A.I. Meets Ethnography: Spatial Drives Mobility Via Social Media Data

We’ve all heard the old chestnut about being careful what we say on social media, because once it’s posted to the Internet, it lives on in perpetuity.

Despite those warnings, people reveal an enormous amount about their lives, opinions, and preferences on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and a Cincinnati-based startup called Spatial is mining that data for autonomous vehicle, smart city, and marketing applications.

Describing itself as “ethnography meets machine learning,” Spatial has created an artificial intelligence platform that uses location and social media data to understand how people act. The company then uses its findings to develop “personality profiles” of neighborhoods and local points of interest.

“We collect massive amounts of social media data to answer questions only a local would know,” says Lyden Foust, Spatial’s CEO. “We can also track how cities move and change, updated monthly in near real time. It’s much more accurate than census data, and it offers an unparalleled window into human behavior.”

The profiles the company generates can be monetized in a number of ways, Foust says: Spatial can help retail brands choose where to concentrate marketing efforts or locate a new store; tell autonomous vehicles which local attractions might appeal most to their riders; offer realtors better insights on their listings; educate travel-booking sites on hot spots popular with tourists and local residents; and give smart cities behavioral data they can use to inform urban development.

During the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit earlier this month, Spatial announced a partnership with Ford City Solutions, part of Ford Smart Mobility LLC. According to a 2016 press release, Ford City Solutions works with municipalities worldwide on expanding mobility services: “Through a joint discovery process, Ford City Solutions will work with municipalities to propose, pilot and develop mobility solutions tailored to the community.”

“We’re working with City of Tomorrow as the behavioral data source,” Foust confirms. Spatial has been working with Ford since 2016. After finishing its stint in the Techstars Mobility accelerator, Spatial was one of three participating companies chosen to work with the automaker to advance its mobility platform. (Ford is one of the corporate sponsors of the Techstars Mobility program.)

The 14-person Spatial team has so far raised more than $2 million in venture backing from investors, including Serra Ventures, Connetic Ventures, M25 Group, Fulcrum, and Caerus Investment Partners. Foust says most of Spatial’s revenue comes from providing location-matching services to the brands it works with, including Waze, LiveBy, Uber, and stay22.

“The big play is total mobility—fit the right retailers to the right communities, and making sure those communities thrive with intelligent transportation decisions,” Foust says of Spatial’s future plans. His ultimate goal is to build a “dashboard of human society” to truly capture what the world is talking about.

“It all starts with cities, which I believe are man’s greatest invention,” Foust explains. “We know we’re missing a huge [source of information] on people and how they’re talking and moving passively. Larger entities need to pay attention. Using polls is a terrible measure; we look at organic conversations instead.”

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