One MIT Adtech Startup is Generating Traffic Data to Help Build ‘Smarter’ Cities
March 31, 2018
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from Forbes

by Frederick Daso

Unfortunately, traffic is a necessary part of modern life in a big city. The transportation-consulting firm INRIX found that worldwide traffic congestion cost $305 billion in 2017 in the U.S. An adtech startup is working on a solution to share traffic data with city officials to help build better, more cost-effective transportation networks for the future.

Alex Pustov, a MIT Sloan School of Management MBA student, and his co-founder Alexey Utkin, came together to found Synaps Labs. Their startup has developed next-generation out-of-home advertising technology to help advertisers reach their intended target audience through digitized billboards. The co-founders believe that they can not only increase ad revenues of media owners with their technology, but also fund traffic analytics, improve road safety, and allow cities to adopt advances in digital infrastructure faster. AdAge reports that spending on out-of-home advertising is expected to exceed $4.5 billion in 2019.

Currently, drivers mostly see traditional billboards on major highways when driving. For the company who has paid for them, it is impossible to be certain whether a certain driver who saw that billboard eventually paid for their product that was advertised. The inability for advertising firms to close the attribution loop deters traditional ad purchasers like Proctor & Gamble from fully taking advantage of out-of-home advertising.

Synaps Labs uses a combination of software and hardware to close this attribution loop. The startup uses neural networks, a subset of machine learning algorithms, to classify in real-time the make, model, and other relevant attributes of the car as it drives by one of their specially purposed cameras and sensors mounted in front of the digital billboard. The billboard will then show the most relevant advertisement based on concentration analysis of different target groups in front of the billboard. The presented ad will be adjusted to the audience of 10-20 cars.

The data gleaned from a driver’s incredibly brief interaction with Synaps Labs’s equipment is then securely organized, anonymized, and stored in such a manner that the Synaps team or external third parties will not be able to identify where any given car passed in front of one of its billboards, as well as other personal identifying information.

“In addition to our goals of developing high-fidelity traffic analytics, ad optimization services, and transforming physical city assets into digital ones, ensuring the security of the data we collect is our highest priority,” Utkin states.

Pustov and Utkin view data privacy and security as their paramount concern. The founders have gone to great lengths to ensure that the way they store and handle data is both legally and ethically in line with the law and the outside advisors observing their startup.

The startup’s efforts in being compliant with best and most ethical data practices allows them to produce social value for the cities that they operate in. Pustov and Utkin would aim to use a portion of the ad-revenue from this technology to help finance critical infrastructure maintenance in the cities they currently operate in. As an example of this potential partnership with a metropolis, the startup would provide real-time traffic analytics while getting access to road infrastructure to install Synaps’s equipment. Also, with the mass adoption of digital billboards, fewer traditional billboards need to be made to reach the same number of people in various locations around a given city, which also prevents excessive clearing of trees needed to place them.

“There is a trend in the market where three to eight static billboards are replaced by one digital counterpart,” Pustov says. “Our technology hopes to accelerate this transition from static to digital.”

The startup sells software-as-a-service to digital billboard operators. Synaps Labs works closely with their clients to develop products to the firm’s specifications, then rapidly push them out to market. The startup is currently working on building its clientele list in both the US and Europe. The emerging startup is hoping to bring on potential customers like Clear Channel Outdoor, and other small, medium, and large media operators.

Some of these best practices are how to measure the frequency and reach of a client’s advertisement. Accurately determining how often and how many of an audience has seen a particular ad is a crucial key performance indicator that clients need to measure the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns. Synaps Labs is able to provide them with better data to help media owners and brands plan out optimal billboard campaigns. This makes billboards friendlier for city-dwellers and simultaneously allows for cities to better measure traffic flows.

The emerging startup’s main competition are companies that plan media campaigns based on historical information on consumer mobile device locations but cannot deliver content in real time. Synaps Labs is able to examine audiences in real time and produce immediate data of traffic patterns. Those capabilities enable them to ultimately create closed-loop feedback to measure attribution related to particular advertisements.

“Similar to how the ad revenue from search enabled Google to produce other major products, we at Synaps Labs aim for the proceeds from the advertisements we host to help cities improve road safety and traffic planning,” Pustov declares.

Synaps Labs is focused on providing clients with the ability to profile audiences in-real time, producing closed-loop attribution feedback, and providing a positive public benefit for the cities that will come to use their technology.