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Citysense Monitors Real-Time Human Traffic

Citysense Monitors Real-Time Human Traffic
By Barry Levine

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Sense Networks has introduced its first application: Citysense, a location-based service that the company calls "social navigation." The first Citysense application is a mobile map that shows the busiest nightlife hot spots in San Francisco. Citysense is currently available only for the BlackBerry, but an iPhone version is promised.

A new company has launched an alpha version of a platform that can show the location-based trends of consumers in real time. New York City-based Sense Networks publicly announced itself as a company Monday -- along with its patent-pending software platform, Macrosense, and the platform's first application: a real-time social-navigation and "nightlife-discovery application" called Citysense.

For BlackBerry Devices Only -- for Now

Citysense is available now for download from the company's Web site, but initially only for BlackBerry handhelds. The company said an iPhone version will be available soon.

Greg Skibiski, the company's CEO and cofounder, said the Macrosense platform "enables an entirely new business model for location-based services," which other company officials are describing as "social navigation."

He added that the new model is made possible by companies and investors making money from "understanding emerging trends in real time, while consumers receive compelling applications free of intrusive mobile advertising" and are able to remain anonymous.

The way Macrosense accomplishes this is by collecting massive amounts of location data that is sent, anonymously, from mobile phones and vehicles. Machine-learning technology is employed to analyze the data, with each data point being evaluated in the context of other data from the same location. The data consists of time-stamped location data, and metadata streams from GPS, Wi-Fi positioning, cell-tower triangulation, RFID, and other sources to provide what the company calls its "predictive analytics."

Initially in San Francisco

The company said this kind of real-time information, plus historical data, enables the platform to quantify consumer behavior and show "macro trends in spending and sentiment," in real time. These trends enable companies to answer such questions as: Where do its customers go after a transaction? How far will people be willing to travel to a store compared to last year? Where do most of the customers at a given location come from? And where should a store be located to get the most traffic?

The first use of this technology for consumers, an alpha release of Citysense, offers a mobile-map application that shows the busiest nightlife hot spots, initially only in San Francisco, but soon expanding to six other cities. A user can see the busiest places, or see only places that have unusually high activity compared to previous years. The user can then use one-click searching on Google or Yelp to get the location's phone number, address, and other information.

Sandy Pentland, Sense Networks' chief privacy officer, compared the Citysense application to an automobile's Global Positioning System, which pools a large amount of data points to allow drivers to avoid congestion. In the case of Citysense, of course, the idea is that at least some users might want either to move toward the congestion, which could be a hopping nightspot, or avoid congestion, such as a crowded restaurant.

Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, said he was "a little skeptical about the business model" offered by Sense Networks. He added that he wasn't sure how much of the analysis was compelling to either businesses or consumers.

"We're definitely going to see more companies using this kind of data," he predicted. But the biggest issue may be the quality of the data. "Exactly where does it come from and how good is it?" And, Hilwa said, the better the data, the more questions that are raised about privacy.

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