Unacast bags $17.5M to do more with location data

Location tracking can seem pretty creepy if you’re the consumer being watched. But there’s big and growing business in tracking human movements and behavior, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones. To wit: Unacast, a location data startup from Norway, has today announced a $17.5 million Series B round — to fuel business expansion, including into his home turf of Europe.

The round has been led by White Star Capital, with European telco Telia joining as a strategic investor. Existing investors Open Ocean Capital and the Norwegian government-backed investment company, Investinor, both also participated.

Unacast is actually headquartered in New York, with its founders moving to the US early to be close to the initial target market. It has 25+ US clients at this point, says co-founder and CEO Thomas Walle, who are using its location data platform for all sorts of purposes — from targeted marketing to footfall mapping for city, real estate and retail planning, and even for shorting stock. Existing clients include Amobee, Blis, SITO Mobile, Cognitiv, Qualia, and TVadSync.

Hedge funds are also among its customers, according to Walle — he says they’re using insights derived from the platform to underpin stock bets by being able to collate dynamic footfall data and estimate a company’s quarterly performance ahead of its earnings report.

“There are two companies out there that collect a huge amount of location data — and that is Google and Facebook,” says Walle, discussing the business’ competitive positioning. “They have their proprietary location data sets. However they never, ever sell that data. That is theirs. So, for the rest of the industry or multiple industries that are looking to understand where people move around, where they live, where they work, where they shop, where they dine and how they commute, they need to get access to this data from another party in a structured and suitable manner. And that is the company that Unacast is striking to become.”

And while a business wanting to conduct location-targeted marketing at scale could just use Facebook or Google’s platforms to do so, Walle argues there are advantages to going outside those walled gardens. “If you want to do very clever, sophisticated advertising based on the person’s location, not on Facebook and Google, we are that data provider that allows other platforms to get access to this data,” is his pitch.

Marketing use-cases make up Unacast’s main customer base for now but Walle says it’s also seeing growing adoption on the research and insights side.

“This could be everything from understanding insights like how far do people drive if they’ve visited a Wal-Mart. If you work out at Equinox twice a week how do you also eat? Do you go to burger shops, do you go to taco shops or do you eat healthy — kale and juice, etc. So those insights is something we are able to provide and we’re doing that now to a handful of research and insights companies in the US.”

So where is Unacast getting all this human movement and behavior data from, given that it does not operate its own platforms for users to pervasively feed with intel — as Facebook and Google do… The answer is “hundreds” of data supplier partners, many app makers pulling on GPS signals from the ubiquitous cell phones that people in Western markets carry with them everywhere.

This approach might not be able to deliver location data that’s as accurate as fixed beacon tech can, Walle concedes, but it has the scale that beacons do not.

He says the “lion’s share” of Unacast’s new funding will be going towards further developing the technologies (including machine learning) which it uses for refining GPS signals and improving location data accuracy — so it can say with greater confidence whether someone was really at a particular place or not.

“Cell phones today collect GPS data, apps collect GPS data, that is a trend that has boomed in the last three, four years. So we do licensing and partnership and agreements with everything from app companies to location companies to app aggregators, SDK companies — anyone that for some reason collects location data but don’t know how to use it, how to make advantage of it, how to structure it,” says Walle. “We take that on board to our platform and we build what we call the Real World Graph — how people are connected to places.”

“What we really focus on is to make sure that we enable other companies to use our structured location data-set,” he adds. “So they can make the right decisions and build great products,” he adds. “Our position in this whole ecosystem is to take all this very raw and unfiltered and unstructured data signals from multiple parties and then create a layer of analytics on top of it — so we understand who has been to what places. And then we allow our clients to decide if they’re using it for retargeting, if they’re using it for insights, if they’re using it for real estate analysis and so on.

“We see that clients are becoming way more demanding when it comes to the quality of the data, they want more transparency, they want to understand how this data has been [processed] before they use this data to build their products or to use this data to make their decisions.”

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Christian Hernandez Gallardo, managing partner at White Star Capital, added: “Location is a complex data set to interpret and understand, and as the segment grows and businesses require not just data, but the context to extract value from it, they will have a greater need of partners that can support them. Both the industry and Unacast have grown substantially in a relatively short time, and we believe Unacast is primed to extend its leadership position throughout.”

So do all the smartphone users who are being tracked know they’re being pervasively watched? Walle says yes, though he concedes that some of the historical consents obtained by some of Unacast’s data suppliers — perhaps via lengthy and opaque T&Cs with pre-ticked opt-ins — might not survive the European Union’s incoming updated privacy framework, GDPR, which requires more explicit consent to be obtained from users (or else an alternative legal basis to collect and process their data).

“All the data we collect is based on opt-in consent from the user,” he says. “This is going to be even more strengthened going forward as GDPR is going to be rolled out into Europe [in May]. We also believe that will have an effect in the US as well.

“Which means that we have to ensure that there is a clear opt in consent to collect this location data, there’s a legitimate interest for the reason why we can process this data and we have to be completely transparent together with our partners, why we are collecting it, how we are using it.”

“I’m a huge believer that GDPR will help the industry as a whole because it will wipe out a lot of the smaller players that don’t treat privacy in the right way,” he adds. “Coming from Norway it’s always been something that’s been part of the DNA of the company and myself personally.”

But why, once the average consumer is made plainly aware their movements are being pervasively tracked so that businesses which they might have nothing to do with can benefit, well, why should people agree to being stalked wherever they go?

That will come down to the individual apps, says Walle — apps that may currently be harvesting location from their users as the trade-off for offering a free restaurant guide app or navigation app, for example. Though he does believe there will be some supplier shrinkage as a direct result of GDPR biting.

“If they want to collect location data they have to find a reason and a legitimate interest to collect such data sources and have the reason to share it with third parties such as Unacast,” he says of app location data suppliers.

“There’s no limitations in GDPR that will restrict the business or the ecosystem per se because location is such a vital piece in both understanding consumers and providing a better user experience. But what you will see, and this I am confident of, it will be way more challenging to collect location data — because you have to be up front, you have to be transparent with your users, which I think is very needed.”

“I believe that going forward we might see a bit less location data in the market but the data that is available will be of higher quality,” he adds. “I expect us to see smaller companies, apps, not taking privacy and data collection seriously will get wiped out because they can’t keep up with the standards that GDPR is enforcing.”

Discussing bringing on board a carrier, Sweden’s Telia, as a strategic investor in the Series B, Walle says the aim is not to use the telco as another data supplier but rather to work together on data accuracy via things like applying machine learning algorithms to derive better intelligence from the fragmented data-sets it needs to structure and contextualize.

In terms of its positioning, Walle says Unacast is aiming to be the middle layer — or “the pipe” — that connects a fragmented app ecosystem with any companies looking to provide an end service to users which could benefit from location intelligence. So he argues many other companies that are also seeking to provide location-powered services — Teralytics is one that springs to mind (and which is also working with carriers), or Nauta-backed Geoblink — could also be customers rather than direct competitors.

“We are the middle layer that provides all the data in a transparent and quality way,” he says. “This is what we are excited about — making sure we can empower other companies with this data.”

One competitive advantage Walle touts Unacast offering in the US vs other local employers is that it’s sought to carry over its cultural values by offering Norwegian-levels of welfare benefits to staff, via a “generous” health insurance, maternity and paternity package. Diversity in its hiring practices is also a priority, he says.