Do developers have a responsibility to volunteer to nonprofits and social causes?
In this episode, we talk about a concerning security flaw in the Tesla Model X, and Twitter’s fleet rollout and subsequent rollback. Then we check back in with Sarah Maxwell, spokesperson for the Coalition on App Fairness, about Apple’s new reduced app store commission for certain developers. Finally, we chat with Kevin Miller, website lead at the COVID Tracking Project, about what has become one of the most trusted sources on the spread of the pandemic.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Sarah Maxwell is the spokesperson for the Coalition for App Fairness. Prior to that, she was an executive at Blockchain.com for three years responsible for communications, expansion, and new business. Before crypto, she was also an early employee at Uber, where she led communications and policy helping to legalize ridesharing in the early days and was on the founding team for UberEATS. Over the course of her career, Sarah has worked on numerous presidential campaigns and for companies disrupting the status quo.
Kevin Miller is website lead at the COVID Tracking Project. He is a mountain saunterer, wave tumbler, bike rider, raft flipper, trail loser, and part-time computer starer. He writes applications focused on public good, engagement, and empowerment.
[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.
[00:00:19] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:22] SY: This week, we’re talking about a concerning security flaw in the Tesla Model X and Twitter’s fleet rollout and subsequent rollback.
[00:00:29] JP: Then we check back in with Sarah Maxwell, Spokesperson for the Coalition on App Fairness about Apple’s new reduced App Store commissions for certain developers.
[00:00:37] SM: You know I feel like they probably needed to do something and this felt like they could offer something that seemed big and a good concession, but really is just more of a gesture.
[00:00:49] SY: Finally, we chat with Kevin Miller, Website Lead at the COVID Tracking Project about what has become one of the most trusted sources on the spread of the pandemic.
[00:00:57] KM: So I think we have a social responsibility to provide solutions and our skill sets to our communities and that can be a wide variety of things.
[00:01:07] SY: This week, we’re starting off the episode a little differently. Since it’s Thanksgiving Day here in the US, we thought we might ask each other what we are most thankful for in the development tech world for this year. So Josh, what are you thankful for?
[00:01:22] JP: Well, I thought about this a little bit. All right. Get ready.
[00:01:28] SY: Okay.
[00:01:29] JP: I think I have kind of like a spicy take.
[00:01:30] SY: Ooh!
[00:01:31] JP: Maybe. We’ll see. This year, I am most thankful for Zoom.
[00:01:35] SY: Oh, interesting. Very interesting.
[00:01:38] JP: Put the pitchfork down. Put the turkey baster down.
[00:01:41] SY: Yes.
[00:01:43] JP: Let me explain myself.
[00:01:44] SY: Everyone calm down.
[00:01:44] JP: Yeah. Everybody calm down. Let me explain myself. Okay. Zoom’s got a lot of problems, yeah. However, this year, we’ve all had to rely upon video conferencing so much more than we ever had in the past. I work remotely. Saron, you work remotely. We record this podcast remotely. So we’ve all been using Zoom for years now. But this year was really the year that, due to the pandemic, I found Zoom creeping into parts of my life I never thought I would use it in. So for example, my daughter is doing school online. She’s using Zoom constantly to talk with her professors, to get her homework done, but she’s also using it to stay in touch with her friends that she can’t see in person. I’m using it to stay in touch with my friends that I can’t see in person. I’m using it for non-friend and non-work usage. So I’m taking fitness classes over Zoom.
[00:02:42] SY: Yeah.
[00:02:43] JP: I’m doing therapy over Zoom. I’m doing all these services over Zoom because I can’t leave my house and it has really underscored for me how important video conferencing is. So maybe it’s not Zoom in particular because it’s got problems, but it’s the best of the bunch right now. It’s just affordable, easy video conferencing that I’m most thankful for.
[00:03:06] SY: Okay. That is not what I thought you were going to say. Very interesting. Okay. I think I have a spicy one as well, depending on your position. I am really thankful for Unbounce. If you don’t know, Unbounce is a landing page like Wiziwig creator and I used it for Disco when we did our landing page. We’re still using it at Disco. And I love Unbounce so much because as a developer, spending all that time, like structuring HTML and CSS for a very simple landing page, sounds like, “Oh, it’s just simple.” It’s such a pain, especially when you want to change the entire layout and you want to make it mobile responsive and you want to switch things. It’s just such a pain to do. And it was so much faster to just do it on Unbounce, leave it alone, not have to think about anything and then be able to focus my coding on the actual app that only I could do. You know what I mean? Like being able to just like outsource just the annoyingness of a very simple landing page and being able to focus instead on building my own app was just amazing. So that’s what I’m thankful for this year.
[00:04:12] JP: Okay. I have to admit. I thought you built that off from hand.
[00:04:14] SY: No.
[00:04:15] JP: So well done.
[00:04:17] SY: Yeah. It’s really good. And it was just so much faster and so convenient. Yeah. No, it’s really great. I’ve been really enjoying it.
[00:04:25] JP: Is there anything you’re not thankful for? What would be the opposite of being thankful, grateful?
[00:04:30] SY: Okay. I know.
[00:04:32] JP: Go for it.
[00:04:33] SY: This isn’t exactly tech, but it’s related to Zoom and this is very controversial. I hate virtual backgrounds. I hate them so much. I see them so much. And I’m sorry to our producer, Levi, because he loves virtual backgrounds. But I hate them. I think they’re so juvenile. For the most part, they look pretty bad, and I hate them with a passion. And every time I have someone who actually has like a real background, I’m just like, “Thank you.” It’s just such a sigh of relief for my eyes. So that is what I am not thankful for, virtual backgrounds. I’m not a fan.
[00:05:10] JP: I think what I’m most not thankful for this year is also Zoom.
[00:05:15] SY: Yeah.
[00:05:17] JP: Let me break it down. Sorry, Zoom. They were on the phone as a sponsor and now they’re hanging up. It’s the social aspect of Zoom and particular with my family. Early on, my mother came to me, hi mom if you’re listening, and she was like, “Hey, should we do a Zoom Hangout?” And I was like, “No, let’s not.” Because for someone that works remotely, Zoom, I associate Zoom with work, right? I think I’m broken coming into this situation. I associate Zoom with work and video conferencing with work and professional projects and my day. And at night, kudos to all my friends that are having Zoom social hours. They’re playing board games over Zoom. They’re having Zoom drinks. I just can’t get into it because I equate Zoom with work. After I’m done developing and then talking with my coworkers over Zoom during the day, the last thing I want to do is sit. Even if it’s a different room, I still don’t want to sit down in front of a camera.
[00:06:23] SY: Yeah.
[00:06:23] JP: So for my friends and family, I am using this really retro technology called the telephone and I just call them.
[00:06:31] SY: Do you do FaceTime? Is that like a thing?
[00:06:32] JP: No. no. We’re all audio. I mean, I’m one step away from a telegram. I find it so much easier to just focus on someone’s voice when I’m just speaking on the phone with them.
[00:06:44] SY: Yeah, I totally get that. I totally get that. Cool. Well, that’s what we’re thankful for and not thankful for. We’ll see what 2021 brings us.
[00:06:51] JP: I’m already thankful for 2021.
[00:06:55] SY: Don’t jinx it. We’re all very excited about 2020 and then here, this is what we got. Don’t jinx it.
[00:07:08] SY: So our first bit of news is about Tesla, which made me really uncomfortable. I thought it was kind of freaky. So Lennert Wouters, a Security Researcher in Belgium, he found some vulnerabilities in the Tesla Model X. So apparently, you can steal the car by taking advantage of the car’s key-less unlocking system using Bluetooth. So the hack takes two steps. It’s a two-step process, and you can do it using a hardware kit that costs about $300, which is not bad for a car that costs tens of thousands of dollars. I think it’s a very good deal. And essentially all you have to do is you have to find the car’s vehicle identification number, which is often found just on the dashboard. Then if you come within 15 feet of the owner’s key fob, this hardware can take the radio code that unlocks the car. So Wouters could then turn on the car by plugging in his computer in a port under the display and trick the car’s BCM to pair with his key fob validating it. Very freaky stuff. So Tesla says it’s going to come out with a software update to their fobs that should fix some of these security issues. That’s coming up very soon. And you can read more about it in a really great feature from WIRED that we’ll put in our show notes. So not everyone has a Tesla. So you might be wondering, “Why does this matter?” But really it’s only a matter of time before other cars start having these types of functionalities and it becomes more ubiquitous. So this is an issue that we all need to be paying attention to. Maybe not for now, but definitely for the future.
[00:08:40] JP: Right. And iOS 14, Apple announced that they’re going to start rolling out unlocking a car with your phone functionality. I think it’s coming to some BMWs, but I think we’re going to see this happen more and more. I have to admit. When I first read this story, I was kind of like terrified that the researcher is just kind of hiding in the bushes with his phone and then you see the pictures and he is legit like hauling a small PC into these cars and plugging in a bunch of wires.
[00:09:08] SY: Okay. That makes me feel better. That makes me feel better. Yeah.
[00:09:09] JP: Right. It’s a sizable piece of kit, but it’s still really freaky. So maybe like when you’re at your 24-hour grocery store, picking up your turkey and cranberries, you don’t have to worry about someone running off with your car. But if someone wanted to target you or say target a politician or something like that, it starts to come down that road.
[00:09:31] SY: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:09:32] JP: Some of these hacks depend on physical access. So I’m wondering what you think about the idea that as we move more to wireless technologies, we’re really relying upon the encryption to make it so that hackers can’t just pull this stuff out of the air. And I think that’s where part of this hack relies upon.
[00:09:50] SY: Yeah, absolutely true. Like when I heard about just the Tesla and just self-driving cars in general, and also just the way that Tesla works is they have constant software updates. So it really is, I mean, if you think about it, it kind of feels like an app on wheels. You know what I mean? It feels like, “Oh, you just get these updates, you get these new features.” Generally, when you think about the way Apple does software updates, software updates usually come with new vulnerabilities and then the next update fixes those vulnerabilities, right? Every new feature has a potential hole that a hacker can exploit. And so when I hear about Tesla’s and like constant software updates and et cetera, to me, those were like potential entry points. Those are like ways that it can be vulnerable, which you don’t get in in kind of like a normal car, so to speak. So it’s definitely just a different paradigm, a different way of thinking, and yeah, you have to be really careful with that type of technology.
[00:10:44] JP: You know, on the other hand though, I have a non-Tesla and my car is like three years old and it doesn’t even have like smartphone integration. It came out a year before that became very popular. And my only option is to buy a new car. Like even though touch screen, they just do not update the head units of these older cars. So conversely, you could argue that, yeah, there are more opportunities for bugs and hacks, but there are opportunities to add new features or fix features.
[00:11:17] SY: Yeah. But in this case, I’m really grateful to hear that it’s not as simple as like, “I’m going to be in my remote server hacking in.” I’m very glad that he needs to log a computer. That makes me feel a lot better and a lot more comfortable with all these new technologies for sure.
[00:11:33] JP: Well, speaking of updates, last week, y’all might’ve seen a hashtag on Twitter for something called a “fleet”. That was because Twitter had begun to roll out a new function very much like Snapchat or Instagram stories where you can create a tweet that is ephemeral and disappears After 24 hours. The fleet function itself was just as temporary, it turns out. Once fleets went into production, users started reporting freezes and crashes of the Twitter app. Users have also already reported that they’re able to access these ephemeral tweets after the 24-hour period has expired.
[00:12:06] SY: Ooh!
[00:12:06] JP: Ooh! Yeah. In response, Twitter slowed down the introduction of the feature and they spread the rollout over a couple of days instead of 24 hours like they originally planned. But this has also given Twitter users plenty of time to just dunk on the entire idea of stories on Twitter, which brings up a question, stories in Twitter? Really? Are we doing that?
[00:12:30] SY: Honestly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. As soon as Instagram copied stories, I was like, “All right, well, I guess everyone’s going to do stories.” I’m kind of surprised that this is happening in 2020. It feels like the concept of the disappearing user-generated content has like been there, done that. You know? So I’m just kind of like, “Why did you just think of this?” Like if you were going to do this, you should’ve done this a couple of years ago. That’s how I felt about it.
[00:12:55] JP: Well, in their defense, Twitter has been kind of, I mean, comparatively on a feature bonanza this past year. They introduced Audio Tweets a couple of months ago. That also had kind of a troubled rollout where they started seeing problems in production with performance, and they really slow down the rollout. And I wonder what’s going on with Twitter on their rollout strategy. It’s certainly not easy to roll out a new feature to millions of users. And I wonder if this is just one of those things that it’s really, really hard to predict what the usage and impact is going to be on a system until you test it at scale.
[00:13:30] SY: Yeah. And that’s always been I think, that as a developer, something, as someone who deals with mostly small apps and mostly builds tools for my community, my people, I’ve never been in a position where I had to roll out an app to like many millions of people. That is such a huge endeavor. And I’m sure that it’s a very, very complicated. So on the one hand, obviously it looks bad to roll out a feature and then after take it back. But on the other hand, I feel for them. I feel like it’s probably a really hard task to do, especially with the whole it not actually expiring after 24 hours and it being able to, that’s a really big flaw. That defeats the whole purpose of the ephemeral tweet. And so I feel like that’s a big one they should have gotten right. But overall, rollout issues, that I think is okay. It’s okay.
[00:14:22] JP: It’s funny you mentioned the being able to access the tweet after, I’m sorry, the fleet, after 24 hours. There were some other standard security features that researchers pointed out that this feature is missing. You’re not informed if someone takes a screenshot of your tweet and I think a lot of this comes down to unlike Instagram and Snapchat, which are primarily phone apps. So you can build all sorts of notifications in there and really control what happens. Twitter is on the web a lot now.
[00:14:51] SY: Yeah. I always use it on the web. Yeah.
[00:14:53] JP: I do as well. And you really cannot control what someone is screenshotting on their computer.
[00:14:57] SY: I hadn’t thought about that. That’s a really, really good point.
[00:15:00] JP: Have you sent a fleet yet?
[00:15:02] SY: I don’t know. Where is that feature or have I just not gotten that feature yet? I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know where it is.
[00:15:07] JP: From what I understand, it’s only in the official Twitter App.
[00:15:12] SY: Okay.
[00:15:12] JP: I think it’s only on iOS and Android.
[00:15:15] SY: How do I get to it?
[00:15:16] JP: Again, from what I understand in like the iOS or Android application, they should be a bunch of like Twitter avatar circles, very much like Instagram stories, right at the top of your timeline. Again, I’m just going out of a life scene from those screenshots because I’ve literally never seen this feature because I only use the web-based version of Twitter.
[00:15:33] SY: I see. I never realized. This is terribly designed. I had no idea this is where the fleets were.
[00:15:40] JP: Oh!
[00:15:41] SY: Very interesting.
[00:15:42] JP: So clearly you have not been interacting.
[00:15:42] SY: It looks just like Instagram.
[00:15:44] JP: Yeah.
[00:15:45] SY: No. I heard about them and I was like, “This is not something I’m going to use.” First of all, okay, so now we’ve talked about this. So first of all, all the fleets are just images.
[00:15:55] JP: Oh, they’re not texts?
[00:15:56] SY: No. Wait, am I in the right app? Hold on.
[00:15:59] JP: This is Saron and Josh poorly review app features, our new segment everyone.
[00:16:05] SY: No. No one is actually tweeting. They’re posting images and it looks exactly like Instagram.
[00:16:11] JP: Oh! For some reason, I thought they were texts.
[00:16:14] SY: I thought they were texts too. So now I’m very confused.
[00:16:16] JP: Oh, this is wild. All right. I might have to install the official.
[00:16:19] SY: Wait. This is the fleet, right? They also have stories. Do they also have stories?
[00:16:24] JP: No. So fleets are what they call stories.
[00:16:28] SY: Okay. That’s what I thought. Yeah. Everyone’s posting images. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen, but it’s definitely not people posting tweets.
[00:16:35] JP: This is amazing.
[00:16:37] SY: So maybe this is their way of better incorporating images into Twitter because Twitter is generally not the place where you post a lot of photos. Right? So maybe that’s their way of kind of pulling that in and getting you away from Instagram. Maybe that’s part of the situation. But yeah. No, everyone’s just posting images.
[00:16:56] JP: All right.
[00:16:57] SY: Good luck. Good luck, Twitter. So we’ve covered a lot of Apple’s App Store drama on this show. And just as a refresher, essentially Apple has come under fire about its 30% in-app purchase commission rate from big companies like Epic Games, to indie developers like Jonas Downey, co-creator of the Hello Weather App, who we had on our show to talk about this.
[00:17:21] JD: Apple kind of holds all the cards. So we’re at the mercy of what Apple decides to do. If they decide to buy out our provider, if they decide to buy out a competitor, they can do that. If they decided to change their built-in APIs, we can be susceptible to that. They also control the entire platform. So they decide what we are allowed to say, how we sell the product, what we can charge for it. They also drive traffic to the product. So if they decide they want to market things differently, they can turn us on or off. So we’re really completely under their rule.
[00:17:51] SY: There was even a non-profit that was created called the Coalition for App Fairness, whose entire mission is to create a level playing field for app businesses. And this is a clip from when we had Sarah Maxwell, Spokesperson for the Coalition on the show.
[00:18:06] SM: We focus on three issues that we believe are the biggest problems that the ecosystem is facing today. So. The first one is anti-competitiveness. So the behavior of Apple and other platforms in being anti-competitive and self- preferencing their own apps or services, the 30% app tax that is charged to app developers and passed on to consumers, and then the third one is really about consumer choice. So you really don’t have a lot of freedom when you purchase an iPhone or others in terms of what apps you want to interact with.
[00:18:46] SY: Well, it looks like Apple took some of that criticism to heart. They announced this week that a new program will launch on the first of next year where developers can now qualify for a 15% commission reduction if they earned a million dollars or less the previous year for all of their apps. It also looks like if you end up breaking that threshold and make more than a million in proceeds, you will then have to pay the regular 30% commission for the rest of the year. If you had previously made a million dollars, but your proceeds dropped below that, then developer can apply for the reduced rate the following year. And coming up next, Josh follows up with Sarah Maxwell, Spokesperson for the Coalition for App Fairness, about this new move by Apple.
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[00:20:48] JP: Joining us is Sarah Maxwell, Spokesperson for the Coalition for App Fairness. Sarah, thank you for being here.
[00:20:53] SM: Hi Josh. Thanks for having me.
[00:20:55] JP: So why do you think Apple is doing this reduced commission rate program now?
[00:21:00] SM: I think that they are starting to feel the pressure. There has been some momentum since the Coalition launched and throughout the general developer community that’s pushing back on Apple and seeking change, certainly the results from the antitrust congressional hearing and the report that deemed Apple a monopoly on the App Store was a new development that I don’t think that they were expecting. So I feel like they probably needed to do something and this felt like they could offer something that seemed big and a good concession, but really is just more of a gesture. And it doesn’t actually do anything to change the way that the App Store functions.
[00:21:46] JP: Well, we’re definitely going to get into that. But before we do, I want to ask, how much do you think the Coalition’s actions had to do with Apple rolling out this program?
[00:21:57] SM: I wish I could say we were fully responsible, but I can’t. I don’t know. We weren’t in negotiations with Apple. It’s something that like always Apple voluntarily does on their own. And I think if they had wanted to engage more fully with developers and listen to what people actually wanted, they would have made a different change. But instead, the app tax is something that they can concede on pretty easily and it’s something that they use all the time and an issue that they’re willing to kind of make changes on. Whereas they’re not as flexible on other issues. In fact, I haven’t seen them be flexible on any of the other issues.
[00:22:36] JP: So I think I know the answer to this question. But from your perspective, is the Coalition satisfied with this outcome?
[00:22:43] SM: No, we’re not. I think certainly it is good for small developers, that app tax is extremely high, so a relief of 15% is welcomed, but it doesn’t incentivize you to be successful. If you’re going to build an app and as soon as you make $1,000,001, all of a sudden your fees are doubled. So in talking to small developers, and I talked to somebody recently who’s creating a game, they still have to model out the 30% because in their minds, they’re expecting to get to those milestones. And while the 15% lower fee is really nice to have at this moment in time and creates a little less pressure, the reality is they still have to anticipate paying higher fees in the future. And I don’t really know a marketplace or any other setup where your reward for success is double taxes. Right?
[00:23:43] JP: Right.
[00:23:44] SM: It doesn’t really incentivize these small apps to try to be successful. If anything, there should be economies of scale, which as you make more, you’d pay less, but we haven’t ever seen Apple implement anything like that.
[00:23:57] JP: What are some alternatives the Coalition would put forward? I mean, obviously 15% across the board would be great. Do you think a tiered program where it’s maybe 15% on the first million? I guess I’m just kind of curious, are there options in there that the Coalition would advocate for?
[00:24:18] SM: When it comes to fees and actually really with anything with the App Store, the single thing that we advocate for is equality. So the issue with what they’ve done with the new policy is that it creates an additional fraction. It separates certain developers from each other. If you’re in this category where you get under a million, you get these fees. If you’re above, you get these fees. If you’re doing digital goods, you get these fees. If you’re physical goods, you get these other fees or you get no fees. Or if you’re online events, we’re going to give you temporary relief. So it’s confusing, right? I think the better policy and the one that we strive for is equality across the whole entire ecosystem, not this sort of caveats for different groups of people.
[00:25:09] JP: Something that’s been pointed out is that this is not an automatic program. Developers have to apply for this 15% reduced rate. Why do you think Apple’s doing that?
[00:25:19] SM: You’re right. It is opt-in, which I think that it seems like this program is a gesture. It sounds really nice. It sounds really friendly, the App Store Small Business Program. We didn’t get a lot of details, right? It’s not very transparent about what you need to apply, what happens once you’re in the program, what you need to do besides maintain below a million dollars in revenue to still be able to participate. So it’s really unclear. I think Apple is supposed to be revealing more details around the program later this year ahead of January, but it did seem like it’s a very complicated program to participate in. So it’s like how many people are actually going to take advantage of it, which means that they can say that they created it, don’t actually have to have anybody do it. And then they’re still making billions of dollars off of the App Store fees. They managed to create a program that literally doesn’t impact their bottom line at all. And I think that they can create a program that sounds really great and friendly, but with the expectation of maybe not very many people actually participating in it.
[00:26:24] JP: I could also imagine a program like this might end up dividing smaller and independent developers from larger companies. Your opinion of this program, I think, is going to depend a lot upon which group you fall into. Is the Coalition worried about Apple splitting up the criticism or the groups that are lobbying for app fairness?
[00:26:51] SM: I certainly think it is a tactic of theirs to try to temper some of the backlash that they’ve seen. Since the Coalition launched, we’ve seen an uptick of people being more empowered and willing to speak up against Apple, whether they’re in the Coalition or not. There’s a lot more news. There’s a lot more conversations on Twitter. I saw an app recently that they were going to be pulled down from the App Store. They were very transparent and posted a blog about their experience with the App Store reviewers and why they felt like they weren’t in violation of the policies. And this was a two-week back and forth and then the next thing you know, they got a call and another person from the App Store apologized for the experience and assured them that they wouldn’t be removed. So we’re seeing a little bit more happen with the smaller apps that are like, “You know what? We spent a lot of time building this product. We’re in the store. You’re telling us that we’re violating one rule. You’re not telling us which one or why. And here we are having to guess. That’s just not okay.” And being a little bit more public about it, I would imagine that that’s not great for Apple. And they probably would prefer that these small apps stop doing that and maybe, in their mind, this new program would offer that kind of relief or service, if you will.
[00:28:17] JP: So what do you think this program means for the general ongoing criticism of Apple’s App Store policies and specifically what’s next for the Coalition?
[00:28:29] SM: I’m not sure if you saw, but on Monday they extended the deadline for companies that offer online services. Those were businesses that maybe had to shift from physical into digital because of COVID and lockdown. And originally, they were going to allow them till December, but before they had to implement in-app payments. And as of Monday, they’ve extended it to June. So in my mind, I think that that’s them being like, “Oh, gosh. Okay, well, Thursday or Wednesday rather, our announcement didn’t go as well. It wasn’t as positive as we expected. And so let’s try to do something else to make it look like we’re being proactive.” So definitely Apple’s trying to make changes, but it is a lot of window dressing, if you will. They’re not doing things that actually structurally change the App Store. They’re not doing anything that creates more choice or flexibility for app creators. Beyond just reducing the fees or giving somebody a little bit of time before they have to implement Apple’s in-app payments, that doesn’t fundamentally change how somebody’s business operates. Apple still controls the customer relationship. You as an app creator can’t interact with your customers. You still have to use their in-app payment system. You don’t have flexibility in using a payment provider of your choice, even though we know that Stripe and PayPal and others are used around the world. They’re still not good enough for in-app purchases and there’s still always the risk that no matter what you want to do with your business or your business model, if it doesn’t fit into the box of Apple, then you’re at risk of being denied.
[00:30:24] JP: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we didn’t cover today?
[00:30:27] SM: I think Apple’s movements into the new fees, these kind of policies show momentum. It shows that there’s momentum building all over the world, actually, and that’s really great because it means that we are getting closer to real changes and to real structural differences in the app stores. We have the 10 app principles that we believe create a state fair standard of conduct. That’s what we’d like to see Apple move towards voluntarily or with the help of legislative or regulatory pressure, which are in the works in both the US, in Europe, and there’s things happening in Australia, India, et cetera. So this is really a global issue, which makes sense because the app stores are global. We need good policy. We need good business practices and we need them to be consistent regardless of where you are. So as we look back on the year, we certainly are in a better place than we started. The Coalition that has a lot of work to do and we’re very excited to do that. We’re adding new members every day. We’re hearing different people’s stories. Our website is @fairness.org and we have member resources. Anybody that was an app is welcome to join us. The fee is $69. It’s 30% less than the Apple developer fee.
[00:31:48] JP: Nice.
[00:31:49] SM: Wink! And yeah, we welcome anybody with an app across any category to join the Coalition. The more people we have, the stronger voices are, and the better we can represent and advocate for developers across the entire ecosystem.
[00:32:04] JP: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:32:06] SM: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:32:13] JP: Coming up next, we speak with Kevin Miller, Website Lead at the COVID Tracking Project, about a resource that has become gospel when it comes to getting an accurate view of the pandemic after this.
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[00:33:43] SY: Here with us, we have Kevin Miller, Website Lead at the COVID Tracking Project. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:33:49] KM: Thank you.
[00:33:50] SY: So tell us what the COVID Tracking Project is, how it came to be, and how you got involved.
[00:33:56] KM: So the COVID Tracking Project started in March. It started as a small project with a small number of people who were just trying to track the status of COVID and couldn’t find any quality information from the federal government. And so they were literally just building spreadsheets from states. And I got involved pretty early on, I think, around March 18th because I saw them cited in the New York Times and had been working with the project ever since. The project itself is very much a human-driven project. You would think that there are consistent definitions of things, like what is a test or what is positive COVID case across states, and that’s definitely not the case. Every state does things differently and has different systems. So it’s really a labor of hundreds of people to pull all those disparate datasets and also provide a sort of human level of quality assurance around that data to deliver new numbers every day. The project is really all volunteer, focused on data collection and data quality.
[00:35:09] JP: Can you tell us a little bit about how this project has grown to become one of the most trusted resources about how the pandemic is spreading?
[00:35:16] KM: I mean I think the project has become trusted because it’s stepped into a vacuum. The joke early on was that we were working on this for a few weeks and then of course the CDC or HHS would step in and provide something like this, and that just hasn’t happened. So we I think have become trusted, partly because of the consistency and very, again, human focused aspect of our work and the very transparent aspect of our work. We have a lot of journalists and epidemiologists who are involved in this work day to day, doing reporting through our daily tweets and our blogs saying, “Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know.” So instead of providing data and just saying, “Here’s the number of cases,” for example, this week, we know that our numbers are going to be off because of Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving effects, things like reporting. So I think that transparency has really added to the level of trust that people have in the project. And there’s also been a public snowballing where as we’ve become more trusted, more news outlets have used our data and that’s brought in a lot more people in resources and also focus, so to the point now where we’re cited in hundreds of thousands of newspaper and TV pieces.
[00:36:39] SY: So one of your contributors, Olivier Lacan, Senior Software Engineer at Pluralsight, recently presented about using Ruby to track COVID. So I’d love for you to tell us a bit more about the technology, about the stack that makes up this tracking project.
[00:36:53] KM: Yeah. So the stack is very much driven around, like we’ve been building the bicycle as we’ve been riding it down at hill while on fire a little bit.
[00:37:03] SY: The best way to build anything.
[00:37:05] KM: Yes. And so our stack is everything from Google Spreadsheets for data collection and entry. We have some of the most impressive sheets I’ve ever seen and we have really tested the possibility of what you can do with a Google Sheet, I think. And then we have a very solid infrastructure around that for internal data checking and quality control, but then our actual public interface in terms of our API and our website is all run on Gatsby, which is a static site generator that uses React. That has been really powerful for us because we work with a lot of very messy datasets. It’s necessarily messy because of the nature of the pandemic. So with Gatsby, it’s really easy for us to bring in a bunch of different sources that have wildly different schemas and build tools on top of it very rapidly.
[00:37:59] JP: Earlier, you mentioned that there was a sense early on that CDC would eventually step in to provide this data to the public. How do you feel about volunteers taking out a task that a lot of people say should be done by the government?
[00:38:11] KM: Well, I mean, it’s frustrating, right? Like I think we all would really love for the government to both be providing the data and also provide sort of level of transparency and also do so in a wide variety of formats and distributions that are useful to people.
[00:38:29] SY: So given the success of this project, one of the things that’s exciting to me is it shows what happens when developers kind of put their skills to public use and for a public good and how it can really help people. And so I’m wondering, how do you think about the responsibility of developers to volunteer for things like this? Do you feel like it’s a responsibility? How do you kind of position our skills and our abilities in the context of something as huge as a global pandemic?
[00:38:58] KM: That really gets, I think, to how I feel personally as a developer, as somebody who has a little bit of a position of privilege because of not only my personal background, but also the access to things because of the nature of my work. So I think we have a social responsibility to provide solutions and our skillsets to our communities. And that can be a wide variety of things. Be it things like public health, like what the COVID Tracking Project does or science or community engagement.
[00:39:31] JP: Has the project had any response or contact from either the current or the incoming administration?
[00:39:37] KM: We have not had direct contact. We are being used by the incoming transition team from the Biden Administration to, I think, it was Bloomberg or for BuzzFeed that recently reported that the head of the transition teams, COVID Task Force, pointed to the COVID Tracking Project saying like, “We’re not getting any data from the HHS. We’re using COVID Tracking instead, because they haven’t been able to get real data.” Now that might have definitely changed given the news yesterday in terms of Trump allowing that transition to take place. And we have been cited by the White House, the current administration as well.
[00:40:15] SY: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered yet?
[00:40:19] KM: The other thing that as a developer this project has really made me think about, we have not only our or core dataset, but we also have two other datasets, Long-Term Care Facility Tracking and our Racial Data Tracker. And the Racial Data Tracker has really been discussed during this pandemic. The racial disparities of the pandemic had really highlighted the long simmering social problems in the US that is not really a surprise to a lot of people who’ve been paying attention. But in working with that dataset, it made me really think as a developer about things like, “How do you name variables?” Because code now is a language of our society and especially open source code is something that lots of people contribute to, something like creating a chart and naming the variables within it or the labels on it has real social meaning. When you write a variable like total black deaths, for example, that has a lot of weight to it and for a lot of other people who are reading it.
[00:41:27] SY: Yeah.
[00:41:27] KM: So I have not had time to like really unpack that, but that’s something that I think would be amazing for us as a community to come together and say just like the conversation now about things like why are we calling database replication schemes, master slaves, or why isn’t that the master branch the default branch. I think coming up with some standards around things like variable naming, database structures would be really useful. The other thing that has really been frustrating to me with looking at all the different COVID dashboards out there. You might notice unlike every other COVID website, we do not have the map of the United States on our homepage. And the reason is like the topology of the US is a product of a fraught history and has no relationship to the actual density of people. I’m a Californian. So I’m always like, “Rhode Island is a size of a county.” I understand that all of the sizes of these states don’t really correlate to the people who live there and it doesn’t really tell a compelling story when you have like a color coded map and there’s all these other inherent accessibility problems with using the US map as a form of navigation. The Rhode Island and Delaware, you can’t tap them with your finger on a phone because your finger usually covers them up. And for people who are blind or have different motor skill challenges, navigating those maps is almost impossible. We can all learn a little bit about how to improve those interfaces and make them more effective for everybody.
[00:43:00] SY: Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:43:02] KM: Thank you.
[00:43:14] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513. Or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.