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Vota turns your credit card transactions into recommendations, helps you spot fraud

Oh my god, someone’s doing Blippy again. If you’ve been around the internet as long as I have (too long), you’ll probably remember the meteoric rise of the social network for sharing your purchases, Blippy, which was hyped up to a $46.2 million valuation back in 2010 before the world realized that almost nobody wanted a dedicated network for sharing and viewing each others’ purchases. Well, guess what? Someone’s trying a Blippy-like thing again – this time, in the form of a new app called Vota which automatically records your credit card purchases and the places you visit so you can share them with friends or family, or view them privately for your own reference.

As a byproduct of this data collection, you may spot credit card fraud or other errant charges, too, or just get a handle on your spending.

But why revisit this concept now, when it failed before?

Well, there’s the argument that some startups are just “too early,” or that they could have succeeded if they had done X instead of Y. That’s coming into play here, a bit.

Plus, the younger generation is a little more comfortable with sharing financial data, as evidenced by the popularity of Venmo, where a feed shows your friends’ payments for seemingly no other reason beyond the fact that someone had to the idea to“make payments social.” (I mean, really – does anyone actually browse their Venmo feed for recommendations?)

Venmo, however, is largely a utility, and a useful one at that. It lets you pay back a friend when you’re splitting the check, the cab fare, or anything else, as well as quickly move money back to and from bank accounts.

Vota, on the other hand, is like turning your credit card transactions into check-ins.

Thankfully, it’s not publicizing them for the world to see, nor is it sharing dollar amounts, as Blippy had done.

The concept for Vota comes from Kiyo Kubo and Nick Farina, the founders of Meridian – a location-based technology company acquired by Aruba Networks five years ago, which then became a part of HP. 

The two left HP in 2016 with the goal of building something meaningful.

“One of the things that we came across [was that] nobody knows anything about personal finance, and so we thought, ‘well, maybe we can help with that,’” explains Kubo.

The app lets you connect your bank cards from Chase, Capital One, Wells Fargo, US Bank, Citi, and other Visa cards, to get an easy-to-read feed of what and where you’re spending  – information that you can opt to share with individual friends or family members. And because it pulls in data in real-time, Vota can help you quickly spot fraud.

But Kubo admits that, in its current form, Vota could be a hard sell.

“The very first thing we learned was that people are not comfortable sharing their finances,” he says.

That’s why the app removes the dollar amount, makes sharing opt in, and allows you to selectively show or hide individual purchases. It also won’t share some transactions, like online purchases.

But that may not be enough.

There is, arguably, value in seeing a cleaned-up, pretty feed of users’ check-ins. Foursquare’s Swarm does this with some success, for example, as it’s a way of keeping up with friends, and learning about cool places to visit in a sort of indirect way.

But linking a credit card and automating the process will likely give users pause, especially at time when our personal data has been slurped up repeatedly for unscrupulous reasons. To get regular folks to try an app like this, they’ll need a better reason than it being a “useful journal of transactions” or a way to explore what friends are doing.

The company is considering those other paths. In fact, Kubo says that the original idea was to develop a personal finance insights app, but user behavior during the beta led them to focus more heavily on the social portion.

It’s a case of following the data instead of your gut.

However, Vota aims to roll out other features that could broaden its appeal. For example, it may work on features to help people find ways to save – like by highlighting subscriptions you forgot about; or it may automate expense reports for businesses.

The goal is to roll out a set of premium features like this, rather than use the data to target you with ads or offers to monetize Vota (which is boostrapped and not making money today).

These actually sound like better ideas.

An app that shows me all the iTunes subscriptions I forgot about, or helps me to cancel HBO NOW when Game of Thrones ends would be handy – especially if it also alerted me to suspicious transitions and fraud, while helping me budget and track trends. Selective private sharing could also be useful for spouses or partners who are pooling their finances, or need a way to coordinate their spending.

But much of what could make Vota interesting or mainstream-friendly isn’t built yet. And that makes Vota’s launch feel a little early, too.

Vota is a free download on iOS and Android.

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Google’s Datally app adds more ways to limit mobile data usage

In November, Google introduced Datally, a data-saving app largely aimed at emerging markets where users often rely on prepaid SIM cards, and don’t have access to all-you-can-eat unlimited data plans. The app lets users granularly control which apps can use data, which resulted in a 30% savings on data usage during pilot testing and now saves users 21%, on average. Today, Google is giving Datally an upgrade with several new features that will help users cut data usage even further.

One key feature is the introduction of daily limits, which allow you to control your data usage on a per-day basis. This one is more about creating better habits around data consumption, so you don’t accidentally burn through too much data in a day, then end up without any data left before the month ends.

This also ties into to Google’s larger push to give users more insights into their own behavior when using mobile devices, and more tools to combat the addictive nature of smartphones.

The company in May announced new time management features for Android users, as well as new features to help users silence their phones and wind down at bedtime. It also has software for parents to limit screen time for their children.

While the Datally feature is primarily about conserving data, it acknowledges that it’s often easy to get sucked into your smartphone and lose track of how much time – and then, consequently, how much mobile data – you want to spend.

Another new Datally feature lets you enable a guest mode where you control how much data someone borrowing your phone can use – helpful in those situations where phones are shared among family members.

The “Unused Apps” feature, meanwhile, highlights those apps you’ve stopped using but could still be leaking data. Google notes that, for many people, 20 percent of mobile data is from apps using data in the background that haven’t been opened for over a month. Unused Apps will find those culprits so you can uninstall them, it says.

And finally, a new Wi-Fi Map shows all the nearby Wi-Fi networks so you can find those with a good signal and stop using your mobile data.

Though Datally is aimed at helping the “Next Billion Users” come online, it’s not limited to emerging markets. Anyone concerned with data usage can give it a shot.

The new additions are rolling out to Datally today, says Google.

The Android app, which has been downloaded over 10 million times, is free on Google Play.

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TheSkimm brings its news service to Android

TheSkimm, the female-led media company best known for its newsletter that summarizes, in plain language, the top news and highlights from the day before, is today launching a mobile app for Android devices. Previously available on the iPhone, theSkimm’s new app combines a mobile version of its newsletter, along with a calendar of important events, immediate updates on events happening now, weekly audio episodes focused on complex topics, and a new feature called “Text theSkimm.”

As you may have guessed by the name, Text theSkimm allows mobile app subscribers to text the company directly to receive information about important decisions they’re making, like those about investing, asking for a raise, or their healthcare options.

On this front, theSkimm competes with other self improvement-via-text services, including Shine, another female-founded startup which recently raised $5 million for its own suite of apps and services.

TheSkimm, meanwhile, is backed by $29 million in outside capital.

Founded by former TV news producers, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, what makes theSkimm compelling is the conversational tone it uses to discuss the key news events and provide the richer background on more complex topics. That makes it easier for people to understand what’s really going on in the world, and why it matters – even when they’re not good about turning on the TV news every day. (And really, can you blame ’em?)

The tone of the newsletter is not exactly full-on snark, but instead aims to be more humorous, as appropriate.

For example, today’s theSkimm was titled “One does not simply walk into Mordor,” with the lead story being, of course, President Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But it doesn’t joke its way through the explanations, which are concise summaries written using clear language and a shorter sentence structure. It’s very readable.

While theSkimm’s core product is its email newsletter – which is how the company got its start – it has later expanded to native apps and even audio programming.

The mobile app provides a home to the newsletter content, as well as theSkimm’s other news and information services.

Of particular use, is theSkimm’s Calendar which syncs up with your phone’s calendar so you won’t miss important events – like voting day or the start of the World Cup, for example.

The app also includes the texting service, Skimm Now’s breaking news, and Skimm Notes, topic-focused audio episodes that dive deeper into a single subject in 10 minutes or less.

However, unlike the newsletter, theSkimm’s app is not free. While you can try it out via a free preview, the full service is available as a $2.99 per month subscription, or $29.99 if you pay annually.

This isn’t the only source theSkimm’s revenue – other sources include native ads, affiliate, content licensing and distribution. However, subscriptions are proving to be a big revenue driver for mobile apps, as more consumers grow comfortable with the model popularized by streaming services, like Netflix.

In May, theSkimm closed on its $12 million Series C with the addition of notable, mostly female, investors joining, including Shonda Rhimes and Tyra Banks. At the time, the company had a reported seven million subscribers.

80 percent of its audience is female, and over half are millennials, theSkimm today says. Its highly engaged “Skimm’bassador” community has over 30,000 members, and 2 million follow theSkimm on social media.

While iOS is the preferred mobile platform among its user base, theSkimm says that 25 percent of its users are on Android. And that audience is growing – it doubled over the past 3 years, in fact.

That’s why the company needed to launch a native Android app.

The app quietly launched on June 11, ahead of today’s official announcement, but already has over 5,000 downloads on Google Play. The download is free with the option to preview the service before paying.

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Spanish soccer app caught using microphone and GPS to snoop

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why an app is requesting microphone access when there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why it should need to snoop on the sounds from your surroundings, hold that thought — and take a closer look at the T&Cs.

Because it might turn out that spying is exactly what the app makers have in mind.

To wit: La Liga, an app for fans of Spanish soccer which has been discovered using microphone access combined with the precise GPS location of Android users to listen in on people’s surroundings during match times — in a bid to catch bars that might not have a license to broadcast the match being watched. 

As surveillance capitalism goes, it’s a fiendishly creative repurposing of your users as, well, unwitting volunteer spies and snitches.

It’s also of course terrible human behavior. Behavior that has now garnered La Liga a bunch of one-star reviews for the Android app — along the lines of “this app converts you into a police whistler without you noticing!” and “it spies on you via the microphone and GPS. Rubbish. Don’t install”.

The snitch feature appears to have surfaced largely as a result of the European Union’s new data protection framework, GDPR — which requires app makers to explain more precisely what exactly they’re doing with people’s data. Ergo, La Ligo users started noticing what the app wanted to do and discussing and denouncing it on social media, where it blew up into a trending topic, as El Pais reports.

In a statement on its website responding to the snitch scandal, the league defends its actions writing that it has “a responsibility to protect the clubs and their fans” from unlicensed broadcasts being made in public places, claiming that such activity results in the loss of an estimated €150M annually from the league.

It also specifies that the feature is only deployed in its Android app — and claims it has apparently only been active since June 8. It also says it’s only used within Spain.

La Liga further claims the spying functionality is used solely for the purpose of detecting unlicensed broadcasts of soccer matches. (According to its explanation of how it works, captured audio is converted locally into an irreversible binary code — and it claims “the content of the recording will never be accessed”.)

A further technical measure implemented to limit how the feature can be used means La Liga only activates the microphone and geolocation of its app users’ mobile devices during time slots of matches in which its teams compete. So, tl;dr, the league is only spying on you to a timetable.

It also defends itself by claiming information about the spy and snitch function is provided to users in a transparent manner and people are specifically asked for their consent and can choose not to allow it or to revoke it at any time.

Although, the app’s description on the Google Play store does not include among several listed features — such as “live minute-by-minute commentary” and “schedules, scores, standings” and “real-time notifications and alerts right from kick-off” — ‘turning on your microphone to snoop on your surroundings during match times’… Funny that.

According to Google Play store stats the La Liga app has had more than 10M downloads to date.

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