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A dual-sided data dilemma

Protocol Enterprise

Hello and welcome to Protocol Enterprise! Today: how SafeGraph’s decision to limit access to location data around abortion clinics impacted researchers that needed that data, why inflation might be a good thing for enterprise tech, and how Tableau learned to get along with Looker.

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There’s no question the pandemic was a real forcing function for businesses that decided to modernize their applications, but it wasn’t the only factor. According to research from Couchbase, while 40% of survey respondents credited the pandemic for lighting a fire under their IT teams, almost as many respondents cited the need to keep up with competitors, customers that wanted more advanced features and regulatory requirements for their renewed investment in IT.

SafeGraph revealed an ethical research dilemma

Martin Andersen was frustrated.

When location data company SafeGraph last week suddenly turned off access to abortion clinic data that Andersen had been using in his research, the associate professor in the department of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro lost a valuable source of information. Andersen had been using the data to measure the real-world impact of laws limiting abortion rights.

  • “I think it’s incredibly valuable to help us understand how people are responding to laws like SB 8 or overturning of Roe v. Wade,” said Andersen.
  • He was referring to SafeGraph’s data and its use in research gauging the effects of Texas’ Senate Bill 8, which bans most abortions after six weeks, and a potential decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
  • “I am kind of frustrated they did it, but I understand why they did this as well. I think the decision to take down family clinic data is a very defensible decision,” Andersen said regarding SafeGraph’s data removal.

SafeGraph said on May 3 it would cut access to data associated with travel to and from family-planning center locations from its online self-serve data platform and from the API through which it distributes data to customers and researchers.

  • The company sells data to business and government customers that shows where anonymized mobile devices are spotted to indicate which locations people traveled from, how long they stayed and where they traveled afterward.
  • The company pointed to “potential federal changes in family-planning access” as the reason for its decision to remove access to the data.
  • However, while the move was designed to protect people’s privacy, it had broader effects on researchers studying the impact of laws on access to reproductive health services.
  • “Data limitation is a severe issue for research generally, but especially so for research in the area of reproductive health care,” said Jason Lindo, a professor of economics at Texas A&M University who studies the impact of abortion restrictions on reproductive health care access and the amount of travel necessary to obtain it.

While some academic researchers believe that mobile location data showing travel to and from abortion clinics — such as what SafeGraph provided — is useful for their work, recent state laws limiting abortion services and the potential for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade have exposed the privacy risks associated with the easy availability of location data.

  • The situation shines a spotlight on a complex debate that has plagued researchers, particularly those in need of sensitive data related to health care.
  • Researchers want data, and the increasingly digitized world enabled through connected mobile communication creates new forms of information that can offer valuable new insights to researchers.
  • However, researchers care about the privacy of research subjects, and must comply with academic review board data use and privacy rules.
  • “We see this issue constantly — the trade-off between access and privacy,” Andersen said.

But the use of location data poses dilemmas beyond balancing privacy and access.

  • Most mobile location data providers rely on harvesting and selling people’s personal data obtained through covert data partnerships with unnamed ad tech companies and mobile app providers, which fuels what many perceive as surveillance capitalism.
  • Tech and data providers are sometimes eager to open access to their information for research, not only because it helps show their products’ value and promote their companies, but because it gives them a “data-for-good” cover in an otherwise highly criticized industry.

Andersen told Protocol he has two research papers in progress that rely on data from SafeGraph, both related to travel associated with abortion clinics: one that analyzes the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and another that focuses on the effect SB 8 has on travel to reproductive health facilities.

  • Research quantifying the travel burdens created by abortion restrictions has been considered in abortion-related legal cases since the 2016 Supreme Court case Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the court ruled that Texas cannot place restrictions on abortion services that create an undue burden on people seeking an abortion.
  • “In the case of reproductive health care and abortion access, the research has mattered. Showing how travel distance affects abortion rates has been used by courts to determine that laws have constituted an undue burden,” Lindo said.
  • And some researchers say they appreciate SafeGraph’s data because, unlike other location data providers they could purchase from, SafeGraph reports foot traffic data according to census block groups rather than providing device-level information or precise GPS coordinates.

In a recent interview with Protocol, SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman said the company might consider altering its approach to data access.

  • “We could say, ‘Only vetted researchers can get access to this data, whereas the broader public can get less access to the data,’ and that's something we might do. So we are evaluating those types of things,” he said.
  • “We need data privacy legislation, because in the end, we can’t rely on companies to make the decision to just share with researchers,” said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, a digital and privacy rights group. “They’re going to do what makes the most money, which is likely selling that data to anyone who wants to buy it.”
— Kate Kaye (email| twitter)


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The VC case for inflation

Inflation might not be such a bad thing for certain areas of the IT industry, according to Jai Das, president and co-founder at Sapphire Ventures, which invests in enterprise B2B software companies primarily at the mid- to growth-stage level.

The venture capital firm, which has just under $9 billion under management, has yet to see inflationary pressure impacting its portfolio companies, but Das expects some slowdown in the second and third quarters.

“Even if the customers are doing fine, people just look at their stock price and see that it's gone down like 40% or 50%, and they have a mental block against committing things immediately,” Das told Protocol. “The size of the deals might get a little bit smaller. But overall … in some ways, technology provides you a way to hedge against inflation — be it inflation in salaries, be it inflation in fuel and things like that.”

Software companies focused on better fuel management for airlines or large vehicle fleets have a great opportunity now given the high price of gas, Das said. Human resource tech companies can help customers keep their employees happy and manage attrition.

“We see a lot of uptick in that,” Das said. “There might be some areas that people are like, 'Hey, look, maybe we don't spend $2 million here, and maybe we only spend only $1 million, $1.5 million,’ but then there'll be other pockets of our IT industry which will actually benefit from inflation.”

— Donna Goodison (email | twitter)

Why Google learned to stop worrying about competition and love Tableau

There’s little question Salesforce’s Tableau sees Google’s Looker as direct competition. The company has a detailed set of charts on its website comparing the data visualization tools. Needless to say, Looker doesn’t get especially good grades on that report card.

So be it. Google Cloud decided to partner with Tableau in October anyway. The idea was to combine Looker’s reusable machine-learning models and data governance capabilities with Tableau’s arguably superior visualization skills.

“You have to embrace everyone working in the value chain,” Gerrit Kazmaier, vice president for Database, Data Analytics and Looker at Google told Protocol last week, calling the pair-up an example of an “unusual partnership.”

“Not everything is always driven from a singular decision,” he said. “What you see with Tableau, for instance, is it’s really great for data discovery, and there is lots of thoughtful iteration that goes into that space. Looker is incredibly strong when it comes to defining and governing data models,” he said. “It’s embracing these differences and building on each other’s strengths.”

— Kate Kaye (email| twitter)

Around the enterprise

Arm’s revenue soared 35% to $2.7 billion in 2021 as it prepared to go it alone following the collapse of the Nvidia deal.

2022 is a big year for the U.S. Army’s cloud computing strategy, as it puts into place a number of initiatives it has been working on over the past few years, according to FCW.


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