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Want to run faster? Improve your algorithm

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-49045714

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Eliud KipchogeImage copyright
Reuters

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Could good data help Eliud Kipchoge run even faster?

Runner Guillaume Adam wants to go faster, further and for longer.

Like many modern runners, the former French national team member uses technology as a key element in helping him hit a new personal best.

Gadgets are as essential a part of a runner’s kit as the shoes on their feet. Few head out these days without a step counter, GPS watch, smartphone or smartwatch.

The wearables keep an eye on the distance covered, pace, heart rate and cadence – helping to ensure they get as much out of the session as possible.

“I’m a scientist as well as a runner so when I want data I want to get reliable data,” said Mr Adam.

Unfortunately, he said, many wearables do not gather data accurately.

One study by consumer group Which? suggested many fitness trackers underestimated the distance runners cover – with the least accurate adding unnecessary miles to a long run.

“You can get data with a GPS watch but you do not know how the algorithm is made or its accuracy,” he said. “If you want to analyse the data, it needs to be available to you.”

In a bid to manage his workouts better, Mr Adam is now trialling a wearable that has emerged from medical research.

Called GaitUp, the sensor has been developed by Dr Benoit Mariani, based on his work on spotting the early signs of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

‘Our sixth vital sign’

These physical signs, says Dr Mariani, make themselves felt in very subtle ways long before standard tests can catch them.

“If you have a muscle weakness or neurological disorder it will be reflected in your gait first,” he said.

“Those signs have been under the radar because there’s been no easy tool to measure them.”

Changes in the way people walk can be as revealing as those seen in other recognised markers of bodily health – heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate and oxygen saturation.

“Gait is our sixth vital sign,” he said.

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Reuters

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Regular runners monitor their workouts with a variety of wearable sensors

The sensor developed by Dr Mariani’s engineering team does more than just measure steps. It can capture rear and forefoot strike angles, as well as the amount of time each foot is in contact with the ground.

“We’re interested in the quality of the gait,” he said.

He is not the only one. Researchers are keen to get better data about the way elite athletes run, says sports scientist Dr Yannis Pitsiladis from the University of Brighton.

He is part of the long-term Sub2Hrs research project that aims to develop the training methods, techniques and technology that will help a runner set a recognised world record for running the marathon in under two hours.

On 12 October this year, Kenyan running great Eliud Kipchoge broke that barrier but the help he got, from a phalanx of pace-setters and an electric vehicle, meant it was not recognised as a world record.

‘Asymmetries and quirks’

“To break the sub-two hour barrier, you need to get everything right,” Dr Pitsiladis told the BBC.

“You need to identify the right athlete, right weather conditions, right track and also you need bio-energetics,” he said.

Making sure the minimal amount of energy is expended at each step of the marathon will be key, he said.

“The more economical you are, the more you can maintain that pace until the end of the race.

“Anything you do to make you more economical, whether it is the shoe, or the data, or the terrain you are running on being 1% or 2% or 3% better will have a huge impact on your performance,” he said.

It took an improvement of less than 0.5% for Kipchoge to shift his fastest marathon time below the two-hour mark. Improving by 1% or more would mean smashing the barrier.

“With these kinds of athletes, I would argue that we have not got the best out of them yet,” said Dr Pitsiladis. “There’s not a lot of science in their training and a lot of these athletes train themselves.”

There was ample room for improvement, such as refining their stride pattern or pacing, he said. Sensors are now so small that they can be worn during a race without becoming a burden.

Until now, most analysis of pace and performance has happened on a treadmill or after an event but this does not really capture what an athlete undergoes while racing, said Dr Pitsiladis.

For instance, treadmills can exaggerate the way a foot rolls during each step and give a false sense of how a runner moves.

After-the-event analysis of the way a runner moves during a race or training run is useful, he said, but it would be better to do it as they are running and adjust as they go.

Mr Adam used GaitUp to prepare for the New York City marathon and it helped him become the fastest French finisher in that race, hitting a time of 2h 26m.

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Runners such as Paula Radcliffe excelled despite not running “perfect” races

Running coach Sam Murphy questioned whether the information provided by sensors such as GaitUp was too comprehensive.

“What are you actually going to do about the information that tells you your left foot externally rotates more than your right?” she asked. “Or that your take-off angle is too flat?”

Many elite athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe had “asymmetries” and “quirks”, she said, suggesting the body can work around the disadvantages physiology or upbringing may have imposed on them.

Also, she added, given that runners typically take about 10,000 strides per hour, altering each foot strike to make it perfect could be difficult.

But she conceded that having “greater awareness” of how people run and what they do when they run was undoubtedly useful.

Steady improvement was all about acting on feedback, said Ms Murphy.

“Sometimes getting that data or feedback internally may be more impactful than from an external source such as these devices,” she said. “We aren’t machines, we’re way, way smarter than that.”

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion. This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would…

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom. Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition. To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and…

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in…

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.

Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.

Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.

The numbers

Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.

So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.

But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.

Here’s the tally of guest stays in Airbnb’s during New Years Eve (data via CNBC, Jon Erlichman, Airbnb), and their resulting year-over-year growth rates:

  • 2009: 1,400
  • 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
  • 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
  • 2012: 108,000 (248%)
  • 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
  • 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
  • 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
  • 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
  • 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
  • 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
  • 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)

In chart form, that looks like this:

Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.

Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.

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