Foursquare's unusual pitch: The ethical data company

Hypertrending is an exercise in trust.

It seems counter-intuitive that, in the thick of a backlash against Big Tech's data privacy abuses, Dennis Crowley is pitching location tracking technology at South By Southwest.

Foursquare, which he co-founded, recently announced Hypertrending. It's an in-app feature that shows a real-time heat map of where everyone on Foursquare (and the apps that use its technology) are hanging out in Austin. The data is anonymized and aggregated so you don't see how many people are in a particular bar or park.

The feature is limited to this city during SXSW, will be gone by March 21 and there are no plans for a wider release.

So what's the point?

As a means of finding where everyone's hanging out in the city it's OK -- but even Crowley said in his keynote speech on Saturday that it's not particularly useful.

As a demo of Foursquare's capabilities, it's not showing developers anything too different from the company's pre-existing Pilgrim technology, which allows fine-grained tracking based not just on GPS but WiFi and cell signals.

Instead it feels more like an art project. To show users the "God view" of their data -- not just their individual information, but the aggregate patterns and analytics that companies look at all the time. Hypertrending is interesting because giving users a peek behind the veil at the risk of freaking them out is exactly what most tech companies don't do.

Crowley has framed it as a demo for consumers and he wants a cultural read on its acceptability. Do people welcome it? Will they understand it?

"We are limiting access to it because *we know* it's provocative," he wrote upon the feature's release. "It's also our belief that before something like our Hypertrending demo changes the game, we should try to give everyone a chance to get their head around the rules. So we are looking to get your thoughts and feedback on Hypertrending as it relates to the larger conversation around the need for transparency, thoughtful leadership, and ethical behavior from technology companies."

Which leads to another reason for Hypertrending: as Foursquare's trust-building exercise with customers.

Companies today can identify individual citizens from anonymous data, potentially following one to a doctor's appointment and romantic partner's house, all while fueling a location-based advertising market worth $21 billion. Meanwhile we're trapped in a cycle of data violation/casual apology/new violation a week later. Yet to an increasingly skeptical public, Foursquare is here trying to pitch itself as an ethical tech company.

Over the last decade, Foursquare has moved beyond app check-ins and mayoral skirmishes to mostly serve other companies. It's a platform for apps that change according to your location, whether you check in or not. The combination of its ability to ambiently pinpoint locations and having what Crowley calls its "base map of the world" -- basically, understanding what all these coordinates that people gravitate towards actually are -- has led it to work with Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb and more. The company has over 100,000 registered clients and in early 2018 noted revenue growth of over 50 percent for the previous three years running.

Amid all that change was President Donald Trump's travel ban on citizens from seven majority Muslim countries in January 2017. Crowley said it triggered an introspective moment at Foursquare, just as they were about to share their Pilgrim technology with other companies.

"Could someone use our tools to build something that we thought was evil?" he said to Engadget. "You do an audit and make sure that the company has stated its values, and the tools that we build adhere to those values, and there's actually code in the stack that enforces that."

The result, Crowley says, was an ethics committee that does legal research and formalizes company policy on, say, whether they should help a fast food company target customers who have visited cannabis dispensaries (they did -- in areas of the country where marijuana is legal).

Foursquare vets the companies it works with for whether they use location tracking for a genuinely useful feature or just to sell data. Foursquare also tracks whether their partners are explicit with users about how they use location information.

"The stuff that comes naturally to us because we've been doing it for a long time does not come naturally to other companies," Crowley said.

Moreover, Crowley says Foursquare has identified "hidden categories" -- locations that are not targetable for ads -- such as a chemotherapy center or divorce lawyer's office. While Foursquare holds that data, it doesn't go to partner companies.

CEO Jeff Glueck has said he's turned away millions of dollars for data that was "against our sense of ethics." But consumer trust is really Foursquare's currency.

"The stuff that comes naturally to us because we've been doing it for a long time does not come naturally to other companies."

They need that trust, because they handle some of our most intimate information and customers pretty much have to take these location data gatekeepers on their word when they say they won't abuse it.

Trust in a tech company is also a currency that's appreciating as customers get savvy to shady data practices, and other companies who are aggregating location data and encouraging check-ins continue to swan-dive into blunders.

"We need to differentiate ourselves in this space and we've always been a good actor and we've always been very thoughtful, so let's continue making sure that people know that as it's becoming clear that other companies may not have had the same thoughtful approach we had," Crowley said. "Let the users decide, who do you wanna trust with this?"

But as society continues to reckon with data privacy, it's unclear if the convenience of new restaurant suggestions or heat maps for hot parties are a compelling enough proposition for us to let our phones passively track our bodies.

Crowley thinks that in three-to-four years' time every crucial app on your smartphone will use background location understanding in some new form, whether it's in a game or social network. "All of these apps will go through some reinvention as contextually aware technology becomes more mainstream," he said. "I think it's just going to be baked into everything."

So for you, the customer, the real question is not whether Hypertrending can help you find the fanciest corporate marketing stunt at an arts and tech festival in Texas. It's whether this show of openness makes you feel secure about the data you're disclosing, and whether you trust Foursquare -- and its numerous corporate partners -- to continue to handle it preciously.

Images: Foursquare