To: Bitmark Investors & Advisors
From: Sean Moss-Pultz
Note: This article series is taken from Sean’s quarterly letters to Bitmark investors. We share them publicly one quarter after they are written to give everyone a deeper, transparent look at Bitmark’s perspective of the world.
Dear Investors & Advisors
I can still clearly remember that sinking feeling, riding the bus from Niseko to the Sapporo airport, after reading the Wuhan Coronavirus Wikipedia page. This was mid-February.
Wikipedia is my filter for fake news. In this specific case, my aim was to disprove the wife. She wanted me to wear a mask on the flight back to Taiwan. I hated masks. “You are overreacting.” I complained. We are modern people with phones, airplanes, and the Internet. Surely the Spanish flu of 1918, or even worse: the Black Death that killed 60% of Europe, could never happen again. “Pandemics don’t happen anymore.” I told her. Humans have the virus problem solved.
Yet as I read, a simmering rage built up inside. In less than one hour of reading Wikipedia, it became painfully obvious that this coronavirus was nothing like the common flu! How could it be that all my mainstream media sources, even the CDC and the WHO, all tried to downplay this?!
What drove Taiwan to shut down schools, while the Western world partied on Florida beaches? What did Taiwan know that allowed them to react so differently from the West? (I have an answer now, but let me come back to that later.)
For the remainder of February, each morning began with my favorite COVID-19 dashboard. What I saw was very small numbers of infections doubling very fast. I felt that special kind of fear, unique to those of us that maintain an illusion of control, that things were about to get totally out of control.
My fear was growing. This was the fear of a CEO realizing that keeping enough money in the bank could get insanely difficult. But it went deeper than that. It was the fear of a husband not knowing if I could keep my family safe. And of a son, internalizing for the first time, that I might not see my parents again.
Things became so intense and absurd, so stressful and frustrating, that my body started creating its own pain. One morning, I woke up with a pinched nerve in my neck. Raw pain flashed across the back of my head each time I moved for the next two weeks. I honestly don’t remember having such physical pain in my life.
I won’t bore you with a rehab journal. What I did was to surf. A LOT. Surfing created space for solitude. I was (literally) alone in the vast Pacific Ocean. Immense solitude kept me calm so I could process all that was happening.
Energy in the ocean bonds together and travels in groups of waves we surfers call sets. While waiting for a set, a thought overwhelmed me: I have a choice. Whether I take this wave on the head, or into the barrel, that’s up to me. Mother Nature’s job is to deliver the wave. My job is that of action.
As I mentioned earlier, we have an application into NDF. They planned to visit mid-March. Preparing for that would become my focus. VCs might wait and see. My bet was on the government doubling down and investing through the pandemic.
While working on the “Why Now?” I paused and thought to myself, “How can Facebook be the reason now?” To recall, Bitmark was developing SPRING — a tool to help people escape from Facebook with their data. The exploitation, mass-surveillance, and manipulation of our personal data was the heart of my story.
This “Why Now?” slide, in case you don’t know, exists to answer the question “Why hasn’t your solution been built before now?” The best companies almost always have a clear why now. Nature hates a vacuum.
My conclusion was that the “Why now?” for Bitmark can no longer be Facebook. The “Why Now?” is COVID-19.
For the first time in human history, the entire world seems to be focused on a single problem. COVID-19 feels like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis combined. No one seems to really know what is going on. This is especially true for America.
In 2008, I witnessed the collapse of the financial system. Out of that crisis came Bitcoin. What about now? At the heart of this crisis is our institutions failing, again. When I look around, I see journalism and the health systems (Eg: CDC, FDA,…) fail us again and again. These two institutions appear totally inept at addressing the global problems we face today.
As fast as we could, Bitmark made aggressive moves to adapt. We cut all non-essential spending and projects. We suspended development of SPRING. We got to work on a tool we call “Autonomy” to give people a neighborhood public health forecast.
“What’s the most important thing you want to know about COVID-19?” I asked my family, friends, and co-workers. What came back was shockingly clear. We all wanted to know if specific places were safe.
I believe what we are doing with Autonomy is a form of advocacy. All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.
In America and Europe, with HIPAA and GDPR, systems are not connected because of privacy concerns. (Taiwan also has similar data privacy protections.) This makes it next to impossible for state and local agencies to know what to do. Public health institutions seem especially challenged in times of crisis. The way out is for people to voluntarily share personal data.
The work we pioneered with UC Berkeley, H2, and Pfizer was a framework for individuals to directly share personal data with institutions, in a way that respects their privacy and security. These projects were slow, and we did not get all the results we wanted. People simply didn’t see a sense of urgency. COVID-19 changes that. Voluntarily sharing information has now become a matter of life and death.
At the core of Autonomy is a location score. This score gives agency to act. Currently, we score a location by processing the following data:
- Congestion/human traffic density
- Known contagious parties (reported from govt)
- Spikes in symptoms
- Self-reported positive behaviors (eg: wearing masks, washing hands)
One of the engineers working on this scoring code pushed back on me during a planning meeting. “We don’t have the expertise to do this!” she said. I offered to help find some “experts”. What came back was extremely interesting.
The medical people said there is insufficient knowledge to do this. The computer science people advised us to consult lawyers because the regulation would be too high to do this. The public health people were interested, but expressed a lot of skepticism.
Providing guidance reminds me of a weather forecast. I read about the history of weather forecasting to see if I could learn anything from that. The BBC had a fascinating story on the birth of the weather forecast.
The Admiral who pioneered weather forecasting was so derided by his peers that he killed himself. Now weather forecasting, provided by different companies like AccuWeather, has become a staple of the daily business landscape. Within five days, I think the accuracy of weather forecasting can be 90%+. Airline companies, maritime companies, utilities, etc… all use weather forecasts. The impact is in the billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars.
Is not the pandemic impact on that magnitude of impact? At the individual level, as a surfer, I use forecasts to figure out when and where to surf. That brings me immense joy.
This got me thinking. Do we even have a public forecasting service for pandemics? No, we do not. In fact, it seems we can’t even predict influenza propagation today. Why? My guess is because the engineers and scientists want it so exact that there has been no progress.
Engineers or public health people may mock Autonomy (at worst) and validly be skeptical. But that doesn’t mean it can’t help people (eg: masks). And that doesn’t mean it won’t get a lot better over time.
Physical borders can’t stop an invisible force, but with the right tools, we can see the invisible and start to navigate. Like the compass and timepieces were for previous generations, Autonomy can help this generation navigate our new frontier. Here are screenshots:
After we had a very rough design, I showed some of our advisors. The feedback was super positive and they gave me the confidence and strength to go faster.
Judy Lin helped us flush out the core system. Parts of the Autonomy app were carried over from a previous design. She helped Casey Alt and me see that our interface was not as sharp as it could be.
Charles Huang pointed out that we could leverage our Taiwan angle to differentiate. I had never thought of that. Being headquartered in a small island, famous for making Nike shoes in the 90s, was never an advantage in normal times. But as Charles made clear, in pandemic times, Taiwan’s healthcare system and model for civic democracy has become a shining example for the world.
Public health has been defined as “the science and art of preventing disease.” It’s about prolonging life and improving quality of life. The public can be as small as a handful of people or, as in the case of our current pandemic, as large as the planet.
Any comprehensive concept of health must take into account physical, psychological, and social well-being. From this perspective, we have been ignoring important issues of health. What I have learned from my artist friends is that art matters for health. Art can have a healing power. The public needs the healing power of art now. Art, as Van Gogh, said “is to console those who are broken by life.”
Casey Reas shared personal stories from his many artist friends who have had all of their income from artwork cut to zero as exhibitions and all lectures were cancelled. Casey’s OK. He has a stable day job at UCLA. But for artists who are independent, it’s a freefall with no net.
Much of the art world is about reputation and personal, social networks. Galleries are also in crisis and are motivated to find new strategies. A future A2P could allow galleries or independent curators to create a show (or auction) where everyone benefits. We are preparing for this with our second A2P, launched mid-April. This A2P is even more global. I’m simply blown away by the quality of the art this community is creating.
In Camus’ “The Plague” there is a scene:
“This whole thing is not about heroism,” Dr. Rieux says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies.
Autonomy and A2P are not just tools. They are equalizers. They are a way to fight and heal from this plague with decency. This is Bitmark doing our job. I draw strength from this.
But I leave you with a poem, shared by Tim Chen.
If all who have begged help
by Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966)
If all who have begged help
From me in this world,
All the holy innocents,
Broken wives and cripples,
The imprisoned, the suicidal —
If they had sent me one kopek
I should have become ‘richer
Than all Egypt….’
But they did not send me kopeks
Instead they shared with me their strength,
and so nothing in this world
is stronger than I,
and I can bear anything even this.
That’s all for now. Stay strong.