Why It Took COVID-19 To Change Data Use, Prompt Unlikely Partnerships, Acquisitions

It took a worldwide health crisis to find new uses for data and prompt some of the most unlikely partnerships and acquisitions. Last week, two data companies merged when Foursquare acquired Factual, and Apple stepped up to work with Google on a project that the two companies believe could slow the spread of COVID-19.

Greg Sterling, VP of market insights at Uberall, a location data company, believes the combination of Foursquare and Factual will become one of the strongest networks for local data. Economics leads this change — the need to combine to survive, as well as the need to partner to further the use of data. In this case for the good of humanity.

Complimentary strength, economics, and I’m betting some Factual’s investors were eager to see an exist, but that’s pure speculation, said Greg Sterling, VP of market insights at Uberall, which offers services to support location search. 

“Now there’s about 15 companies that do some version of what they do, such as tracking using mobile phone data to identify audiences, creating behavioral profiles, and attribution,” he said.  



There's almost an obligation for these companies to step up and try to help, he said, and not in a public relations type of way. 

COVID-19 has created another use for location data with quarantines and social distancing orders in place worldwide. There’s not a whole lot of need for offline attribution today, though companies continue to use location data to track movement.

“Eventually it will become ubiquitous the way the data compensates for the loss of cookies and the way it ties together disparate media,” Sterling said. “Notwithstanding privacy issues, I think we’ll see location data integrated throughout all types of campaigns such as search, display, programmatic, social media and more.”

Sterling believes there will be broad adoption and applications, but the ad industries in a rough patch with budgets on pause. It will give Foursquare new strengthen in its new position, he said.

With help from location data, COVID-19 has adopted a type of COVID-ID.

Numerous companies, from Apple and Google to, a division of Cloud Technologies Group, are developing software tools to warn people when they come into contact with someone infected with the virus. 

The delicate nature of the type of information requires to make this work presents many privacy concerns. Apple and Google will use short-range Bluetooth communications to establish an opt-in contact-tracing network.

The two companies say people will need to opt in. The platform will keep most of the data on the phones that have come in close proximity with each other. The system, explained in whitepapers, will also alert people who download it to whether they were in close contact with an infected person, but it won’t reveal the name or exact location.

It's also important to note that Apple and Google developed this "tracing" app, which follows similar methods to serve ads. The software uses a method called Contact Tracing, not tracking, which requires users to opt in. It's not clear if this is just semantics or they stumbled on to a new way to identify if ads were served and seen without a cookie.

The Contact Detection Service is the vehicle for implementing contact tracing by using Bluetooth low energy for proximity detection of nearby smartphones and for the data exchange. A tracing key per device is also required. A tracing key is uploaded to the device when the device owner agrees to participate and is diagnosed positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Some companies like Unicast and CivicScience have used aggregated location tracking data to develop tools that provide information on the states and countries doing a better job of social distancing. That doesn’t help fight the disease, so real tracking tools require opt-in participation, which might be more difficult to get.  

"There's a lack of alignment in the country in terms of what we do and how it's done, which undermines the capacity to roll out something like this," he said. "The government suffers from enormous distrust and you really need the U.S. government to educate. ... It's a shame because this type of thing is really required to move forward. Until you have a vaccine during the lock-down before the virus is under control, how do you manage this? This would facilitate a return to normal, but I don't see it happening across the United States."

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