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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The Morning After: The real world doesn’t matter in ‘Ready Player One’

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Today, we have a new look Reddit, for the first time in forever, test the newest (and cheaper) iPad and take a closer look at Ready Player One.
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In ‘Ready Player One,’ the real world doesn’t matter

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When Steven Spielberg introduced Ready Player One at SXSW this year, he made a surprising statement: "This is not a film that we've made, this is — I promise you — a movie." And really, there's no better way to put it. It's a pop culture-driven, no…
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Menlo Ventures is making its first real bet on crypto as Bitpay raises $40 million

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Not all investors or companies believe bitcoin will ultimately be used for day-to-day transactions. Menlo and Bitpay beg to differ.

Venture capital firms over the last year or so have wrestled with how forcefully to lean into investing in startups linked to cryptocurrencies:

  • Is blockchain technology so consequential that we should reorient our entire investment strategy?
  • Is it a fad that we can avoid as our competitors get distracted?
  • Or should we gingerly — maybe even reluctantly — make a few investments just to minimize our downside until it’s clearer whether there is indeed money to be made here?

Now an older-line venture firm — Menlo Ventures — is making its first investment in the world of blockchain, the tech that undergirds virtual currencies. Menlo is part of a new $ 40 million financing round at Bitpay, a startup that allows merchants to accept and store bitcoin paid by customers.

Not all venture capitalists are excited about businesses that rely on normal people using bitcoin for everyday transactions. Investors and startups increasingly see cryptocurrencies as an asset to be traded like gold, not as something to be used at a shopping mall like a dollar bill. And so several top-tier venture capitalists who invest in crypto told Recode they passed on Bitpay amid concerns about how the company’s business model fits into the trends in the industry.

Bitpay CEO Stephen Pair disputed that the company had any trouble fundraising, saying that it had to “expand” the round from a planned $ 30 million to the final $ 40 million total due to high demand.

The company did something unusual during fundraising, too: It announced in December its intention to raise a fundraising round that was not yet closed, unveiling the in-progress $ 30 million round led by a fund managed by Aquiline Capital Partners. Menlo’s investment is part of the same round.

“We wanted to make sure that anybody who wanted to participate could, and announcing it serves that purpose,” Pair said.

That might not be read as a sign of strength, but Bitpay says that in 2017 it processed more than $ 1 billion in bitcoin payments. Pair says the company has been profitable for a year and a half and therefore hasn’t needed to raise much money — it last raised about $ 30 million in 2014.

And even if there are some investors and industry veterans who are pessimistic on bitcoin payments in the United States, cryptocurrencies are potentially quite attractive overseas for buying and selling goods. In countries with a large unbanked population or where currency values gyrate wildly, bitcoin can be a stabler form of payment and make commerce easier, especially for the poor.

So it’s no surprise that Bitpay is thinking about using this money to fuel its international expansion, particularly into Asia. Pair said Bitpay could expand open an office on the continent this year in either Hong Kong or Singapore. Several of the investors in this round are Asia-based.

But what’s most interesting about this round is what it says about how Menlo, founded in 1976, will deal with this new sphere of startup innovation. Tyler Sosin, who is leading Menlo’s work in crypto, said his firm had been evaluating startups using blockchain for the last 18 months but had yet to find something that they loved.

Sosin said that Menlo feels blockchain will be integral to the future of payments — and that they are attracted to payments platforms because it doesn’t require them to bet on the success of any individual cryptocurrency.

Menlo has yet to participate in an initial coin offering, or ICO, Sosin said, nor has it purchased cryptocurrencies outright with firm dollars. While the fund has been slower to engage than some of its rivals, Sosin insisted that the industry is still evolving and that Menlo was eager to dive more fully into this set of startups.

“It’s early, early days,” he said. “We imagine there will be some very big companies.”

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The real threat to Facebook is the Kool-Aid turning sour

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These kinds of leaks didn’t happen when I started reporting on Facebook eight years ago. It was a tight-knit cult convinced of its mission to connect everyone, but with the discipline of a military unit where everyone knew loose lips sink ships. Motivational posters with bold corporate slogans dotted its offices, rallying the troops. Employees were happy to be evangelists.

But then came the fake news, News Feed addiction, violence on Facebook Live, cyberbullying, abusive ad targeting, election interference and, most recently, the Cambridge Analytica app data privacy scandals. All the while, Facebook either willfully believed the worst case scenarios could never come true, was naive to their existence or calculated the benefits and growth outweighed the risks. And when finally confronted, Facebook often dragged its feet before admitting the extent of the problems.

Inside the social network’s offices, the bonds began to fray. Slogans took on sinister second meanings. The Kool-Aid tasted different.

Some hoped they could right the ship but couldn’t. Some craved the influence and intellectual thrill of running one of humanity’s most popular inventions, but now question if that influence and their work is positive. Others surely just wanted to collect salaries, stock and resumé highlights, but lost the stomach for it.

Now the convergence of scandals has come to a head in the form of constant leaks.

The trouble tipping point

The more benign leaks merely cost Facebook a bit of competitive advantage. We’ve learned it’s building a smart speaker, a standalone VR headset and a Houseparty split-screen video chat clone.

Yet policy-focused leaks have exacerbated the backlash against Facebook, putting more pressure on the conscience of employees. As blame fell to Facebook for Trump’s election, word of Facebook prototyping a censorship tool for operating in China escaped, triggering questions about its respect for human rights and free speech. Facebook’s content rulebook got out alongside disturbing tales of the filth the company’s contracted moderators have to sift through. Its ad targeting was revealed to be able to pinpoint emotionally vulnerable teens.

In recent weeks, the leaks have accelerated to a maddening pace in the wake of Facebook’s soggy apologies regarding the Cambridge Analytica debacle. Its weak policy enforcement left the door open to exploitation of data users gave third-party apps, deepening the perception that Facebook doesn’t care about privacy.

And it all culminated with BuzzFeed publishing a leaked “growth at all costs” internal post from Facebook VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth that substantiated people’s worst fears about the company’s disregard for user safety in pursuit of world domination. Even the ensuing internal discussion about the damage caused by leaks and how to prevent them…leaked.

But the leaks are not the disease, just the symptom. Sunken morale is the cause, and it’s dragging down the company. Former Facebook employee and Wired writer Antonio Garcia Martinez sums it up, saying this kind of vindictive, intentionally destructive leak fills Facebook’s leadership with “horror”:

And that sentiment was confirmed by Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri, who tweeted that leaks “create strong incentives to be less transparent internally and they certainly slow us down,” and will make it tougher to deal with the big problems.

Those thoughts weigh heavy on Facebook’s team. A source close to several Facebook executives tells us they feel “embarrassed to work there” and are increasingly open to other job opportunities. One current employee told us to assume anything certain execs tell the media is “100% false.”

If Facebook can’t internally discuss the problems it faces without being exposed, how can it solve them?

Implosion

The consequences of Facebook’s failures are typically pegged as external hazards.

You might assume the government will finally step in and regulate Facebook. But the Honest Ads Act and other rules about ads transparency and data privacy could end up protecting Facebook by being simply a paperwork speed bump for it while making it tough for competitors to build a rival database of personal info. In our corporation-loving society, it seems unlikely that the administration would go so far as to split up Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — one of the few feasible ways to limit the company’s power.

Users have watched Facebook make misstep after misstep over the years, but can’t help but stay glued to its feed. Even those who don’t scroll rely on it as a fundamental utility for messaging and login on other sites. Privacy and transparency are too abstract for most people to care about. Hence, first-time Facebook downloads held steady and its App Store rank actually rose in the week after the Cambridge Analytica fiasco broke. In regards to the #DeleteFacebook movement, Mark Zuckerberg himself said “I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on that.” And as long as they’re browsing, advertisers will keep paying Facebook to reach them.

That’s why the greatest threat of the scandal convergence comes from inside. The leaks are the canary in the noxious blue coal mine.

Can Facebook survive slowing down?

If employees wake up each day unsure whether Facebook’s mission is actually harming the world, they won’t stay. Facebook doesn’t have the same internal work culture problems as some giants like Uber. But there are plenty of other tech companies with less questionable impacts. Some are still private and offer the chance to win big on an IPO or acquisition. At the very least, those in the Bay could find somewhere to work without a spending hours a day on the traffic-snarled 101 freeway.

If they do stay, they won’t work as hard. It’s tough to build if you think you’re building a weapon. Especially if you thought you were going to be making helpful tools. The melancholy and malaise set in. People go into rest-and-vest mode, living out their days at Facebook as a sentence not an opportunity. The next killer product Facebook needs a year or two from now might never coalesce.

And if they do work hard, a culture of anxiety and paralysis will work against them. No one wants to code with their hands tied, and some would prefer a less scrutinized environment. Every decision will require endless philosophizing and risk-reduction. Product changes will be reduced to the lowest common denominator, designed not to offend or appear too tyrannical.

Source: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency + David Ramos/Getty Images

In fact, that’s partly how Facebook got into this whole mess. A leak by an anonymous former contractor led Gizmodo to report Facebook was suppressing conservative news in its Trending section. Terrified of appearing liberally biased, Facebook reportedly hesitated to take decisive action against fake news. That hands-off approach led to the post-election criticism that degraded morale and pushed the growing snowball of leaks down the mountain.

It’s still rolling.

How to stop morale’s downward momentum will be one of Facebook’s greatest tests of leadership. This isn’t a bug to be squashed. It can’t just roll back a feature update. And an apology won’t suffice. It will have to expel or reeducate the leakers and those disloyal without instilling a witch hunt’s sense of dread. Compensation may have to jump upwards to keep talent aboard like Twitter did when it was floundering. Its top brass will need to show candor and accountability without fueling more indiscretion. And it may need to make a shocking, landmark act of humility to convince employees its capable of change.

This isn’t about whether Facebook will disappear tomorrow, but whether it will remain unconquerable for the forseeable future.

Growth has been the driving mantra for Facebook since its inception. No matter how employees are evaluated, it’s still the underlying ethos. Facebook has poised itself as a mission-driven company. The implication was always that connecting people is good so connecting more people is better. The only question was how to grow faster.

Now Zuckerberg will have to figure out how to get Facebook to cautiously foresee the consequences of what it says and does while remaining an appealing place to work. “Move slow and think things through” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Mobile – TechCrunch

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Pacific Rim’s Robots Are Less Advanced Than Some of Today’s Real Robots

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Giant robots duke it out in the middle of major cities. Humans inside robotic exoskeletons control them just by thinking about it. The robots hack each other with massive saws or fling stacks of cars at one another.

Yes, Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most popular movie in the U.S. right now. In it, humans must pilot enormous robots, called Jaegers, to ward off otherevil enormous robots.

The bots themselves seem pretty high-tech. But there’s an element that may not be as apparent: our real-life technology is actually much more advanced.

That’s according to Robin Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University, in an article published today in the journal Science Robotics.

If robots like the Jaegers seem like a staple of sci-fi everywhere, that’s because they pretty much are, Murphy writes. In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. military, in partnership with GE, made the first real-life exoskeleton, and dozens more have come out in years since.

Through it all, engineers have learned a few things — things that have fallen by the wayside in Pacific Rim. Here’s a brief breakdown of what Murphy saw to be lacking in the Jaegers, and what scientists have already learned about how to do it better.

Size

The Jaegers of Pacific Rim clock in at an impressive height of about 76 meters (250 feet). However, controlling such massively complex robots in reality simply “cannot be done,” according to Murphy. Today’s researchers are far more likely to focus on smaller robotic exosuits, similar in size to those worn by Tony Stark in Iron Man or Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow.

Walking

It looks really hard to get a Jaeger to walk or run. That’s because, in the movies, the massive bots mirror every step their pilot takes — a process that is much more complicated than it has to be.

“In reality, locomotion is becoming one of the easiest functions to totally delegate to a robot,” writes Murphy.

Think about the Boston Dynamics robots. Engineers simply communicate a speed and direction to one, and it handles the process of lifting and lowering each foot.

Use

In Pacific Rim, pilots use Jaegers as weapons against hostile aliens. In reality, we’re far more likely to design robotic exoskeletons to allow humans to do everyday tasks more easily and safely. Think the power loader used in the movie Aliens to lift heavy materials. You know, before Ellen Ripley uses it as a weapon against a hostile alien.

In fact, Murphy notes, Hollywood has largely ignored one of the most likely uses for human-powered robots: healthcare. Researchers have used exoskeletons to help people with spinal cord injuries walk again.

Our current technology might not make you say “dude that’s awesome!” as much as the stuff in the movies. But as Murphy notes in her article, our current tech actually is awesome.

The post Pacific Rim’s Robots Are Less Advanced Than Some of Today’s Real Robots appeared first on Futurism.

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OnePlus cryptocurrency teaser: Could it be real, or are we being pranked?

How Complete Beginners are using an ‘Untapped’ Google Network to create Passive Income ON DEMAND

OnePlus has seen both hits and misses when it comes to marketing, but the company has its April Fools’ day gags down to a science. Based on a recently released video, this year’s joke seems poised to offer its own commentary-by-example on one of 2018’s biggest fads: cryptocurrencies. 

We get inundated with an endless stream of marketing-speak filled press releases here at Android Police, so we have a good perspective on the slow evolution of the vocabulary currently in vogue for promoting technology.

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OnePlus cryptocurrency teaser: Could it be real, or are we being pranked? was written by the awesome team at Android Police.

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Saw gives your iPhone X more vertical screen real estate

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The iPhone X is Apple’s latest and greatest flagship smartphone, and while I appreciate the gorgeous edge-to-edge 5.8-inch OLED display Apple put into it, iOS could unquestionably take better advantage of what the display has to offer.

As it would seem, iOS developer Frozen Penguin shared this opinion. Hence a new free jailbreak tweak dubbed Saw was born…. Read the rest of this post here


Saw gives your iPhone X more vertical screen real estate” is an article by iDownloadBlog.com.
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