Location-Tracking Startup Sense Networks Emerges from Stealth To Answer the Question: Where Is Everybody?


What if you could look at your cell phone and see a heat map of where everybody in the city was at that very moment? The more people at any given location, the redder it would appear on the map. That’s what Citysense does. It is a mobile application that is supposed to help you figure out where the hottest clubs and night spots are so you can go there (or avoid them, depending on your preference).

It senses where the most popular places are based on the location information emitted by everyone’s cell phones, shows the places with the most activity, and then links into Yelp or Google to help you find out what is at that location. Over time, it learns about where you like to go (fancy restaurants or punk rock clubs) and shows you other people like you, and where they are—right now. And it does all of this anonymously. (You can’t see your where your actual friends are). Citysense only works in San Francisco right now. It is available as a mobile download for the Blackberry and soon for the iPhone as well.

The application is essentially a demonstration for a startup called Sense Networks that is emerging from stealth mode today. Citysense is built on top of the company’s main technology platform, Macrosense. The company ingests billions of data points about people’s location from cell phones, GPS devices, WiFi, and even taxis. The company also collects geo-location data from everyone who downloads Citysense, or any future app (although, the company considers the data to be yours, and you can delete it from the database at any time).

Using machine-learning algorithms, it then indexes all of this location data and ranks places in the real world much like a search engine ranks Websites. But instead of looking at Web links, it looks at how much data (i.e., people) are moving between locations. The company makes money by selling this data in the aggregate to professional investors and financial institutions, who are keen to find out things like where people are shopping.

Sense Networks was founded by MIT computer scientist Alex Pentland and Columbia computer scientist Tony Jebara back in May, 2003. But it remained pretty much a research project until the company was incorporated in 2006. In April, 2008 it raised an A round from hedge funds (including Passport Capital, Drobny Global Asset Management and the Challenge Funds) and angel investors. The amount was not disclosed, but VentureWire reports that it was $3 million.