Google Analytics for the Real World: A Conversation with Sharon Biggar of Path Intelligence

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In preparation for the upcoming Web 2.0 Summit I am posting a few conversations with attendees that embody the Web Squared Theme.

Path Intelligence uses sensor technology to understand shopping behavior in retail spaces by detecting and tracking the RF signals from mobile phones.

As Sharon Biggar, co-founder, succinctly puts it – “we are like Google Analytics for the real world” giving offline retailers the same visibility on shopping behavior that online retail has enjoyed for years.

sharon-head.jpgWhile human observation has been put in the service of retail analysis for a long time, using machine based sensing and computation is different in a few fundamental ways. First, the quantity and efficiency with which data is gathered simply wouldn’t be possible using human observers. Second, the data is based on unbiased observation of people in their habitat and avoids a lot of the errors built into any research that relies on self-disclosure (I wandered around Victoria’s Secret for half an hour – I think not.)

Using sensors to understand and optimize retail flow is a logical first commercial step. This type of technology gets more interesting when it gets applied to other problems. As Sharon describes in the podcast there are opportunities to deploy the same techniques of mobile sensing in areas as wide ranging as counter-terrorism (locating phones that have been stationary for a long period of time is a potential indicator of phones being used as detonators for roadside bombs) and emergency services (using these sensors to gauge attendance and large events and scale services accordingly).

Sharon will be participating at the Summit in the panel, Humans as Sensors.

Disclosure: O’Reilly Alphatech ventures is an investor in Path Intelligence.

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  • Joshua-Michéle Ross,

    You correctly point out a certain continuity with earlier technology. For example, a big retailer or mall in past years might have – from time to time – taken surveillance footage of the movements of customers and had people study the footage, take notes, and form and test hypotheses about how to optimize the revenue of the various players. In some sense, this cell phone trick is just an evolution of those things.

    However, that’s a bit too glib.

    If you give me a room equipped with some modestly sophisticated hidden and revealed projection equipment, some modestly sophisticated hidden and revealed speakers, and a bunch of sensors – some compute power in the back room – and I you agree to enter for the purpose of completing some task of personal importance and remain there for a little while — I pretty much guarantee that with a little bit of preparation in advance I will make sure that (a) you never notice anything wrong or offensive about how I’m using this equipment, indeed, you’ll experience pleasure; (b) I’ll make you crazy and have you behaving in ways you’ll regret, possibly within mere hours. I’ll own you.

    The low tech forms. like watching people on camera and taking notes and maybe rearranging the displays to tweak your behavior – those work a bit. The high tech forms with heavy automation of the sensing and compute intensive feedback circuit where I get to manipulate your environment, sometimes in subliminal ways? Yeah, I’ll own you.

    We could call the kind of evil room I’m describing as the Ultimate Evil Skinner Box.

    It seems to me that firms like “Path Intelligence” are not simply sliding but are running down a slippery slope of converting all *public* space into that Ultimate Evil Skinner Box. And it seems to me that you, Joshua-Michéle Ross, are cheering them on from the sidelines.

    I suspect that if we ask Ms. Biggar she’ll say something like “trust us” and something like “there is no big conspiracy” and “it’s inconceivable we could wind up building that kind of evil” and to those things I can only reply “why should I believe you? Why should I believe that you won’t either deliberately and consciously or inadvertently (consciously or not) build exactly that kind of nightmare? What safeguards have you in place besides a few folks saying `nah, won’t happen’?”


  • Ben

    Mr. Lord,

    I’ll posit that most people, even those who’ve read Fahrenheit 451, will indifferently submit to environmental manipulation.

    As the noise gets louder, we tune out.

  • Ben,

    I wish I could strongly disagree with you. (Which is kind of quaint, isn’t it?)


  • Ant

    Lots of potential uses for this ‘network intelligence’, most of which are technicaly interesting, but I can’t see where the money is. The gain is either too marginal or the alternate ways of doing things too low cost for this to be a big opportunity. Be delighted to be proved wrong..

  • I am confused.!