Saty Bhat - stock.adobe.com
Nordic telecoms firm Telia Company recently joined forces with startup Unacast to make use of anonymised location data from Telia’s network customers.
Under the agreement, Telia will use Unacast’s platform to process its own anonymised user data to gain insights into crowd movement in and around cities. These insights could potentially be used to improve urban development, public transport, event management, tourism and retail.
According to Kristofer Ågren, head of data insights for Division X at Telia Company, the partnership came about after an initial investment. “Approximately 18 months ago, Telia invested in Unacast. As part of that investment, a new project was trialled to determine whether Telia and Unacast could work together on something more than an investment basis,” he said.
The reasons for doing so were twofold. First, startups are typically free of legacy issues and, as in this case, focused on a cloud-first architecture. Second, startups tend to achieve a speed and agility not usually associated with larger telcos.
“As a startup, you’re boot-strapped, faster, agile,” said Ågren. “And that requires a certain type of architecture, mindset and process. We were keen to see if we could become faster like that.”
After the project concluded earlier this year, the two companies decided to continue to work together.
“[Unacast was] making us faster, reverse-integrating into its process, and we were bringing a lot to the table in terms of commercially scaling the offerings that we have and bringing them to market,” said Ågren. “It ended up being a very positive project and that led to the decision to formally buy the service.”
Boosting transport efficiency
Telia Company had already been using aggregated customer data for some time, having implemented various projects in Sweden and elsewhere. One example is a Helsinki regional transport association project. Having just extended a subway line into Espoo, with an investment of around €10bn, the transport authorities were keen that it should be used efficiently.
Read more about location data
- The government has funded a report to investigate the potential of matching geospatial data with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).
- Location has been a huge enabler for a wealth of applications impacting consumers and businesses, from mobile marketing to asset tracking.
- The government is planning to invest in emerging technologies that can help drive the value of geospatial data from a range of sources.
Telia helped provide the insights needed to optimise the transport network to be relevant to the people there.
“It’s a tricky problem to solve if you don’t know the full journey, which individual transport companies don’t,” said Ågren. “We were able to provide that total information for journeys – start, destination, route, timing.”
This information allowed the Espoo transport authorities to fully optimise transport connections, with the result that the new links reduced car traffic by 8%.
That was before the Unacast tie-up. Now, Telia offers similar information, but in real time and to more clients.
Planning around people
“Our latest offering is Telia City Vitality, based on the same types of insights,” said Ågren. “If you know how groups of people move within a city, that can be very useful for city planning, making the city smarter. It can also help you to understand the impact of running an event in the city, for example.”
Typically, cities do this planning or prediction by survey in advance, which is a skewed and inaccurate method. The Telia City Vitality offering allows an authorised person to look into the data that forms the pulse of a city.
Kristofer Ågren, Telia Company
“We’ve done lots of one-off projects, but to deliver an online project that’s always running, live, always scalable, that’s a whole different ball game,” said Ågren. “Processing terabytes of data is hard to do if you don’t have the technical architecture, agile development and the right data scientists.”
The typical customer for this software would be a municipality or city authority. In the initial phase, Telia will be targeting event planners, people in the tourism industry, to help them understand where people come from and how long they stay. City planners are another obvious category of customer, along with transport companies needing to know commuter habits and related travel behaviour.
“It could save the public transport services a lot of money and provide better services,” added Ågren. “I’m pretty sure that if this had been available beforehand, then Helsinki would have saved a lot of money and gained new insights.”
However, it’s not something a private citizen can access. “It wouldn’t be correct to allow that.”
Privacy a priority
Privacy issues are increasingly important in this area of data usage, not just for legal reasons, but also because customers are becoming more aware of the value of their private data and the risks should it fall into the wrong hands.
“It’s important to state that we aren’t using anybody else’s data,” said Ågren. “This is data from our own networks which is anonymised, aggregated and safe, fully compliant with GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation]. It’s a partnership with Unacast, but we’re just using their platform; we don’t use their data and we don’t share our data.”
He said Telia has spent a lot of time and effort making sure that the data is non-reversible and anonymised – nowhere near the grey area of being potentially able to identify individuals. It is insights that are being sold, not the data itself.
“I’ve come to realise that it’s important to stress this, that what we’re doing is different,” added Ågren. “Using data from our networks – anonymised, aggregated and safe. As a customer of Telia you can feel safe, more so than when using some of the apps on your phone. We want to set the gold standard on how to use this data.”
When it comes to city planning, everybody involved has an opinion about people movement and it’s often hard to get hold of real numbers. “Sometimes people think their own opinions are more important than others, but then you look at the data – it can either back up customers’ decisions or surprise them by the reality,” said Ågren. “We’ve been humbled by the complexity of it, what it means to provide this to end-to-end.”