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Microsofts Azure Synapse Analytics bridges the gap between data lakes and warehouses

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At its annual Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft today announced a major new Azure service for enterprises: Azure Synapse Analytics, which Microsoft describes as “the next evolution of Azure SQL Data Warehouse.” Like SQL Data Warehouse, it aims to bridge the gap between data warehouses and data lakes, which are often completely separate. Synapse also taps into a wide variety of other Microsoft services, including Power BI and Azure Machine Learning, as well as a partner ecosystem that includes Databricks, Informatica, Accenture, Talend, Attunity, Pragmatic Works and Adatis. It’s also integrated with Apache Spark.

The idea here is that Synapse allows anybody working with data in those disparate places to manage and analyze it from within a single service. It can be used to analyze relational and unstructured data, using standard SQL.

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Microsoft also highlights Synapse’s integration with Power BI, its easy to use business intelligence and reporting tool, as well as Azure Machine Learning for building models.

With the Azure Synapse studio, the service provides data professionals with a single workspace for prepping and managing their data, as well as for their big data and AI tasks. There’s also a code-free environment for managing data pipelines.

As Microsoft stresses, businesses that want to adopt Synapse can continue to use their existing workloads in production with Synapse and automatically get all of the benefits of the service. “Businesses can put their data to work much more quickly, productively, and securely, pulling together insights from all data sources, data warehouses, and big data analytics systems,” writes Microsoft CVP of Azure Data, Rohan Kumar.

In a demo at Ignite, Kumar also benchmarked Synapse against Google’s BigQuery. Synapse ran the same query over a petabyte of data in 75% less time. He also noted that Synapse can handle thousands of concurrent users — unlike some of Microsoft’s competitors.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/04/microsofts-azure-synapse-analytics-bridges-the-gap-between-data-lakes-and-warehouses/

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Plum, the AI money management app, raises $3M more and comes to Android

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Plum, the U.K.-based “AI assistant” to help you manage your money and save more, has raised $3 million in additional funding — money it plans to use for further growth, including European expansion.

The London company has also quietly launched its app for Android phones, adding to an existing iOS app and Facebook Messenger chatbot.

Backing this round — which is essentially a second tranche to Plum’s earlier $4.5 million raise in the summer — is EBRD and VentureFriends, both existing investors. Christian Faes, founder and CEO of LendInvest has also participated.

It brings the fintech startup’s total funding to $9.3 million since being founded by early TransferWise employee Victor Trokoudes, and Alex Michael, in 2016.

The new investment is said to come at the end of a year of “rapid expansion for Plum” in both London and Athens, including growing the team to 31 employees. Senior hires include Max Mawby, Plum’s head of Behavioural Science, who previously worked for the U.K. government and ran the fintech sector-focused Behavioural Insights Team.

In a call, Trokoudes told me that take-up for Plum’s iOS app has been high and Android is also following a similar trajectory, proof that the startup’s AI assistant has perhaps outgrown its chatbot and Facebook Messenger beginnings (competitor Cleo has also released dedicated iOS and Android apps as an alternative to Facebook Messenger).

He also says Plum now has 650,000 registered users, of which around 70% are active monthly. In recent user feedback sessions conducted by the startup, the biggest draw to the app is that its aim of changing financial behaviour to help people save more appears to be working.

When users stick around using Plum for long enough, Trokoudes says they are surprised (and delighted) that it actually works.

Like similar apps, Plum’s “artificial intelligence” deems what you can afford to save by analysing your bank transactions. It then puts money away each month in the form of round-ups and/or regular savings.

You can open an ISA investment account and invest based on themes, such as only in “ethical companies” or technology. Another related feature is “Splitter,” which, as the name suggests, lets you split your automatic savings between Plum savings and investments, selecting the percentage amounts to go into each pot from 0-100%.

Trokoudes says that Plum recently launched two new “intelligent” saving rules: the 52-Week Challenge, which aims to help you save £1367 over a year; and the Rainy Day Rule, which puts aside money whenever it rains (yes, really!).

“Saving rules use automation to help people save more effectively without overloading them with information,” adds the Plum founder in a statement. “We have good evidence that this approach works: our automated round-ups feature, that we launched earlier this year has become a firm favourite among Plum users, boosting their savings by 50% on average.”

Meanwhile, another one of Plum’s competitors, Chip, recently raised £3.8 million in equity crowdfunding on Crowdcube. It was part of a round targeting $7.3 million in total, although it isn’t clear if all of that has closed yet (last time I checked the company had so far secured $5 million). Noteworthy, the equity crowdfund gave Chip a pre-money valuation of £36.78 million based on “over 153,000” accounts opened.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/13/plum-android/

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Omnius CEO Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss is joining us at Disrupt Berlin

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When you think about artificial intelligence, chances are you think about anthropomorphic robots that can make decisions on their own. But artificial intelligence already has huge impacts in the insurance space. That’s why I’m excited to announce that omni:us founder and CEO Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

omni:us is an AI-driven service that can process a ton of documents (including documents with handwriting), classify them and extract relevant data. This way, omni:us customers can use the platform for automated claims handling.

The startup doesn’t want to disrupt existing insurance companies. Instead, it is working with some of the biggest insurance companies out there, such as Allianz, Baloise, AmTrust and Wefox.

Last year, omni:us raised a $22.5 million Series A funding round (€19.7 million) led by Berlin-headquartered VC firm Target Global, followed by MMC Ventures and Talis Capital. Existing investors Unbound and Anthemis, also participated. Up next, omni:us wants to expand to the U.S.

omni:us is well aware that relying more heavily on artificial intelligence can create some issues. Many AI-driven platform act as a sort of black box — you input data and get a result without really knowing why. omni:us says front and center that it wants to make fast, transparent and empathetic claims decisions.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.


Sofie Quidenus-Wahlforss is an experienced managing director with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Her strategic skills coupled with a passion for AI led her to create omni:us with the goal of redefining the way people work and how companies are handling their business operations. omni:us is as an MI-based, SaaS solution to massively optimize workflows, and empower businesses to make comprehensive data-driven decisions.

Prior to omni:us, Sofie founded Qidenus Technologies which quickly became the leader in the market of robotics and digitization. Sofie is also the patent owner of the Vshape scanner Technology and winner of several awards including the Woman Technology. omni:us is an Artificial Intelligence as a Service (AIaaS) provider for cognitive claims management. Built on a fully data-driven approach, omni:us is transforming the way insurers interact with their insured parties. It provides all the necessary tools and information to make fast, transparent and empathetic claims decisions, whilst improving operational efficiency and reducing loss adjustment expenses. The company is headquartered in Berlin, with research partners in Barcelona and representations in the UK, France and the United States. For further information visit omnius.com.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/21/omnius-ceo-sofie-quidenus-wahlforss-is-joining-us-at-disrupt-berlin/

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Despite bans, Giphy still hosts self-harm, hate speech and child sex abuse content

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Image search engine Giphy bills itself as providing a “fun and safe way” to search and create animated GIFs. But despite its ban on illicit content, the site is littered with self-harm and child sex abuse imagery, TechCrunch has learned.

A new report from Israeli online child protection startup L1ght — previously AntiToxin Technologies — has uncovered a host of toxic content hiding within the popular GIF-sharing community, including illegal child abuse content, depictions of rape and other toxic imagery associated with topics like white supremacy and hate speech. The report, shared exclusively with TechCrunch, also showed content encouraging viewers into unhealthy weight loss and glamorizing eating disorders.

TechCrunch verified some of the company’s findings by searching the site using certain keywords. (We did not search for terms that may have returned child sex abuse content, as doing so would be illegal.) Although Giphy blocks many hashtags and search terms from returning results, search engines like Google and Bing still cache images with certain keywords.

When we tested using several words associated with illicit content, Giphy sometimes showed content from its own results. When it didn’t return any banned materials, search engines often returned a stream of would-be banned results.

L1ght develops advanced solutions to combat online toxicity. Through its tests, one search of illicit material returned 195 pictures on the first search page alone. L1ght’s team then followed tags from one item to the next, uncovering networks of illegal or toxic content along the way. The tags themselves were often innocuous in order to help users escape detection, but they served as a gateway to the toxic material.

Despite a ban on self-harm content, researchers found numerous keywords and search terms to find the banned content. We have blurred this graphic image. (Image: TechCrunch)

Many of the more extreme content — including images of child sex abuse — are said to have been tagged using keywords associated with known child exploitation sites.

We are not publishing the hashtags, search terms or sites used to access the content, but we passed on the information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a national nonprofit established by Congress to fight child exploitation.

Simon Gibson, Giphy’s head of audience, told TechCrunch that content safety was of the “utmost importance” to the company and that it employs “extensive moderation protocols.” He said that when illegal content is identified, the company works with the authorities to report and remove it.

He also expressed frustration that L1ght had not contacted Giphy with the allegations first. L1ght said that Giphy is already aware of its content moderation problems.

Gibson said Giphy’s moderation system “leverages a combination of imaging technologies and human validation,” which involves users having to “apply for verification in order for their content to appear in our searchable index.” Content is “then reviewed by a crowdsourced group of human moderators,” he said. “If a consensus for rating among moderators is not met, or if there is low confidence in the moderator’s decision, the content is escalated to Giphy’s internal trust and safety team for additional review,” he said.

“Giphy also conducts proactive keyword searches, within and outside of our search index, in order to find and remove content that is against our policies,” said Gibson.

L1ght researchers used their proprietary artificial intelligence engine to uncover illegal and other offensive content. Using that platform, the researchers can find other related content, allowing them to find vast caches of illegal or banned content that would otherwise and for the most part go unseen.

This sort of toxic content plagues online platforms, but algorithms only play a part. More tech companies are finding human moderation is critical to keeping their sites clean. But much of the focus to date has been on the larger players in the space, like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.

Facebook, for example, has been routinely criticized for outsourcing moderation to teams of lowly paid contractors who often struggle to cope with the sorts of things they have to watch, even experiencing post-traumatic stress-like symptoms as a result of their work. Meanwhile, Google’s YouTube this year was found to have become a haven for online sex abuse rings, where criminals had used the comments section to guide one another to other videos to watch while making predatory remarks.

Giphy and other smaller platforms have largely stayed out of the limelight, during the past several years. But L1ght’s new findings indicate that no platform is immune to these sorts of problems.

L1ght says the Giphy users sharing this sort of content would make their accounts private so they wouldn’t be easily searchable by outsiders or the company itself. But even in the case of private accounts, the abusive content was being indexed by some search engines, like Google, Bing and Yandex, which made it easy to find. The firm also discovered that pedophiles were using Giphy as the means of spreading their materials online, including communicating with each other and exchanging materials. And they weren’t just using Giphy’s tagging system to communicate — they were also using more advanced techniques like tags placed on images through text overlays.

This same process was utilized in other communities, including those associated with white supremacy, bullying, child abuse and more.

This isn’t the first time Giphy has faced criticism for content on its site. Last year a report by The Verge described the company’s struggles to fend off illegal and banned content. Last year the company was booted from Instagram for letting through racist content.

Giphy is far from alone, but it is the latest example of companies not getting it right. Earlier this year and following a tip, TechCrunch commissioned then-AntiToxin to investigate the child sex abuse imagery problem on Microsoft’s search engine Bing. Under close supervision by the Israeli authorities, the company found dozens of illegal images in the results from searching certain keywords. When The New York Times followed up on TechCrunch’s report last week, its reporters found Bing had done little in the months that had passed to prevent child sex abuse content appearing in its search results.

It was a damning rebuke on the company’s efforts to combat child abuse in its search results, despite pioneering its PhotoDNA photo detection tool, which the software giant built a decade ago to identify illegal images based off a huge database of hashes of known child abuse content.

Giphy’s Gibson said the company was “recently approved” to use Microsoft’s PhotoDNA but did not say if it was currently in use.

Where some of the richest, largest and most-resourced tech companies are failing to preemptively limit their platforms’ exposure to illegal content, startups are filling in the content moderation gaps.

L1ght, which has a commercial interest in this space, was founded a year ago to help combat online predators, bullying, hate speech, scams and more.

The company was started by former Amobee chief executive Zohar Levkovitz and cybersecurity expert Ron Porat, previously the founder of ad-blocker Shine, after Porat’s own son experienced online abuse in the online game Minecraft. The company realized the problem with these platforms was something that had outgrown users’ own ability to protect themselves, and that technology needed to come to their aid.

L1ght’s business involves deploying its technology in similar ways as it has done here with Giphy — in order to identify, analyze and predict online toxicity with near real-time accuracy.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/15/giphy-illegal-content/

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