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After Years of Groundwork, NFTs Shine Bright
Non-fungible tokens, digital art are transforming traditional marketplaces, but it’s no overnight success

Matt Kane’s career as an artist started in Chicago around 2004 when a local gallery began selling his oil paintings. After moving toSeattle three years later, art took a backseat as he taught himself to code and became a web engineer to make ends meet. A few years after that, he finally had enough time on his hands to pursue an idea he’d had for a while: combining his creative and tech chops by making digital art.

Much in the way he’d stretched his own canvases and mixed pigments as an oil painter, Kane committed to building his own software so he could control how his digital images came to life. This past September, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, his digital art piece “Right Place, Right Time” sold on the blockchain for 262 ethereum, at the time equivalent to more than $100,000.

Longtime artist Matt Kane is now able to work on his digital art full-time thanks to blockchain technology. "It's just as good as an oil painting, if not better."

Matt Kane’s career as an artist started in Chicago around 2004 when a local gallery began selling his oil paintings. After moving to Seattle three years later, art took a backseat as he taught himself to code and became a web engineer to make ends meet. A few years after that, he finally had enough time on his hands to pursue an idea he’d had for a while: combining his creative and tech chops by making digital art.

Much in the way he’d stretched his own canvases and mixed pigments as an oil painter, Kane committed to building his own software so he could control how his digital images came to life. This past September, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, his digital art piece “Right Place, Right Time” sold on the blockchain for 262 ethereum, at the time equivalent to more than $100,000.

The sale was significant, not just for Kane, but also for digital art. While artists have been creating digital works for years, blockchain technology, which can help distinguish an original from a copy, has helped to create a market for them. As a result, digital art has begun to fetch increasingly handsome sales prices and the attention of more and more art collectors.

“People have been experimenting in this space for years, but it was Matt Kane’s sale last year that created a big shift,” says Lindsay Howard, digital art curator and head of community at cryptoart platform Foundation.

Explosive growth

In the months since Kane’s sale, the momentum has only accelerated. In January, “AI Generated Nude Portrait #1,” first sold on the digital art marketplace SuperRare by 21-year-old artist Robbie Barrat three years ago for $176, resold for 100 ethereum, or more than $100,000 at time. Marketplaces like SuperRare, Nifty Gateway, and async.art have seen a swell in the number of both artists selling works and collectors buying them since the start of the pandemic.

The recent entry of big-name artists into the field has also helped legitimize the growth of so-called cryptoart. In December, renowned digital artist Beeple, who’s long been making and sharing digital art for his nearly two million Instagram followers, sold his first collection of 20 pieces called “Everydays” for a record $3.5 million. That month, cryptoart sales overall shot to $8.2 million, up from $2.6 million the previous month.


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In February, Beeple’s work “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” went up for sale at the auction house Christie’s, becoming the first crypto-based work to do so. A few weeks later it sold for an eye-popping $69 million, garnering news headlines and sparking criticism that crypto-based art was merely the latest investment bubble.

While a $69 million sale of digital art may be a sign of speculative frenzy, the technological innovations that underpinned it are very real, and the sector is far from an overnight success.

If cryptoart is finally having its day in the sun, it’s because digital artists have quietly been laying the groundwork for a number of years — collaborating on projects and sharing their works on various cryptoart platforms.

“On the one hand you have this original cohort of crypto artists who were super excited about a $50 sale a year ago. We’ve been building all that infrastructure and growing our follower base. The prices of our works have been steadily increasing over time,” says German artist Sven Eberwein, who has created more than 50 digital pieces whose prices range from $52 to more than $30,000 each. “Now you have new artists entering the space and selling immediately. There was a lot of building in the first half of last year. Now it feels like everyone is reaping benefits.”

A boon for artists

Cryptoart relies on non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, a special type of cryptographic identifier on the blockchain. Unlike a cryptocurrency, where every coin is identical, each NFT is unique and traceable, and can be attached to an item, like a digital artwork, to prove its authenticity. As such, the NFT is the digital equivalent of a signature on a physical artwork that distinguishes an original from a copy.

How NFTs Change Creative Work

NFTs, or “non-fungible tokens,” are cryptographic identifiers stored on the blockchain that can be tied to digital objects to help distinguish an original from a copy. They could be transformative for digital creative works in fields like art, music, and design.

Here are some of their characteristics:

Uniqueness Unlike two dollar bills or two cryptocoins, which are identical and interchangeable, each NFT is distinct.

Authenticity Because of the transparency and immutability of the blockchain, an NFT can be attached to a digital creative work to guarantee its provenance.

Ownership While digital images can be copied, NFTs cannot. Anyone who owns an NFT owns the original version of the artwork attached to the token. It’s like owning a signed Ansel Adams original rather than a poster reproduction.

New Monetization Opportunities NFTs can be paired with “smart contracts” that earmark a portion of any resale for creators. That allows artists — not just collectors or galleries — to benefit from the rising value of their work.

“If you’re a digital artist, you can’t sell an image on Instagram because anyone can just copy-paste that image. That’s gravitated a lot of artists to crypto work,” says Richard Chen, founder of Cryptoart.io, and a collector himself. “With NFTs, you can sell individual images. It’s a new revenue stream.”

While NFTs have already been a huge boon for digital art sales, some artists are especially excited by another aspect of the nascent cryptoart market that distinguishes it from its physical world counterpart: blockchain technology can be used to earmark a portion of the proceeds from secondary sales for the artist. On marketplaces such as Foundation and SuperRare, for example, artists receive a 10% commission on all secondary sales, earning increasing amounts as their body of work changes hands and appreciates in value.

Barrat, for example, made about $11,000 when his piece resold in January. That’s 62 times more than he made on the original sale.

The potential of NFTs extends beyond art. Musicians, designers, and game developers are excited about using the technology to trace, verify, and ultimately retain more of the value behind their digitized creative works.

“Right now this is about digital art, but I think we are going to start to see all kinds of creators coming into this space,” Howard says. “This is about creators of all types being able to sustainably fund their work through the media they share online.”

What’s in it for collectors

Artists aren’t the only ones excited about the new cryptoart market. Collectors say the recent growth points to an increased interest in digital art as an asset class that investors could use to diversify their portfolios. Its prospects as an asset class are especially bright because the same blockchain technology that allows artists to monetize their work would make it easy to create financial products that allow investors to borrow and lend against crypto artworks or to offer fractional ownership.

“Once art as an asset class becomes big enough, you can plug it into that financial infrastructure,” says Chen. “You can get a loan on an art piece or fractionalize artwork where people own shares in an artwork. There are a lot of interesting ways to bridge cryptoart with finance.”

What makes it art? And what is it worth?

Unlike the traditional art market, cryptoart, for now, lacks many of the elements — historical prices, large numbers of market participants, critics, and galleries — that have helped buyers and sellers to discern the good from the bad to value works. “There have been conversations about a lack of criticality in the cryptoart space,” says Howard. “In traditional art spaces, there are critical gatekeepers who judge a work — what’s good or not and why.”

It remains to be seen whether a similar “scaffolding” develops around cryptoart given that many crypto enthusiasts are drawn to the medium because of its decentralized, distributed nature. “The exclusiveness of the art world doesn’t fit with the cryptoart ecosystem,” says Howard.

Yet already market participants seem to see the greatest promise and value in works that utilize the digital medium in ways that can’t be replicated in traditional art. For example, Kane’s piece “Right Place, Right Time” is a composite image of 24 different digital layers, each programmed to synchronize with an hour in the latest 24-hour cycle of bitcoin price volatility. As the value of bitcoin changes, the image morphs, using Kane’s proprietary software to run continuously for the next ten years.

“I write generative algorithms and paint with these algorithms, layering them in the same way I would with paint,” says Kane, who thanks in part to blockchain technology is able to work full-time on his digital art. “When I sell an NFT, it represents an original artwork. It’s just as good as an oil painting, if not better.”

Delivering Humanitarian Aid Transparently
Philippines program highlights crypto’s potential to reduce fraud

Vanessa Sungcang, a 39-year-old mother of four who lives on the outskirts of Manila and runs a small business, has been struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The use of cryptocurrency, distributed via smartphone and redeemable at stores and online, lessens the risk of fraud in delivering aid.

“Even though my husband is still working, the impact is great,” says Sungcang, who sells homemade frozen foods and home supplies, and also works as a massage therapist. “Because of the lockdown we were not able to go out, and people were not spending. The items that we had [from the store], we actually used for our needs.”

Yet in a country where nearly one-third of families have reported food insecurity, Sungcang considers herself one of the lucky ones. She was one of 733 women in Manila and Cebu selected to participate in a COVID-19 emergency relief program run by the Grameen Foundation, in which micro-entrepreneurs received the equivalent of $100 to spend on food, medicine, home goods, and business supplies.

Sungcang spent half of her funds on groceries for her family and the remaining portion on ingredients for her frozen-food business. The aid has helped sustain her storefront and allowed her to repay loans.

Critically, the aid program wasn’t based on cash, which is often susceptible to fraud, middlemen who take cuts, or mismanagement. Instead, it was distributed in cryptocurrency, which participants accessed on their phones through a digital wallet called Valora or through SMS. The funds could be redeemed to purchase goods in certain stores or online. More than $76,000 was distributed, helping about 5,100 financially vulnerable people maintain a semblance of normalcy.

The success of the program highlights the potential critical role that cryptocurrency could play in the delivery of aid in developing countries efficiently, securely, and at low cost. What’s more, the aid program serves as a proof-of-concept for the use of cryptocurrency more broadly, especially in countries that rely heavily on remittances from citizens who live or work abroad.

To create a less expensive, more accessible disbursement mechanism for the COVID-19 relief program, Grameen and several companies from the 130-member Alliance For Prosperity worked with Celo, an open, decentralized blockchain platform. Using Celo Dollars — a type of cryptocurrency called a stablecoin that is pegged to the U.S. dollar — and technology from partner financial institutions like BeamAndGo, participants could redeem funds at 170 stores, either in person or for delivery.

“This ensures that the beneficiaries’ basic needs are taken care of without worrying about standing in long lines, supply shortages, and contracting COVID-19,” says BeamAndGo CEO Jonathan E. Chua. “For many, participation in this program was their first interaction with a digital and online platform.”

Celo’s Valora wallet application operates much like Venmo or Cash App. “I’m very happy with Valora,” Sungcang says. “When my husband and I were positive for COVID and couldn’t go out, it helped us.” Indeed, Celo reported a 98% onboarding success rate even though participants were brought onto the platform remotely and in an average of 20 minutes.

While many users were unaware that the app’s underlying technology was built atop a cryptocurrency, the program’s overseers were able to leverage the benefits of blockchain technology to track activity and ensure the aid was received and used.

Entrepreneurs in the Philippines received aid to help keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic in the crypto-based program.

Proponents say the system’s transparency is a huge boon, as traditional aid programs are susceptible to leakage and fraud, including fraud by staff members who aren’t properly vetted, by unauthorized aid recipients, and by others who may impersonate members of an aid organization to gain access to funds.

When fraud is detected in traditional aid programs, tracing and recovery can be slow as it often requires the assistance of intermediary organizations. Since there is no guarantee that lost funds can be recovered, some aid organizations don’t even bother to spend their time and resources on it.

Celo detected a single case of fraud and reacted quickly. Will Le, partner of ecosystem building at Celo, says the organization was able to “track down exactly where the money went and then call up the thief and confront her.”

Le, who has participated in traditional aid programs in other parts of the developing world, says any delay in tracking down misappropriated funds makes recovery more difficult. “I would have killed for this level of transparency in other projects I’ve worked on,” Le adds.

When considered at a larger scale, the technology supporting the COVID-19 emergency relief program has the potential to significantly change the microfinance industry, remittance culture, and the distribution of aid. “There will be more transparency into the movement of money, because a lot of these organizations are still generally cash-based,” said Gigi Gatti, director of technology for development for the Grameen Foundation, of relief and aid programs. The lower costs could help recipients build up their savings.

Participants were enthusiastic about the pilot program, though in this first iteration there was a limited number of merchants where recipients could spend their Celo Dollars or cash out funds. Participants said they would have wanted more integration between Celo’s Valora wallet and other mobile money services they use, so they could top-off their accounts or pay some bills directly, changes that are likely to come as the product develops.

I would have killed for this level of transparency in other projects I’ve worked on. Will Le Partner, ecosystem building at Celo

The Philippines is a particularly attractive market for this type of cryptocurrency-based system. Its ultimate benefit could be increased access to critical services for people previously excluded from the financial system. “In the Philippines, there’s a willingness to try new technology,” Le says. Only a third of aid recipients had used mobile money before, and only half had ever purchased anything online.

The impact of greater financial inclusion could prove to be cultural as well as economic. “Sometimes we make assumptions about folks who are living in financially excluded communities” Le says. “People believe that the reason they don’t have a bank account is because they don’t know how to do X, Y, or Z. But I think the gap is not so much ignorance as opportunity. If we can make the process easier and bring more options, I think that’ll go a long way.”

For Sungcang, cryptocurrency has already delivered tangible benefits, keeping afloat a small business that helps her put four children through school. Like many female entrepreneurs in the Philippines and around the world, Sungcang’s work and financial planning are central to her family’s livelihood, and the collapse of her business would have been devastating. She’s grateful for the Valora app and only wishes more people could benefit from it. “Every time I speak about the app to other people, it’s kind of saddening because they are not yet aware,” she says.

Bringing Blockchain to the Community
Berkeley among cities exploring “microbond” investment vehicles marketed directly to residents

Ben Bartlett, a member of the California Blockchain Working Group, sees the technology as a path to greater governmental efficiency and financial inclusiveness for his constituents.

What if a city could address some of its civic needs by letting its residents invest directly in the priorities they care about the most? And what if those same residents could reap the financial rewards of their investment?

As he studied these questions, Ben Bartlett, a member of the city council in Berkeley, Calif., zeroed in on a way to do just that through a new type of municipal bond issued and managed through blockchain technology.

Following Bartlett’s lead, Berkeley is ready to embark on an innovative experiment, dubbed the Community Microbond Initiative, to test his idea.

Municipal bonds are a massive, $4 trillion market and one of the primary vehicles by which states, cities, and counties finance infrastructure and other projects. Because the interest they pay is often exempt from federal taxes, they’re attractive to many types of investors.

Most bonds are underwritten by financial intermediaries who impose high fees to administer them. For that and other reasons, they’re usually sold in denominations often exceeding $5,000, which makes them out of reach for millions of ordinary citizens.

By using the decentralized and public digital ledger known as the blockchain to manage municipal bonds, Berkeley hopes to dramatically lower the cost of issuing and managing them. At the same time, it could use the blockchain to sell the bonds directly to consumers in small denominations, turning them into “microbonds.”

That would allow ordinary residents to purchase bonds to help crowdfund priorities they care about — anything from housing, support for small businesses, and sustainable energy improvements, to infrastructure investments like new fire trucks.

Based on comparable “A” rated municipal bonds, microbond holders would earn interest at rates that are roughly triple the 0.35% interest of an average 5-year CD, and that interest would be tax-free.

“Residents will get a piece of the assets, furthering our economic justice goals,” Bartlett says. That would make the city and residents partners in “wealth building and poverty alleviation,” he adds.

A modern twist on an old practice

The use of small-denomination municipal bonds to get residents involved in supporting local initiatives is not new. Jurisdictions ranging from Anaheim and Los Angeles to Bergen County, N.J., and New York City have used so-called minibonds for years.

“The idea of minibonds is to try to connect the public to the projects that are being financed through their tax dollars,” says Todd Ely, a professor at the University of Colorado, who has studied minibonds. “There’s a civic benefit to having people gain financially from projects they support. And if your local government is going to pay interest for borrowed funds, why not make sure it stays local and goes back into the community?”

We have great infrastructure needs and great inequality. Blockchain bonds could help address both. Ben Bartlett Berkeley councilmember

That said, minibonds have remained a niche offering, in part because traditional municipal bonds, despite their fees, are a relatively efficient way for governments to raise the sizable sums needed to finance infrastructure projects, Ely says.

While minibonds are often sold in denominations of a few hundred dollars, Berkeley’s planned microbonds would go a step further. The use of a blockchain would allow the city to automate many of the administrative tasks involved — everything from tracking owners to paying interest and accounting for any secondary sales of the bonds — for a fraction of the cost. As a result, it could issue bonds in denominations as low as $25.

“Technology has the potential to eliminate some of the transaction costs that have limited the popularity of direct bond sales,” Ely said.

A pioneering project to issue blockchain-administered government bonds in Austria was based on the Ethereum blockchain.

Microbonds are unlikely to grow in size to satisfy the major financing needs of most bonds, Ely says. But the instruments could gain a place alongside traditional municipal bonds, perhaps as bond underwriters carve out a small portion of their offerings for minibonds or microbonds that are earmarked for specific projects whose benefits a jurisdiction wants to highlight and promote, allowing residents and others to vote with their wallets.

Making microbonds happen in Berkeley

The city of Berkeley received proposals last year from organizations seeking to administer the microbonds, including some that have teamed up with major banks. It planned to reopen the Request for Proposals (RFP) process for three weeks due to disruption from the pandemic and will soon be making its choice, Bartlett said.

Blockchain microbonds would still be subject to the legal requirements that apply to other types of municipal bonds, which in most jurisdictions include voter approval.

Bartlett got interested in the idea of blockchain-based bonds a few years ago while he was working at the California Clean Energy Fund, helping to finance electric-vehicle infrastructure. After the tax cuts of 2017 made it harder to finance affordable housing projects, several advocates began discussing the mechanisms for crowdfunding bonds. In 2019, Bartlett was appointed to the California Blockchain Working Group, which was established by Governor Gavin Newsom to study the use of blockchain technology in the California economy and government.

The city of Berkeley will soon be choosing from among proposals to administer the blockchain-based microbond program, Bartlett says.

Whether it’s help for the homeless, support for small business or other initiatives, Bartlett says, “the proceeds from the microbonds can be used to facilitate our social goals. The applicants have some real cool ideas.”

Initially, the project will be focused on a pilot in which the bonds will be used for a purchase that’s already been approved by the city. Berkeley’s finance department is currently seeking to identify an appropriate item, which Bartlett says is likely to be between $2 million and $4 million.

If the blockchain microbond initiative succeeds, Bartlett hopes it will be replicated around the country. “Our initiative will address the fear of doing something experimental in this environment,” he says.

Ely says creating a model for other cities to follow, or better yet, a technology that others can adopt, could well become the project’s most enduring impact. “I appreciate places like Berkeley that are willing to experiment,” Ely says. “Creating a product that someone can repurpose, a system that can be replicated, has a value.”

Blockchain Microbonds Vs. Traditional Municipal Bonds

Microwork Making a Big Difference
Crypto-based program to expand after successful pilot in Kenya

Brian Barmen talks to workers for a pilot program that provides income opportunities in Kenya. The use of crypto eases the challenge of making small payments securely and efficiently.

For seven months during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian Barmen, a 23-year-old college student in Nairobi, was stuck back home in Kericho, six hours north of Kenya’s capital, living with his parents, two brothers, and cousin, all of them for the most part unemployed.

Even in Kericho, where tea is a major cash crop, gainful employment is elusive. “It’s really hard to get a job here,” says Barmen. “You are competing for very limited spots.”

When a friend told Barmen about the chance to do “microwork” on his phone through a pilot program run by cLabs, a U.S.-based startup building on the Celo blockchain, he jumped at the opportunity. He logged onto Toca, the mobile platform created by cLabs that uses cryptocurrency to enable payments to workers around the world. Using his phone, he was able to complete simple tasks, such as transcribing receipts and identifying images, for around a dollar an hour. He put in roughly 24 hours of work in a week.

While the pay sounds meager by U.S. standards, in Kenya, where a third of people get by on less than $2 a day, it represents nearly double the minimum wage.

Development experts and organizations like Mercy Corps and the United Nations World Food Programme have been exploring the use of digital microwork that supports “impact sourcing” — getting work into the hands of people for whom it could make the greatest impact — for years as a way to generate supplemental work and income in some of the world’s poorest and most remote regions.

But the growth of digital microwork has been stymied in large part by a critical challenge: figuring out a way to make small payments to people around the world securely and efficiently. Few people in those regions have access to financial services, and when they do, fees can gobble up much of their earnings.

Cryptocurrency, which enables secure and seamless payments across borders at virtually no cost, has long held the promise of addressing that critical shortfall. The Toca app pilot put that promise to the test, and because of its success, Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian aid NGO, agreed to partner with cLabs to expand the program in 2021 to address the needs of vulnerable populations struggling with economic impacts of the pandemic.

You can cash out anytime, any amount. It’s your money and they give you the power to control your cash. Kennedy Muthiani

“We work with many unemployed and underemployed youth, many of whom don’t have access to financial services and infrastructure, but they do have access to a phone, which can give them new income opportunities from anywhere in the world,” says Alpen Sheth, senior technologist for financial innovation at Mercy Corps Ventures.

The pilot program used a digital wallet and a type of cryptocurrency called stablecoins, Sheth says, “to test and evaluate whether we can provide them direct access to their earnings, even if they don’t have access to a bank account, which the majority of Kenyans don’t.”

Kenya is just the kind of place where impact sourcing could make a huge difference. Forty percent of the population is under the age of 15, and the youth unemployment rate hovers at around 35%. At the same time, around 97% of the population has access to a smartphone, creating a massive opportunity for the kind of microwork that Barmen performed.

Much smartphone-enabled microwork involves massive data categorization projects that cannot be done easily by computers and are broken down into small tasks split among thousands of people. While it may seem routine busywork, it is increasingly critical to U.S. companies for the development and training of artificial-intelligence algorithms. All the major tech companies including Facebook, Microsoft, and Google rely on some form of microwork to help develop machine-learning algorithms and tasks like content moderation and sentiment analysis.

“The demand for this type of machine-learning work is increasing at a very fast rate,” says Will Le, partner of ecosystem building at Celo.

In the past, if Barmen wanted to do this kind of work, he would have had to set up an account with a payment app like PayPal, a process that’s virtually impossible for him. “When you apply for an account, you almost never get approved in Kenya,” Barmen says. In response, an entire shadow industry has developed that sells existing accounts to people wanting to do online work. But the going rate for one of those is around 5,000 to 10,000 Kenyan shillings, the equivalent of $50 to $100, which most young people in Kenya simply can’t afford.

What’s more, most established digital-payment platforms have per-transaction fees that can be as high as $5. With the Toca app, stablecoins can be converted to M-Pesa, a mobile money-transfer service found on virtually every block in Nairobi. Withdrawal fees were less than a penny per transaction, plus 2% of the transfer amount, still significantly lower than alternatives.

The Mercy Corps pilot program suggests cryptocurrency-based systems like Toca have the potential to put microwork on a path to expansion around the globe.

Precise, up-to-date figures about the market for microwork are hard to come by. In 2015, the World Bank estimated the market to be a modest $400 million, but predicted it could quintuple by 2020. Other reports suggest that more than one million people around the globe had benefited from digital microwork by 2015, and that its impact is especially great in the world’s most disadvantaged regions and with populations, such as those in refugee camps, that because of circumstances are unable to engage in regular work.

Barmen says digital microwork was previously not an option for him. "When you apply for an account, you almost never get approved in Kenya."

In recent years, as tech companies sought to build increasingly advanced machine-learning algorithms built upon larger and larger datasets, the demand for microwork has been growing. And as the practice becomes more common, so too does the chance for tech companies to tap it for more complex tasks that require participants to categorize video and even virtual-reality streams. And as companies categorize increasing amounts of essential data, the benefits of microwork could greatly expand.

For Kennedy Muthiani, 24, a recent college graduate in Nairobi, the Toca app was a chance to earn extra cash while he was completing his studies in analytical chemistry. During the first weeklong pilot, he earned 6,400 Kenyan shillings, roughly $64. “With this I can work anywhere. I just fish out my phone and do a few tasks in the queue at the supermarket or in the lift at school to earn a few coins,” he says. “I can pay off my bills at the moment and still have something left over.”

Muthiani has done microwork before, using services that rely on more traditional forms of digital payments. He says he often would have to wait until he’d made at least $300 to access his earnings. Sometimes withdrawals were limited to three-day windows at the start and middle of the month, no matter how much he’d earned. “Here you can cash out anytime, any amount,” he says. “It’s your money and they give you the power to control your cash.”

Celo’s Le points to another benefit: Microwork that is more distributed across the globe would undoubtedly lead to more accuracy in artificial-intelligence algorithms that are sometimes plagued by bias. “Getting a diversity of workers isn’t just important for an impact-and-inclusion perspective,” he says. “It’s also important for a quality-of-product perspective. It makes products better at reading data from other parts of the world.”


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