A set of APIs provide fine-grained data on the movements of demographic populations to analytics companies, who in turn can generate insights that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for small governments.
Urban planning doesn’t have to be the same kind of guesswork it once was. With citizens carrying data transmitters in their pockets, using apps that collect information on everything from physical movements to consumer habits, a city planning department could gauge potential interest and traffic around, say, a proposed department store, with more confidence than with a shot in the dark. It could, given access to the data and the resources to analyze it.
That’s the trouble for some small governments: Such data collection and analysis can be financially or logistically out of reach, requiring more expertise and staff time than they have to spare. For them, a company called TruFactor, a subsidiary of InMobi Group, is collecting citizen data and contracting with nonprofits and analytics companies who make it usable for smaller governments. Their business model puts a middleman between themselves and government, but it proposes to make expensive insights accessible to the public sector by divvying up the work.
Billed as "intelligence-as-a-service" that generates consumer intelligence reports and graphs for data scientists and developers, TruFactor launched its platform in February at Mobile World Congress, an exhibition for the mobile industry. On the phone with Government Technology this week, the company’s Chief Data Scientist Matthew Habiger said TruFactor pulls data from both telecommunication providers and individual mobile devices, with coverage spanning about 95 percent of the continental U.S.
“When we think about processing the data we ingest, we try to focus on building out very multi-purpose views. We have this mantra called ‘process once for many uses,’ where we try to understand, say, how devices might be traveling down a road on a daily basis, so we could give statistics on how many people are traveling on a road, at what times of day, and where they might be originating from and ultimately going to,” he said. “You could also understand larger population movements, if somebody was moving from state to state, traveling to see a concert or some other event.”
Habiger said TruFactor processes more than 100 terabytes of data per day, then uses proprietary AI to convert it into graphs which are accessible to clients via application-ready APIs, providing feedback on the movements and behaviors of specific demographic populations. TruFactor then contracts with developers or other agencies that work with governments, such as Inovvo in Reson, Va., or Cobalt Community Research in Michigan.
Cobalt CEO William SaintAmour said the nonprofit works with TruFactor to make data actionable and affordable. For example, he said, if a downtown development official is considering a beautification project or a new retail outlet, they can request traffic comparisons dating up to 18 months back, since that’s when TruFactor started collecting data, to see how locals responded to other events or changes.
“Have the overall patterns changed in terms of the volume of people they’re drawing downtown? Are they having a difference in the mix of people? Where are the people coming from? If they’re coming from different zip codes, how can (the city) focus their social media budget to educate those particular groups in those particular areas?” SaintAmour said. “(TruFactor’s platform) helps get that granular feel for the particular demographics, that either you’re trying to attract into your community, or that you’re actually attracting and want to interact with them more effectively, and bring in more of their family and friends.”
There are no shortage of data harvesting companies out there, but SaintAmour said what differentiates TruFactor is the scope of what it collects: not just counts of people, but sometimes age, income, gender, home zip code, and other intelligence that can be helpful for small local governments making tactical budgetary or policy decisions.
“What we’re doing with TruFactor is making it affordable so (small and medium-sized governments) can develop their downtowns more effectively, using evidence to make decisions and to prove the effectiveness of their decisions … They can use it for looking at festivals … and also as they’re putting in different infrastructure improvements, whether it’s a bike trail or a boat launch or a new road, that they can get a much more robust sense of who’s using it, how are they using it, when are they using it, which is a set of data that has not been available to this particular corridor of communities,” he said. “So far it’s been well-received, and it’s worked well for us.”