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Noam Bardin wanted to expand the reach of his company’s mobile mapping app to South America. It was a bold idea, but an expensive one. So over the past year, Bardin, the chief executive officer of Palo Alto-based Waze, met with resellers of geographical mapping information and asked them for access to their proprietary data. The catch: The Israeli entrepreneur said that he didn’t want to pay a dime to get it.
In return, Bardin offered to trade some of the data on automobile traffic, speed traps, roadwork, and collisions that his company would collect from new South American users of its app. One of the companies, Multispectral, signed on in January, and six months later the Waze app rolled out to drivers throughout Brazil. “It would have taken us a year and a half to get there on our own,” Bardin says.
Bardin’s Waze and other companies are at the forefront of a new trend called data bartering, where companies exchange databases like baseball cards, with no money changing hands. App makers are pursuing all manner of targeted consumer data—from restaurant ratings to store hours—but it’s often expensive to acquire. Data swapping can be a win-win if both sides have complementary proprietary research. “We live in an age where the ability to capture data has never been greater,” says J.P. Rangaswami, the chief scientist for Salesforce.com (CRM). “It’s a commodity now.”
A market for data swaps is rapidly emerging. Factual, a Los Angeles-based startup, has put together a database that houses location data and details on retailers and restaurants. Access to the database costs companies money, but they can accrue discounts by agreeing to contribute some of their own information.
For the larger companies that are willing to share, Factual is effectively free, says Gil Elbaz, the company’s CEO, who previously built Google’s (GOOG) advertising platform for third-party websites. Facebook (FB), Groupon (GRPN), and consumer ratings site Yelp are among the clients providing user-contributed information on retailers to Factual’s database. Danny Rimer, a general partner at Index Ventures, which invested in Factual, says other industries could benefit from data bartering as well. Farms, for instance, could trade information about soil quality and crop yields to better understand how to tend to their plots.
Factual scours the Web for detailed information about shops, restaurants, and landmarks, and organizes it into a standard format that clients can pull into their apps. The system also can take data feeds from clients and optimize them, if necessary, to ensure that everything is up to date and suitable for use by others.
That saves startups the time and expense of having to keep enormous amounts of data organized, says Trevin Chow, who considered selling some of the information collected by his restaurant review app Chewsy before deciding to use Factual to exchange information about restaurants’ Twitter accounts, websites, phone numbers, and other details. Foursquare, the New York-based mobile check-in app, is a Factual client as well, but it also employs a dozen data scientists, or about 8 percent of its staff, says Dennis Crowley, the company’s CEO. Three of the eight employees at Sonar, which makes a similar app, are dedicated to analyzing data full-time. “There’s so much data out there that you could bankrupt yourself trying to manage it,” says Brett Martin, Sonar’s CEO and co-founder.
Although not a Factual customer, Waze has attracted some 30 million users to its app with help from several data swap deals, including one with Apple (AAPL) that Bardin declines to discuss because the terms are private. The company is building its business on advertising. Earlier this month it added digital billboards to its app that pop up when users drive past a certain location. To draw even more users and attract advertising dollars, Bardin says he next wants to strike bartering deals with city governments, which have access to data on traffic lights, parking meters, and police routes—valuable information that no one else has.
The bottom line: App developers are bartering data to accumulate hard-to-get information and save money.