police officers beating up people as they tried to cast a vote.

Local press in Catalonia has reported the European Commission response to Spain’s takedown of the Tsunami Democràtic website — saying the pan-EU body said Spain has a responsibility to find “the right balance between guaranteeing freedom of expression and upholding public order and ensuring security, as well as protecting [citizens] from illegal content”.

Asked what impact the Github takedown of the Tsunami Democràtic app’s APK will have on the app, a source with knowledge of the movement suggested very little — pointing out that the APK is now being hosted on Telegram.

Similarly, the content that was available on the movement’s website is being posted to its 380,000+ subscribers on Telegram — a messaging platform that’s itself been targeted for blocks by authoritarian states in various locations around the world. (Though not, so far, in Spain.)

Another protest support tool that’s been in the works in Catalonia — a live-map for crowdsourcing information about street protests which looks similar to the HKlive.maps app used by pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong — is still in testing but expected to launch soon, per the source.

 


0

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

03:48 | 18 October

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘

‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

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Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

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Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

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Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

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BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

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Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

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Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

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Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been

.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose

fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

 


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Spanish startup Elma gets $3.2M for a digital-first health insurance play

00:31 | 26 September

Insurtech startup Elma has closed a €3 million (~$3.2M) Series A funding round led by Mangrove Capital partners to build out a digital-first health insurance business starting with Spain, its domestic market.

Also investing in the Series A are a number of unnamed local investors focused on the healthcare space, along with Barcelona-based investor and company builder Antai Venture Builder (AVB), Arroba Capital, and US VC Joyance Capital Partners. 

Elma’s co-founders — Miguel Ángel Antón (CEO), Albert Malagarriga (CPO), and Miguel Vicente and Gerard Olivé (also co-founders of its investor, AVB) — have a background in digital industries and startups, building “user centric experiences”, as Antón puts it.

Healthcare experience in the founding team comes via the COO who we’re told spent 12 years at a C-level position at one of the largest health insurers in Spain (now owned by Bupa). Elma also has a chief medical officer — who Antón touts as bringing a wealth of experience in “digital care”.

Since 2017 the team has been building a number of digital healthcare tools that can be accessed via an app. The idea is to entice subscribers to Elma’s healthcare cover with the promise of tech-enabled convenience and a shorter wait time vs Spain’s (free) public healthcare service for remote chats with doctors.

It’s also hoping to disrupt legacy health insurance giants by offering slicker digital tools and services.

“Few companies or entities have had the opportunity to think about patient journeys and build and articulate a product that optimizes healthcare outcomes while controlling costs,” argues Antón. “We believe insurers have a privileged position to do that, yet they seem to have little incentive to innovate and adopt digital tools to make it happen given their legacy. We want to build a digital health subscription to better healthier, that includes insurance and is (finally) user centric.”

Among the tools Elma will offer subscribers initially is a telehealth service that lets members talk to a doctor via video call and chat, providing remote primary care and digital prescription (it has a team of seven doctors to serve that from launch) — and a doctor search engine for finding a medical professional to deal with a specific condition (it has a pool of 23,000 doctors in Spain for in-person healthcare).

“We are currently working on a booking feature and integration with test providers to make getting blood tests, scans and so on much easier and interconnected,” adds Antón.

“We are one of the few insurers that provide a full online, comprehensive quoting system for people to understand our products and buy entirely online. These are just a few features that we are releasing with, but our vision is to pursue the digitalization of the industry to fulfil our mission. Prevention, promotion of good habits, digital therapies, are coming up next.” 

On the prevention front, this being an insurtech startup, Elma’s roadmap includes linking insurance premiums to healthier lifestyles — via some form of behavior tracking.

“Healthier people should benefit from their good habits and we are already testing tools that identify people’s habits,” Antón confirms, adding: “Other features in our roadmap for next year are integration with wearables, care plans, skin prevention plans, etc.”

The team will be launching its first health insurance product in Spain next month.

Its website already lists pricing for a range of plans “con copago” (which means there’s a monthly fee to pay for the insurance cover plus an additional fee when you access healthcare services).

“We will have a full “sin copago” product in two weeks but we are believers of insurance with copayment,” Antón tells TechCrunch. “Being healthy makes you reduce visits to the doctor so you can keep your premium low and pay per use which will be best for our customers. We really love copayments…. Best way to pay less.”

The Series A will be put towards scaling in Spain, which is the firm focus for Elma for the foreseeable future given a large addressable local market.

Some 10M+ people (~23% of the population) pay for healthcare, according to Antón, who says this is on account of long wait time for the free public service. A majority of those (60%) pay for health insurance via their employer — so Elma is focusing on selling in to corporates to provide cover for their staff.

“We have an agreement with [insurance broker] Willis Towers Watson who will allow us to quote the most relevant companies in Spain,” he says, adding that it’s already signed agreements with listed companies  (such as Masmovil, Red Electrica Española); startups (eCooltra); and state owned companies (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat).

“Healthcare is very country specific, that’s why its really hard to scale this type of company [to other markets]. So far we want to concentrate in Spain. The market here is huge, growing 5%-7% a year and needs a lot of digitalization,” he adds.

“We want to became leader in our market. In the future we will look for markets where our product fits the best, and it may be countries with or without a strong public health system. What we believe is true is if we make it here, where we are competing with an excellent service which is for free (Spanish public healthcare system), we can probably make it anywhere.”

In terms of app-focused competition, on Elma’s home turf there’s MediQuo, another Barcelona-based startup that promises to put a doctor in your pocket — via an app where users can chat to a medical “amigo”. While it’s not a fully fledged health insurance play pricing is low enough that users could combine it with legacy health insurance elsewhere — augmenting their usual cover with an up-to-date app supplement.

 


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Target Global is firming up its bet on Barcelona’s entrepreneurs

01:01 | 25 September

VC firm Target Global has just announced it’s expanding its European network by adding a local office in Barcelona, Spain — building on its existing presence in Berlin and London, plus Tel Aviv and Moscow.

The firm has €700 million under management and a broad investment range that covers SaaS, marketplaces, fintech and insurtech, as well as a big focus on mobility.

TechCrunch sat down with general partner Shmuel Chafets and investor director Lina Chong, who will be heading the firm’s push into Spain, to talk about its decision to set up shop in Barcelona — discussing how they see the local and national ecosystem, as well as picking their brains on wider investments trends and regulation in Europe.

Want to know what it takes to get a meeting with Target Global and factors they weigh when they’re deciding whether to cut a check or not? Read on…

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 


TechCrunch: Why choose Barcelona and why now? Why not Spain’s capital, Madrid — or even a city like Paris?

Shmuel Chafets: First of all have you been outside!?

I started coming to Barcelona four or five years ago just to see things and we had some angel investments here and it feels to me today — or when Lina and I started getting more serious about Barcelona it seemed to us that Barcelona has the attributes of Berlin eight or nine years ago. When I at least started coming to Berlin and Lina moved to Berlin, it has the same attributes. It looks like it’s just about to happen

I think it has a few factors. The first one is that it’s a great place to live and you can’t ignore that. In Europe, if you’re a team and you’re an international team there are very few places that you can live in. So London is the original ex-pat city of Europe and it still is amazing but very, very expensive. Berlin is the second one. And I think a lot of Berlin’s early success was fuelled by people who were not necessary German and definitely not Berliners coming and starting a company there.

It’s a good place to live, it’s also a cheap place to live, and it’s a cheap place to do business. Salaries here are quite low but the quality of living is quite high and that makes it very good for startups. Particularly when you need young people, developers, creative people to move. It’s an easy place to convince people to move to.

It doesn’t have a dominant industry. And that is very similar to Berlin — Berlin is not where Germany economically is, and that means that the smartest people around want to go in for startups. That’s the best employment option. There is no banking industry sucking people in with high salaries. And also driving costs up. It is in its culture a very creative city, a very open, very creative city and that I think is also very important.

And lastly, there are these early success stories that fuel the idea of entrepreneurship and also fuel financial entrepreneurship. So one of the interesting things about entrepreneurship is that people who start need to know where it ends or where it’s going to. And the early success stories — first of all they make the smartest kid graduating — who has a McKinsey job offer and a Goldman Sachs job offer and a startup idea — he needs to know that the startup idea has a future. That there’s a future in being an entrepreneur and he needs to look up to people around him. It’s not enough to know that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out — that’s fine but that’s very far and very large.

GettyImages 1147541590

Image via Getty Images / Pol Albarrán

But to look at Carlos [Pierre, founder and CEO] from Badi and say okay there’s a guy, he’s a few years older than me, he started a company, he’s doing very well — this is the path that I want to take.

Also, there are more and more mentors. People who’ve done it before. And they can help you figure things out. You have to be able to call someone up and say hey let’s have breakfast and explain how they do it.

And there’s more money — for seed. Because you look at a lot of people starting funds, and we were just talking on the way about the Ticketbis guys. They’re starting a fund. And that’s a great example of one of these early success stories and now they’re putting it back into the ecosystem and helping it grow.

Rocket Internet did a lot of that in Germany. They had early exits and then they went and plowed it all back into the ecosystem in their own particular way. People like [serial entrepreneur] Lukasz Gadowski — who we work with a lot. He built Spreadshirts… [then later] he founded Delivery Hero. So through Team Europe. So people who were early, early entrepreneurs — and then in the second wave helped build an ecosystem. So I think there are more and more people like that that we see here.

That usually fuels the ecosystem. Also as companies here start to scale and as more of these European startups start to build hubs here there’s more experience. You can find people who’ve been through a couple of rounds.

And the last thing which is not about Barcelona it’s about Spain in general. There’s a decent local domestic market and there is a natural second market in South America. And actually in the US too — because Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in America so when you start a company here you have that second market built-in. Which is very important — you can scale it.

Latin America is a fascinating market right now, a fascinating time. So in a way, it’s a way for us to make a side bet on Latin America in a way without going out of Europe and insetting far. My first boss told me never to do business in a place where there’s no direct flight from where I live and I adhere to that. If things go belly up you don’t want to be stuck in transfer in some airport sitting there waiting for a transfer.

TechCrunch: So in a way being in a second city — this isn’t Madrid, Spain’s capital — is a more interesting proposition for startups because there’s less competition for talent?

Chong: It’s a bit of an underdog here. There are not these big dominant industries. It’s not cosmopolitan like how Madrid is perceived. There’s a lot of creativity, a lot of people who are more entrepreneurial in spirit.

 


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