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Foursquare invented the check-in. Then it watched the world shut down.

Foursquare CEO Gary Little on how location data will help the world rebound and how the company's dealing with a privacy-first future.

New York skyline with blue cartoon-like pins sticking out of buildings

Location data could help businesses reopen. It could also create problems for privacy.

Photo: Prasit photo/Getty Images

From the early days of the check-in to its evolution into one of the leading location data vendors in the industry, Foursquare's business has always sort of depended on people going places. And for a while — say, most of human history — it seemed like a fairly safe assumption that people, generally speaking, would go places.

Then COVID-19 hit, and suddenly, places closed and people stayed in, creating what might have been a crisis for a company like Foursquare.

But Gary Little, who took over as the company's CEO late last year, argues that the pandemic actually made it more essential for both businesses and governments to understand how people were and weren't moving around the world, using data Foursquare collects and shares in aggregate.

Now, as countries around the world are reopening, Little says those insights are just as crucial.

Protocol spoke with Little about how Foursquare has adapted through the pandemic, how location data can help other businesses recover and whether location tracking will even be possible in a world that's increasingly moving toward privacy protective tech.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There are very few tech companies that are as associated with in-person activity as Foursquare is. What kind of toll did the last year or so have on the business?

What has been really interesting about the business itself is, despite an obviously largely muted level of mobile activity or human movement, the value of understanding that movement became highly acute, whether in a commercial sense, or even in a public policy sense. As we lived through the strict lockdowns and then opening and closing that we've gone through over the last year, what's really risen to the top is just the high value of that location and geospatial data.

There was a lot of demand early on for location data that could be useful for public health purposes. Was Foursquare able to play much of a role in that?

We looked at a bunch of different applications early on, and, for a host of both privacy concerns that we had, and just generally the rapid movement of some of the platforms to fill that gap, we ended up providing more insights and analyses to shed light on how COVID was impacting all those things. Both Apple and Google did a lot of work in terms of their core operating system with contact tracing and so forth. We looked at it and thought we were better off looking at the insights layer, the analytics layer.

Can you walk me through what your privacy concerns were?

We thought through how our technology could be applied to things like contact tracing. For us, there were significant technical barriers to being able to provide a valuable set of insights and data, whether to health professionals, municipalities, governments and the like. We wouldn't have been able to build a solution that protected what we care about quite a lot, which is very specific user data. It was really more about our constraints with regard to what we can build and when, and how, as opposed to a macro concern that that couldn't be done in a privacy-forward way.

So, more of a resources thing, rather than a "we're morally opposed" kind of thing?

Correct. There are always trade-offs with respect to the way we think about the world from what we can build and what we should build.

I was looking at some of the data that you guys put out about how foot traffic declined to various types of businesses and how it increased to other types of businesses like craft stores and hardware stores. My big question is: Who was using that information? And what were they able to do with it?

For a bunch of our customers with a large-scale, physical footprint, whether that's in dining, malls and shopping, or others, just understanding their customer foot traffic and how it changed allowed them to make decisions: Where do we open? When do we open? How do we open?

On the other side of it, we were providing some of the aggregated-level data to some municipalities and so forth to just understand this pretty dynamic thing that happened when we shut down. Where do people move? Where do we see density of population? Do you open? If you open, are people going to show up? We were able to help all of our clients understand a lot of those dynamics.

Now that things are opening back up, how are you playing a role in helping both municipalities and your clients anticipate their needs?

A lot of what we've been investing in, maybe most notably with the recent acquisition of Unfolded, is really bringing to life geospatial and location analytics. Questions like: Where should I put my next store? What should my hours of operations be? If you're a company like Starbucks or McDonald's or others that have thousands of locations across the globe, how should you think about that store footprint as people reemerge?

We're still at the early stages, I would say, of creating a higher degree of usability in the data and infrastructure that's required to do this in real time. Historically, you needed to have a Ph.D. to do a lot of the data analytics to understand mobile device data, traffic and weather all put together in a way that helps you answer a question like "Where should I put my next store?" We've been investing a lot in the software layer to make that more readily available to all data analysts, not just specialists in a very specific niche category.

What is some of the data telling you about what trends are going to happen to commercial real estate? Is the situation as bleak as some people are expecting?

It's almost too early to tell. There's a lot of noise in the data. One of the things we have seen, which is starting to emerge in other data categories as well, is the mass migrations that have been written about aren't necessarily holding as much as people thought. Not as many people moved as suspected, and there are some early signs that there may be movement back to certain places.

In the online world, we're seeing this mass movement away from tracking. Apple's forcing apps to ask for users' consent before tracking. Google's trying to kill off the third-party cookie. So what does that mean for Foursquare and the tech you use to make these inferences?

A lot of what we see are welcome changes to the industry. We've always operated under a philosophy of a double opt-in mechanism: Allow location tracking, and then you get to select "always on" or "only when using the app."

When it comes to collecting data, the other philosophy that we've [had] is providing value to the user. Whether you're typing in a location that you want Uber to pick you up at or whether you're geotagging a tweet in Twitter or whether you're trying to find friends via the geo-filtering in Snap — that's all software that we enable on behalf of those platforms and have always believed that the user should opt in to those experiences versus some of what we've seen historically, which is tracking locations in a flashlight app, which is something that we don't think has user value.

As we think about the world that is changing around us, it's certainly like tectonic plates shifting. But it's welcome from the perspective that we've always believed that users should have choice and availability.

The numbers I've been seeing show that the majority of iPhone users are not opting in. The most recent number I saw was something like 96% of people are opting out of tracking. Foursquare's not just collecting information to give people recommendations that are relevant to them. It's also using that information to power third-party businesses, and the decisions they're making, basically sharing this information. Do you think that the trend is really moving in a favorable direction for you guys?

Clearly, the world of opt-in creates a tighter ecosystem of data than before. That is absolutely true.

But we see higher opt-in rates across our owned and operated platforms with people opting in, in certain instances, north of 20% for the certain types of data sharing and gathering. So in the end, yes, you're right that it's clearly limited the data available. But again, we've always believed that that's the right mechanism — that users should have a choice when they're considering how their data is used. We're fairly comfortable operating in a tighter constrained world from a data perspective.

I could imagine why you would have north of 20% opt-in for Foursquare users, because they are using that app for a reason. And that app has a lot to do with where they are located and they want recommendations to be relevant to what's in their neighborhood.

But I don't imagine that a lot of those people are opting into that because they say, "I want to help Starbucks understand foot traffic and where they're going to open and close coffee shops." You give Uber your location because you want them to pick you up at that location, but you don't give them your location because you want Uber to share that information, even in an aggregate way, with a third party. Is that something that Foursquare is going to have to come to terms with? People are opting into a certain service, but the service that drives your core business is not the thing that they feel they're opting into.

You hit on a couple of things that are really critical in the way that we think about it, which is ultimately, what's the value to the customer? It's one of the reasons that we've always been very [reluctant] to sell very raw data, as opposed to products and insights.

You said the opt-in was a little bit above 20%, which is better than the numbers I've seen generally, but it's still far less than what you're used to. So can you really promise an accurate picture of what is happening if only 20% of your users are opting in to let you track?

We have data from our owned and operated app infrastructure. We have data from us powering location experiences in other companies' platforms, which is much more of how Foursquare operates today than it has ever been. And then there's third-party data that we purchase. The scale of our data has clearly come down, but the areas that we tend to provide value, whether that's with partners like Twitter, Snap or Uber, provide us the ability to aggregate enough signal that we still have a high fidelity of user information.

Foursquare's former CEO Jeff Glueck wrote in The New York Times a few years ago about the need for an information fiduciary. He basically described it as sort of like a Hippocratic oath for data controllers, so that they would, like doctors, make a pledge to do no harm.

That jumped out at me, because I was writing about the new FTC chair Lina Khan, and she wrote in 2019 all about information fiduciaries, and basically shot down the idea, arguing that companies already have fiduciary duties to their shareholders, and to the extent that their businesses rely on extracting more data they couldn't ever truly have a fiduciary duty to their users' privacy. She even drew an analogy to a doctor who, rather than getting paid by the service, gets paid by ads that are trying to sell patients pills and procedures. She basically argues that wouldn't be very compatible with putting patients' health needs first. What do you think of that argument? Is she wrong?

I don't know that it's a bright line: right or wrong.

Here's what I would say with respect to how we've always thought about this concept. I think she's right in the sense that we, as a company, have fiduciary obligations to our investors and our employees and so forth. But we do have an obligation to not misuse data on behalf of our users. We don't allow flashlight apps to use our tracking, because it doesn't have any inherent value to it. We could have said any app can put our location tracking in because all data is good data, and that's good for us, I think that would have ended up leading to certainly some short-term maximization. But that would have degraded our long-term value. We have a strong history of weighting privacy well above that short-term grab for economic value. I still believe that you can be a true fiduciary of both shareholders and of user data.

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