How One Startup Uses Carrier Data For Real-World Analytics

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grubhub-300x300Consumers may not be convinced about in-store tracking, but startups and venture investors are betting that brick-and-mortar retailers’ thirst for data will ultimately trump consumer concerns over the new technology. For the most part, these startups rely on a device in-store — a wireless router, video camera, or Bluetooth beacon — to count and track customers as they shop. However, one Canadian startup is using existing data from cellular networks to provide businesses with information about their foot traffic — and, more importantly, where that traffic goes next.

Through a contract with an undisclosed Canadian carrier, the company has access to passive paging data, the information that networks use to pick the best transmission tower through which it should route a call or send data. (Think of paging information in the same way as the MAC address for wireless routers.) The company ingests this information, and then uses triangulation to identify the location of the device.

The project, Location Genius, is run by Viasense, a cloud-based analytics engine that collects cellular network data and turns it around to clients in real-time through a “multi-faceted dashboard.” Location Genius’s approach is to step back from identifying individual behavior and monitor the masses instead, using cellular data to “cluster” consumers according to location.

Founder Mossab Basir, who previously led marketing teams for Procter & Gamble, refers to this as “macro-level” data, a more holistic sampling of the traffic that hits brick-and-mortars every day.

“We don’t have access to texts or calls,” Basir said. “But with the statuses between phones and networks, we can start to profile locations based on traffic from the cell network. We’ll never find out your name or number, but we’ll be able to say that people who went to the Jay-Z concert also like golf. We talk only about clusters [of users,] nothing more granular. But it’s rich insight.”

When businesses are located in areas with weak signal strength, Location Genius draws upon WiFi positioning, social media interaction and on-site sensors to fill the void. Basir says that Twitter, Instagram and Foursquare have proven especially valuable in informing companies of their clients’ mobility, and what they’re exposed to on a daily basis.

While Location Genius’s clients are primarily interested in the days and times that bring the largest customer clusters to their stores, they can also evaluate the activity and behavior of those groups based on other places they spend their time. Basir says there’s enough information available within location to allow businesses to market accordingly in an effort to attract more customers — information that eliminates the need for measurements like POS data and exit and license plate surveys.

“We really believe that there’s a big, gaping hole in information about the real world that’s become exposed by how much information is available in the digital world,” Basir said. “People forget that 90 percent of sales happen in the real world.”

A result of this relatively hands-off collecting of data: Basir and his team are adamant about leaving individual customers alone. “There are companies out there that provide a direct channel to customers on location, and that’s kind of a harassment approach we steer away from,” Basir said. “We’re disciplined about [not] bothering clients.”

Annie Melton is a reporter at Street Fight.