Lawyer bots take the hassle out of fighting parking tickets and property taxes — and could cost local governments real revenue

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A new pain for cities.

After finding a parking ticket lashed to his windshield, Seattle resident Dan Lear normally would have bitten the bullet and paid up, even though he felt misled by street signage.

Instead, Lear decided to try his luck with DoNotPay, a free bot service that streamlines the process of contesting parking tickets. The service helped Lear win a dismissal in 2016, leaving him a little bit richer and Seattle a little bit poorer.

New technology-powered services like DoNotPay, WinIt and TurboAppeal are encouraging more people to challenge legal hassles like inaccurate tickets and property taxes online. While these tools can help citizens avoid unfair penalties, they also might tempt some users to game the system, and could strain the resources of local governments. These potential side effects might come at an inopportune time for municipalities, whose budgets may be squeezed under the new tax rules.

“I guess I’m torn between supporting my local government but also ensuring that people have the right to appeal things that they feel are not fair or not legal,” said the victorious Lear, who is an attorney by trade.

DoNotPay asks users a series of questions, such as whether a parking sign was difficult to read or a ticket had incorrect details, then produces a letter with a formal legal defense that drivers can mail in or submit online.

The free service has helped drivers across the U.S. and the U.K. squash more than 450,000 parking tickets representing $ 13 million in fines; users win dismissals more than 50 percent of the time, by founder Joshua Browder’s estimate. That compares to a dismissal rate of around 35 percent in Los Angeles and 21 percent in New York City.

Parking tickets are “used as a source of revenue, which is wrong, and something I’m trying to change for the longer term,” said Browder, who has been called the “Robin Hood of the internet” by the BBC. Local governments, he added, “generally don’t like me.”

Having recently clinched $ 1.1 million in seed funding, DoNotPay lists investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners and attorneys with the firm Wilson Sonsini. The company plans to expand into helping users fight property taxes and file for divorce, among other things.

WinIt, a mobile app that currently only services New York City but plans to expand this year, takes parking ticket challenges to the next level. It builds a legal defense with minimal or zero input, and then argues for a dismissal, often in court through a partner attorney, and proceeds “even if there’s a 5 percent chance that we can dismiss the ticket,” said WinIt CEO Ouriel Lemmel.

WinIt collects a fee — equal to half the fine — but only if it succeeds. Drivers can even sign up for WinIt’s “Ticket Guardian,” which will automatically challenge any new ticket associated with a customer’s license plate number as soon as it hits a government database.

Companies that depend on drivers are taking note: Ride-sharing app Via and delivery service Postmates both offer discounts on WinIt to their drivers.

WinIt expects to contest 3 percent to 4 percent of all New York City parking tickets this year, which could amount to well over 300,000 tickets, if 2018 ticket volume is similar to previous years. That could represent around $ 6 million in potential lost revenue for the city.

Appealing property taxes

At least one startup is also taking aim at a much larger source of municipal revenue: Property taxes.

Machine-learning-powered TurboAppeal makes it much easier for homeowners to challenge the property assessments used to levy property taxes. The company had raised more than $ 7 million from investors including online mortgage lender Guaranteed Rate, KGC Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners and real estate brokerage @properties before being acquired by Paradigm Tax Group for an undisclosed sum last year.

Homeowners can get detailed data and instructions that can cut the time needed to prepare a compelling appeal from hours to 30 minutes, according to Stace Hunt, marketing director at Paradigm. Priced at $ 49, the automated service typically costs much less than a property tax attorney.

Amanda McMillan, a Chicago realtor who used TurboAppeal to shave $ 700 off her 2015 tax bill, said a few clients who probably would not have otherwise fought their property taxes followed her advice and gave TurboAppeal a whirl. To their delight, they won reductions, she said.

TurboAppeal had reportedly generated more than 100,000 property tax appeals as of May 2017; it covers 64 counties and 23 million single-family homes and has claimed a success rate of more than 75 percent in the past.

Some data suggests that self-service companies like TurboAppeal and DoNotPay have lots of room to grow.

The opportunity

Public New York City data, along with statistics provided to Recode by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, showed that fewer than 10 percent of parking tickets were challenged in those two cities over the last few years, while less than 5 percent of properties in all but one of New Jersey’s 21 counties saw their tax bills appealed in 2016.

But more fine dismissals and property tax reductions would mean less money for local schools and police departments, noted Megan Randall, a research associate at the Urban Institute. Property taxes reportedly make up roughly 30 percent of local government revenue nationwide.

Illustrating how services that target this revenue could pose a fiscal nuisance, New Jersey’s Monroe County was forced to issue a bond in 2011 to cover $ 5 million in refunds due to a spike in property tax appeals. The increase was driven by the housing meltdown, though the town’s finance director at the time also cited attorneys “trying to convince residents to file mass appeals,” the Star-Ledger reported.

Parking tickets, meanwhile, account for less than 1 percent of local government revenue nationwide, but some municipalities are much more reliant on fines than others.

For example, in 2013, 21 of the 90 municipalities in Missouri’s St. Louis County collected more than 20 percent of revenue from court fines and fees, of which parking and speeding tickets are a large contributor.

Drops in traffic tickets can cut into state budgets, too. A decrease in ticket volume forced the Nevada Supreme Court to seek a bailout in 2015. DoNotPay and WinIt can help users fight moving violations such as speeding tickets, so they could also nibble away at revenue from a range of traffic fines, not just parking tickets.

A jump in appeals would also increase the workload of municipal employees who are tasked with reviewing ticket and tax challenges.

“At this point, we don’t have an automated process, so it may cost our constituents money,” said Mark Granado, manager of parking operations and support for the LA Department of Transportation.

Moreover, many people may use these services to try to game the system, not to right a wrong.

WinIt and DoNotPay can help users get off on technicalities, such as if a ticket incorrectly describes a car’s color or make. Such errors can cost big bucks: New York City recently announced that it would refund a reported $ 26 million worth of parking tickets due to the omission of a zero from the ordinance code on roughly 500,000 tickets.

The government finance, parking enforcement and county appraiser employees that Recode spoke to said they didn’t believe that services such as WinIt, DoNotPay or TurboAppeal have boosted ticket and tax challenges so far, but generally acknowledged the potential for this to occur.

Some, including Granado, the Los Angeles parking enforcement official, said they would welcome services that professionalize more appeals, while a few employees encouraged consumers to consider using government systems, questioning whether third-party services add value.

Asked about concerns with their services, WinIt, DoNotPay and TurboAppeal emphasized that they are simply empowering more consumers to exercise their legal rights.

Municipalities could try to deal with more appeal volume by increasing property tax rates and fines or by investing in technology. But this could be harder than ever, given that the recent tax reform may impose downward pressure on property taxes, among other budget constraints.

“In an ideal world, governments would invest in the necessary resources to adapt,” Randall said in an email. “However, in reality, we often become reliant on private-sector actors who derive material benefit from a complex and opaque tax system.”

Teke Wiggin is a Brooklyn-based reporter who covers technology, labor and housing. Reach him @tkwiggin.

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Surprise! Quitting Facebook Could Be Bad for You.

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Grab your pitchfork, fellow human. We have a new villain to run out of town, and its name is Facebook. It’s selling our data, monitoring our phone calls, and, perhaps worst of all, doesn’t even seem to feel that bad about it.

But before you set your torch ablaze delete Facebook, let’s take a beat. Is the platform really a toxic monster? Or perhaps more of a misunderstood beneficial beast?

Let’s ask science.

Last month, The Journal of Social Psychology published a study exploring the relationship between Facebook and stress. Using 138 active Facebook users as their guinea pigs, researchers from the University of Queensland found that taking a five-day break from the platform lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Ready to hit that delete button? Not so fast.

“[W]hile participants in our study showed an improvement in physiological stress by giving up Facebook, they also reported lower feelings of well-being,” lead researcher Eric Vanman said in a press release. “People said they felt more unsatisfied with their life and were looking forward to resuming their Facebook activity.”

And those lower cortisol levels? Participants didn’t even notice, reporting that they felt just as stressed as they did before quitting Facebook temporarily.

In some instances, using Facebook can actually help you cope with stress.

That’s according to a study the journal Computers in Human Behavior published in May 2017. Northwestern University researcher Renwen Zhang surveyed 560 Facebook-using university students, focusing on their use of Facebook to disclose information about stressful events in their lives.

Zhang concluded that opening up on Facebook helped the students mentally cope with stressful situations. When the students shared information, they were likely to get support from their Facebook friends in the form of encouragement, advice, or offers of help. This, in turn, made them feel supported, more satisfied with life, and less depressed.

Quitting Facebook means saying goodbye to all those digital hugs that can help you get through your latest breakup or crappy day at work.

So, how do Facebook’s scientifically supported benefits stack up against its drawbacks? Well, there are the aforementioned privacy issues to consider, plus the damage the platform can do to our health, IRL relationships, self-esteemintelligence, overall well-being… We could go on and on.

On second thought, maybe it is time to grab your pitchfork. Or, at least, don’t extinguish the flaming torches just yet.

The post Surprise! Quitting Facebook Could Be Bad for You. appeared first on Futurism.

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Here’s How Much Money Apple Could Save By Ditching Intel

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Apple could end up saving a staggering $ 500 million a year if it goes ahead with rumoured plans to start developing its own computer processors, reports CNBC. That’s according to Merrill Lynch, which is the wealth management arm of the Bank of America. The firm believes that if Apple stops buying its PC chips from […]
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Most White House email domains could be vulnerable to phishing

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We can likely all agree that governmental cyber security is an important issue. While the Attorney General has created a task force to deal with election hacking, there have been plenty of digital security fails in the past year. And the FCC doesn't…
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Four Patients Test Retinal Implant That Could Stop Age-Related Blindness

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Some parts of getting older are awesome. Retirement. Early bird specials. Free reign to whine about your various aches and pains.

Not so great? Your vision can start to go.

Luckily, a new retinal implant may soon help treat a common cause of age-related vision loss.

Non-neovascular age-related macular degeneration (NNAMD) (also known as “dry” AMD) causes a blurry area right in the middle of a person’s line of vision that can grow as the disease progresses. Sometimes, the previously blurry spot becomes simply blank.

In short, that can be debilitating, making it pretty impossible to live a normal life. After all, you need to be able to see what’s in front of you to do things like drive a car or cook a meal.

Currently, there’s no treatment for the advanced stages of NNAMD, but a research team led by Amir Kashani, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at University of Southern California (USC), is hoping to change that.

NNAMD likely begins with the breakdown of cells in a membrane in the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). Kashani and his team designed an implant to mimic the function of this membrane. The implant fits on the retina and is made of human embryonic stem cells placed on a base material.

The team had already tested a version of the implant on rodents, so the next step was to make the leap to humans. So the researchers placed their implant into the eyes of four people with advanced NNAMD. Then, they monitored those people for between four and 12 months.

According to the researchers’ study, published today in Science Translational Medicine, none of the four participants had any negative or severe side effects from the retinal implant, and experienced no vision loss over the course of the trial. Once participant even “demonstrated an observable improvement” in their vision.

When the team took post-operative images of the patients’ eyes, they saw that the stem cells had blended with the existing retinal tissue. That is, the retinas looked like they were regaining their RPEs. A good sign.

Of course, this was an exceptionally small sample size that delivered promising (but not overwhelmingly positive) results. So the researchers’ next step is to test their implant on a larger group.

If it works the way researchers hope, it may someday be a game-changer for thousands of visually-challenged seniors. After all, what good’s a senior discount on movie tickets if you can’t see the screen.

The post Four Patients Test Retinal Implant That Could Stop Age-Related Blindness appeared first on Futurism.

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Future iPhones could have curved screens, respond to a wave of your finger

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Enlarge (credit: Samuel Axon)

Apple knows the smartphone market is becoming more crowded and homogenous, and the company wants to make its iPhones stand out. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is experimenting with two new features that could make it into future iPhone models: touchless gesture controls and curved screens. Those familiar with the plans claim that if Apple continues to develop these new technologies for the iPhone, they likely will not make their debut for another two or three years.

Gesture control would allow users to complete some tasks on the handset by moving their finger near the screen without actually touching it. Proximity of the finger to the screen would be the key, as the technology being developed is reportedly being built into the screen itself.

Samsung offered similar gesture controls, dubbed Air Gestures, on its Galaxy S4 smartphone years ago. Air Gestures allowed users to move their hand near the top of the handset to accept calls, scroll through webpages, and more. However, Samsung’s feature used a motion sensor on the phone’s bezel rather than technology built into the display panel.

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“Prosthetic Memory Systems,” Delivered Via Electrode, Could Be Dope, If You’re Willing To Wait A While

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Prosthetic memory systems: no longer just some sci-fi nonsense.

Researchers just completed a military-funded project intended to boost patients’ recall. At first glance, the numbers look really promising. At second glance, though, they might just be enough cause for optimism, but, well, not much more. 

The 15 participants were seeking treatment for epilepsy-related memory loss at North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. They had already received surgery to place small brain implants in an effort to map what was going on in their brains to better treat their epilepsy.

In the study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering on March 28, the participants in the study were asked to complete a simple task: look at an image on a screen and then correctly identify it among three or four other images after a short delay. While they were doing so, the researchers were busy mapping their brain activity to identify the region that displayed the most activity when the participant remembered the correct image.

In a second trial, the researchers used those small electrodes to stimulate the “correct answer” areas they had just identified.

The result? Stimulated participants’ short term memory improved by 37 percent, and their long-term memory (or what the researchers are calling that — a similar task with a longer day) improved by 35 percent.

“This is the first time scientists have been able to identify a patient’s own brain cell code or pattern for memory and, in essence, ‘write in’ that code to make existing memory work better, an important first step in potentially restoring memory loss,” said Robert Hampson, the lead researcher on this project, in a press release.

Dope.

The researchers received funding from DARPA in the hope that their work could help soldiers who face memory loss after head injuries.

Some caveats: this was one clinical trial conducted on just 15 people who were asked to complete one specific, simple task in a hospital setting. It’s not at all clear this would help you stop losing your keys so damn much, nor would you want to necessarily undergo surgery to try it. At least, not at its current stage of development, which is just proof-of-concept. 

The results from this latest memory boosting study, which the researchers are calling a “prosthetic memory system,” are impressive. They might even inspire optimism, if you’re into that sort of thing.  This experiment lays the groundwork for future human research into technology that can restore or enhance brain function, and that’s nothing to dismiss.

But for as long as scientists have studied memory loss, no matter its cause, the timeline for when we’d have a viable solution was always in “the near future,” “sometime down the line.” A stock answer for when Alzheimer’s might be cured is always “50 years away,” conveniently after that scientist would likely have retired.

So what does this study show? A cool, promising future of prosthetic memories. But not for, say, 50 years or so.

The post “Prosthetic Memory Systems,” Delivered Via Electrode, Could Be Dope, If You’re Willing To Wait A While appeared first on Futurism.

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15-inch MacBook Pro refresh could have Intel’s new six-core i9 processor

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Intel on Tuesday unveiled its latest laptop processors based on the Coffee Lake platform, most notably bringing its high-performance Core i9 line to laptops for the first time in the same thermal profile that the existing 15-inch MacBook Pro design can accommodate — but the new chips still don’t support LPDDR4 RAM.
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Samsung Galaxy J7 (2018) with dual rear cameras, Bixby Home surfaces, could launch in India soon

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Samsung SM-J720F surfaced in benchmarks back in January this year. Now the user manual of the smartphone has surfaced on the official site confirming dual rear cameras, front camera with flash as well as Bixby Home, making it the first budget smartphone from Samsung to come with Bixby support. It also comes with removable battery, micro USB port, fingerprint sensor on the home button and loudspeaker grill on the back, next to the camera. Earlier benchmark listing revealed most of the specifications of the phone, check them out below. Samsung Galaxy J7 (2018) rumored specifications 5.5-inch (1280 x 720 pixels) HD / (1920 x 1080 pixels) Full HD display Octa-Core (2.2GHz Dual + 1.6GHz Hexa) Exynos 7885 14nm processor with Mali-G71 GPU 4GB RAM, 32GB Internal Storage, expandable up to 256GB via micro SD card Android 8.0 (Oreo) Dual SIM 13MP rear camera with LED flash, secondary rear camera 8MP front camera with LED flash Fingerprint sensor 4G VoLTE, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS Since the user manual has surfaced on Samsung India site, it expected to launch in the country soon. Source | Via
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New indie project could lead to a bunch of Wear OS smartwatch competitors

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Soon, there could be a number of indie operating systems for your smartwatch, sprouting from an open-source code project launched last week. Indie developers making budget smartwatches can now use starting code from Project OpenWatch to craft their Android-based operating systems. The OpenWatch project is live as of last week. It was released by Blocks, the same company behind the forthcoming Blocks modular smartwatch.

Blocks’ head of engineering, Karl Taylor, said that the project is meant to “open up the smartwatch OS space to the open source community in a bid to loosen the stranglehold on the industry by other, essentially proprietary operating system.” He named Google’s Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) and Apple’s watchOS as the two…

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