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ZmURL customizes Zoom link previews with images & event sites

Sick of sharing those generic Zoom video call invites that all look the same? Wish your Zoom link preview’s headline and image actually described your meeting? Want to protect your Zoom calls from trolls by making attendees RSVP to get your link? ZmURL.com has you covered.

Launching today, ZmURL is a free tool that lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, and image that will show up when you share the link on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere. zmurl also lets you require that attendees RSVP by entering their email address so can decide who to approve and provide with the actual entry link. That could stop Zoombombers from harassing your call with offensive screenshared imagery, profanity, or worse.

“We built zmurl.com to make it easier for people to stay physically distant but socially close” co-founder Victor Pontis tells me. “We’re hoping to give event organizers the tools to preserve in-person communities while we are all under quarantine.”

Zoom wasn’t built for open public discussions. But with people trapped inside by coronavirus, its daily user count has spiked from 10 million to 200 million. That’s led to new use cases from cocktail parties to roundtable discussions to AA meetings to school classes.

That’s unfortunately spawned new problems like “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors tracking down public Zoom calls and bombarding them with abuse. Since then, the FBI has issued a warning about Zoombombing, the New York Times has written multiple articles about the issue, and Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan has apologized.

Yet Zoom has been slow to adapt it features as it struggles not to buckle under its sudden scale. While it’s turned on waiting rooms and host-only screensharing by default for usage in schools, most people are still vulnerable due to Zoom’s permissive settings and reused URLs that were designed for only trusted enterprise meetings. Only today did Zoom concede to shifting the balance further from convenience to safety, turning on waiting rooms by default and requiring passwords for entry by Meeting ID.

Meanwhile, social networks have become a sea of indistinguishable Zoom links that all show the same blue and white logo in the preview with no information on what the call is about. That makes it a lot tougher to promote calls, which many musicians, fitness instructors, and event producers are relying on to drive donations or payments while their work is disrupted by quarantines.

ZmURL’s founders during their only in-person meeting ever

Luckily, Pontis and his co-founder Danqing Liu are here to help with zmurl. The two software engineers fittingly met over Zoom a year ago and have only met once in person. Pontis, now in San Francisco, had started bike and scooter rental software companies Spring and Scooter Map. Liu, from Beijing but now holed up in New York, had spent five years at Google, Uber, and PlanGrid before selling his machine learning tool TinyMind.

The idea for ZmURL stemmed from Danqin missing multiple Zoom events he’d wanted to attend. Then a friend of Pontis was laid off from their yoga instructor job, and they and their colleagues were scrambling to market and earn money from hosting their own classes over Zoom. The duo quickly built a beta with zero money raised and tested it with some yoga gurus who found it simplified promoting events and gathering RSVPs. “We’re all going through a tough time right now. We see zmurl as our opportunity to help” Pontis tells me.

To use the tool, you generate a generic meeting link from Zoom like zoom.us/ji/1231231232 and then punch it into ZmURL. You can upload an image or choose from stock photos and color gradients. Then you name you event, give it a description, and set the time and date. You’ll get a shorter URL like https://zmurl.com/smy5m or you can give it a custom one like zmurl.com/quidditch.

When you share that URL, it’ll show your image, headline, and description in the link preview on chat apps, social networks and more. Attendees who click will be shown a nicely rendered event page with the link to enter the Zoom call and the option to add it to their calendar. You can try it out here, zmurl.com/aloha, as the startup is hosting a happy hour today at 6pm Pacific.

Optionally, you can set your ZmURL calls to require an RSVP. In that case, people who click your link have to submit their email address. The host can then sift through the RSVPs and choose who to email back the link to join the call. If you see an RSVP from someone you don’t recognize, just ignore it to keep Zoombombers from slipping inside.

Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any other tools for customizing Zoom call links. Zoom paid enterprise customers can only set up a image and logo-equipped landing page for their whole company’s Zoom account, not for specific calls. For now, ZmURL is completely free. But the co-founders are building out an option for hosting paid events that collect entry fees on the RSVP site while ZmURL takes a 5% cut.

Next, ZmURL wants to add the ability to link your Zoom account to its site so you can spawn call links without leaving. It’s also building out always-on call rooms, recurring events, organizer home pages for promoting all their calls, an option to add events to a public directory, email marketing tools, and integrations with other video call platforms like Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime.


Pontis says the biggest challenge will be learning to translate more of the magic and business potential off offline events into the world of video calling. There’s also the risk that Zoom will try to intercede and force ZmURL to desist. But it shouldn’t, at least until Zoom builds all these features itself. Or it should just acquire ZmURL.

We’re dealing with an unprecedented behavior shift due to shelter-in-place orders that threaten to cripple the world economy and drive many of us crazy. Whether for fostering human connection or keeping event businesses afloat, Zoom has become a critical utility. It should accept all the help it can get.

Google is now publishing coronavirus mobility reports, feeding off users’ location history

Google is giving the world a clearer glimpse of exactly how much it knows about people everywhere — using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to repackage its persistent tracking of where users go and what they do as a public good in the midst of a pandemic.

In a blog post today the tech giant announced the publication of what it’s branding ‘COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports‘. Aka an in-house analysis of the much more granular location data it maps and tracks to fuel its ad-targeting, product development and wider commercial strategy to showcase aggregated changes in population movements around the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has generated a worldwide scramble for tools and data to inform government responses. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has been leaning on telcos to hand over anonymized and aggregated location data to model the spread of COVID-19.

Google’s data dump looks intended to dangle a similar idea of public policy utility while providing an eyeball-grabbing public snapshot of mobility shifts via data pulled off of its global user-base.

In terms of actual utility for policymakers, Google’s suggestions are pretty vague. The reports could help government and public health officials “understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings”, it writes.

“Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing,” it goes on. “Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”

The location data Google is making public is similarly fuzzy — to avoid inviting a privacy storm — with the company writing it’s using “the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day”, as it puts it.

“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person,” Google writes. “The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default.”

“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” it adds, tacitly linking an existing offering in Google Maps to a coronavirus-busting cause.

The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions/counties — with Google offering an analysis of how community mobility has changed vs a baseline average before COVID-19 arrived to change everything.

So, for example, a March 29 report for the whole of the US shows a 47 per cent drop in retail and recreation activity vs the pre-CV period; a 22% drop in grocery & pharmacy; and a 19% drop in visits to parks and beaches, per Google’s data.

While the same date report for California shows a considerably greater drop in the latter (down 38% compared to the regional baseline); and slightly bigger decreases in both retail and recreation activity (down 50%) and grocery & pharmacy (-24%).

Google says it’s using “aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential”. The trends are displayed over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior, it adds.

The company says it’s not publishing the “absolute number of visits” as a privacy step, adding: “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”

Google’s location mobility report for Italy, which remains the European country hardest hit by the virus, illustrates the extent of the change from lockdown measures applied to the population — with retail & recreation dropping 94% vs Google’s baseline; grocery & pharmacy down 85%; and a 90% drop in trips to parks and beaches.

The same report shows an 87% drop in activity at transit stations; a 63% drop in activity at workplaces; and an increase of almost a quarter (24%) of activity in residential locations — as many Italians stay at home, instead of commuting to work.

It’s a similar story in Spain — another country hard-hit by COVID-19. Though Google’s data for France suggests instructions to stay-at-home may not be being quite as keenly observed by its users there, with only an 18% increase in activity at residential locations and a 56% drop in activity at workplaces. (Perhaps because the pandemic has so far had a less severe impact on France, although numbers of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise across the region.)

While policymakers have been scrambling for data and tools to inform their responses to COVID-19, privacy experts and civil liberties campaigners have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of such data-fuelled efforts on individual rights, while also querying the wider utility of some of this tracking.

Contacts tracing is another area where apps are fast being touted as a potential solution to get the West out of economically crushing population lockdowns — opening up the possibility of people’s mobile devices becoming a tool to enforce lockdowns, as has happened in China.

“Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance,” is the succinct warning of a trio of academics from London’s Imperial College’s Computational Privacy Group, who have compiled their privacy concerns vis-a-vis COVID-19 contacts tracing apps into a set of eight questions app developers should be asking.

Discussing Google’s release of mobile location data for a COVID-19 cause, the head of the group, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, gave a general thumbs up to the steps it’s taken to shrink privacy risks.

Although he also called for Google to provide more detail about the technical processes it’s using in order that external researchers can better assess the robustness of the claimed privacy protections. Such scrutiny is of pressing importance with so much coronavirus-related data grabbing going on right now, he argues.

“It is all aggregated, they normalize to a specific set of dates, they threshold when there are too few people and on top of this they add noise to make — according to them — the data differentially private. So from a pure anonymization perspective it’s good work,” de Montjoye told TechCrunch, discussing the technical side of Google’s release of location data. “Those are three of the big ‘levers’ that you can use to limit risk. And I think it’s well done.”

“But — especially in times like this when there’s a lot of people using data — I think what we would have liked is more details. There’s a lot of assumptions on thresholding, on how do you apply differential privacy, right?… What kind of assumptions are you making?” he added, querying how much noise Google is adding to the data, for example. “It would be good to have a bit more detail on how they applied [differential privacy]… Especially in times like this it is good to be… overly transparent.”

While Google’s mobility data release might appear to overlap in purpose with the Commission’s call for EU telco metadata for COVID-19 tracking, de Montjoye points out there are likely to be key differences based on the different data sources.

“It’s always a trade off between the two,” he says. “It’s basically telco data would probably be less fine-grained, because GPS is much more precise spatially and you might have more data points per person per day with GPS than what you get with mobile phone but on the other hand the carrier/telco data is much more representative — it’s not only smartphone, and it’s not only people who have latitude on, it’s everyone in the country, including non smartphone.”

There may be country specific questions that could be better addressed by working with a local carrier, he also suggested. (The Commission has said it’s intending to have one carrier per EU Member State providing anonymized and aggregated metadata.)

On the topical question of whether location data can ever be truly anonymized, de Montjoye — an expert in data reidentification — gave a “yes and no” response, arguing that original location data is “probably really, really hard to anonymize”.

“Can you process this data and make the aggregate results anonymous? Probably, probably, probably yes — it always depends. But then it also means that the original data exists… Then it’s mostly a question of the controls you have in place to ensure the process that leads to generating those aggregates does not contain privacy risks,” he added.

Perhaps a bigger question related to Google’s location data dump is around the issue of legal consent to be tracking people in the first place.

While the tech giant claims the data is based on opt-ins to location tracking the company was fined $57M by France’s data watchdog last year for a lack of transparency over how it uses people’s data.

Then, earlier this year, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) — now the lead privacy regulator for Google in Europe — confirmed a formal probe of the company’s location tracking activity, following a 2018 complaint by EU consumers groups which accuses Google of using manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes.

“The issues raised within the concerns relate to the legality of Google’s processing of location data and the transparency surrounding that processing,” said the DPC in a statement in February, announcing the investigation.

The legal questions hanging over Google’s consent to track likely explains the repeat references in its blog post to people choosing to opt in and having the ability to clear their Location History via settings. (“Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline,” it writes in one example.)

In addition to offering up coronavirus mobility porn reports — which Google specifies it will continue to do throughout the crisis — the company says it’s collaborating with “select epidemiologists working on COVID-19 with updates to an existing aggregate, anonymized dataset that can be used to better understand and forecast the pandemic”.

“Data of this type has helped researchers look into predicting epidemics, plan urban and transit infrastructure, and understand people’s mobility and responses to conflict and natural disasters,” it adds.

IRL pivots into virtual event calendar In Remote Life

What do you do if you’re an event discovery startup and suddenly it’s illegal to attend events? You lean into the cultural shift and pivot. Today, $11 million-funded calendar app IRL is morphing from In Real Life to In Remote Life. It will now focus on helping people find, RSVP for, plan, share, and chat about virtual events from livestreamed concerts to esports tournaments to Zoom cocktail parties.

Coronavirus could make IRL relevant to a wider audience because before an event “only mattered if it was around you. But now with In Remote Life, content has no geographical limitations” says IRL co-founder and CEO Abe Shafi. “The need is exponentially greater because everyone’s routines have been shattered.” IRL ranked #138 in US App Store today, making it the top calendar app, even above Google’s (#168).

Robinhood’s Josh Elman joins IRL

IRL has some fresh product development talent to lead it through the transition. The startup has hired stock trading app Robinhood’s VP of Product Josh Elman . The former Greylock investor is well known for his product chops from jobs at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Elman joined Robinhood in early 2018 but left late last year, notably before its rash of recent outages that enraged users.

“I just realized more than anything that the company needed people who had 110% to give, and it wasn’t clear that was going to be me” Elman said of Robinhood, now valued at $7.6 billion and struggling to scale. “My first passions and all the things I’ve talked about over the years have been social and media.”

For now, IRL is a part time gig where he’ll be heading up a Secret Projects division. While most apps “try to suck more of our time”, he sees IRL as a chance to give this precious resource back to people. Though he insists “Robinhood’s great I’m a very happy shareholder.

Events without borders

“We were on a tear, hitting a stride with usaging and growth related to real life events” says Shafi. “Then this happened”, motioning on our Zoom call to the COVID-19 reality we’re now stuck in. “We realized we had to pull all of our content because it wasn’t happening.”

Today IRL’s iOS app launches a redesign of its Discover homescreen content to center on virtual events people can attend from home. There’s now tabs for gaming, podcasts, TV, and EDU, as well as music, food, lifestyle, and a catch-all ‘fun’ section. Each event can be added to your calendar that syncs with Google Cal, or Liked to add it to your profile that friends and fans can follow. You can also instantly launch a group chat about the event in IRL, or share it to Instagram Stories or another messaging app.

If you can’t find something public to do, you can make plans with friends using the composer with suggestions like “Let’s video chat”, “Zoom workout”, “gaming sesh”, or “Netflix party”. That instantly sets up a calendar event you can invite people to. And if you’re not sure when you want to host, IRL’s “soon” option lets you keep the schedule vague so you and friends can figure out when everyone’s available. 50% of IRL plans start out as “Soon” Shafi reveals, identifying a gap in rigid time/date calendars.

Beyond individual events, IRL also wants to make it easier to develop habits by letting you subscribe to workout, meditation, and other schedules. With sports seasons suspended, IRL lets people sync with calendars of hip-hop album releases and more instead. Or you can subscribe to an influencer’s life and digitally accompany them to events. The goal is that IRL will be able to merge offline events back into its content recommendations as social distancing subsides.

The biggest challenge for IRL will be tuning its event recommendation algorithm. It’s lost a lot of the traditional relevance signals about events like how close they are to your home, how much they cost, or if they’re even in your city. Transitioning to In Remote Life means a global range of happenings is now available to everyone, and since they’re often free to host, many lonely low-quality events have sprung up. That makes it much tougher for IRL to determine what to show.

For now, it’s basing recommendations on what you engage with most on its homescreen, but I found that can make the initial experience very hit-or-miss. The top events in each category were rarely exciting. But IRL is planning to beef up its onboarding process to ask about your interests, and integrate with Spotify so it knows which musicians’ online concerts you’d want to attend.

Still, Shafi thinks IRL is already better than asocial alternatives. “Our main age range is 13 to 25, college and post-college metropolitan areas and across college campuses. Our average user has never used a calendar before, or they’re just used a default calendar like Gcal or iCal.

A cure for loneliness

Hopefully, IRL will take a more serious swing at helping friends realize they’re free at the same time and can hang out. While Down To Lunch failed in this space, now Facebook Messenger and Instagram are exploring it with their auto-status feature, and location apps like Snap Map and Zenly could adapt to share not just where you are, but if you have the intention to hang out.

“How can we use just a little bit of nudging, transparency or suggestion to get people to just do one more thing per month?” Shafi asks. IRL is trying to figure out how to let you passively share that “I have 2 hours free” in a way that “never makes you feel rejected if they don’t respond.”

Facebook did launch a standalone Events calendar app back in 2016, but later paired down the calendaring features, folded it in with restaurant recommendations and renamed it Local. “As big as Facebook is, it can only do so many things insanely well” Elman says of his old employer. “They could do more [on Events], but it’s never been the juggernaut like photos.”

Shafi is happy to have the opportunity in such a foundational space. He describes the concept of the calendar as one he’s sure will outlive him, so it’s worth the effort to make it social no matter how long it takes — though I’m sure his investors like Goodwater Capital, Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins, and Floodgate hope it’ll find a way to monetize eventually.

Revenue could come in the form of selling access to events through the app, or letting promoters and local businesses pay for enhanced discovery. For now, though, IRL is building a deeper connection with event and content publishers with the upcoming launch of its free Add To Calendar button they can build into their sites and emails. Elman says several services charge for these buttons that integrate with Apple and Google’s calendars, but IRL hopes giving them away will help fill its app with things to do, whatever that might be.

“Our tagline is ‘live your best life’. It’s not judgmental. If your best life is playing video games on your couch with your homies, we don’t judge you for that.”