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Intelligence as a service is key to nonprofit's urban planning

Cobalt Community Research, a nonprofit organization based in Michigan, uses data collected and packaged by TruFactor for urban planning projects.

Cobalt Community Research needed more data. And it needed better data.

It needed TruFactor, and the "intelligence as a service" the software vendor provides.

A nonprofit organization founded in 2008 and based in Lansing, Mich., Cobalt provides data and insights to local and state governments, schools and membership organizations as they plan ventures on the local level. One if its main focuses is on helping small- and medium-sized municipalities -- most of them hampered by budgetary constraints that limit time, staff size and staff expertise -- develop urban planning projects.

"We do research for other nonprofits," said William SaintAmour, Cobalt's executive director.

But in recent years the process of collecting data has been transformed, and that transformation is still going on. When surveys and other after-the-fact anecdotal information sources were once the standard, artificial intelligence is now taking over because of mobile devices and the ability to track movement in real time.

With a team of just 12, however, Cobalt faces some of the same limitations as the municipalities it strives to help. It couldn't get at the data -- and certainly couldn't devote the time and resources necessary to collect, manage and prepare it -- needed to take its offerings to a new level.

Enter TruFactor and intelligence as a service, which is essentially a form of data as a service and is similar to though not synonymous with artificial intelligence itself.

Thanks to TruFactor, Cobalt is now able to offer two new AI-driven data programs: Community360 and Visitor360.

What TruFactor does

TruFactor, an independent business unit of India-based martech vendor InMobi, founded in 2018, provides intelligence as a service.

It collects data, transforms it, packages it and then sells it to customers that don't have the financial capital or data science expertise to gather and organize data on their own.

"We do about 90% of the data science work," said Matthew Habiger, chief data scientist of TruFactor. "When we talk about intelligence as a service, what we're talking about is taking data sets from their raw stage to a stage where a [customer] can consume that data and do very minimal additional effort before they can start to incorporate it into their models or build their products on top of it."

And like Cobalt, a significant focus for TruFactor is urban planning.

"When you think of the public sector, they're so resource-constrained and yet they so need that data," said Meera Mehta, TruFactor's vice president of marketing. "The need is so high. They know they have to get better information to measure the impact of their investment."

TruFactor works with large data providers, many of them telecommunications companies, that the vendor has identified as having both the data needed to inform public-sector customers along with the right quality of data, and then provides the data to customers in the form of intelligence as a service.

By tracking the movement of people in a given location in real time, TruFactor is able to notice patterns.

It can see how automobile traffic changes at given locations throughout the day. It can see the impact of events -- concerts, conventions, music festivals, sporting events -- on potentially drawing people in from faraway locations. And it can see the effects of the openings and closings of retail outlets.

And TruFactor can provide an organization such as Cobalt with the exact near real-time data it was looking for when it was trying to develop new products.

A new level for Cobalt

In recent years, Cobalt has been looking to develop programs built on top of mobile data that it could offer its clients to help them with their planning needs.

In particular, the nonprofit wanted to develop a program that showed the effect of festivals. It wanted to be able to tell clients how demographics change when there's an event so that those municipalities could ultimately decide whether it's worthwhile to host a major festival.

But Cobalt couldn't access the mobile data it needed, and even if it could, it didn't have the staff to do all the underlying work needed to transform raw data into actionable information.

So, knowing it needed better data than it could glean from surveys and the occasional studies done by the municipalities, Cobalt got in touch with TruFactor.

"Certainly we knew that mobile data existed and that that data was floating around somewhere, and TruFactor was the one to really package it," SaintAmour said.

Meanwhile, TruFactor had developed some relevant APIs, Habiger said.

TruFactor allows us to have near real-time intelligence on who is visiting these study areas and to benchmark that to prior time periods and to other study areas. … The combination of TruFactor and Tableau has been very useful -- and easy.
William SaintAmourExecutive director, Cobalt Community Research

Once it has the intelligence as a service in the form of an API, Cobalt uses the Tableau data visualization platform to complete the analytics process and take its conclusions to its clients.

"TruFactor allows us to have near real-time intelligence on who is visiting these study areas and to benchmark that to prior time periods and to other study areas, whether they're areas within the community or even outside the community," SaintAmour said. "The combination of TruFactor and Tableau has been very useful -- and easy."

The result was Visitor360, Cobalt's program to measure the effect of festivals.

In addition, Cobalt has been able to use the data provided and packaged by TruFactor to develop Community360, an annual metric reporting service that can be used on urban planning projects.

"Some of the very large municipalities have access to this data -- certainly very large firms access this -- but for your small- and medium-sized communities in Main Street USA, they knew these tools existed conceptually but it wasn't something they could access," SaintAmour said.

More to do

With Visitor360 and Community360 now established and Cobalt getting the localized data needed from TruFactor to assist communities with their urban planning needs, the two organizations each expect their intelligence-as-a-service relationship to grow.

Cobalt and TruFactor are working together on a project that will track usage of the Appalachian Trail, according to Mehta.

"We see this with a lot of our customers -- they start out with a very pointed initial engagement that they're thinking about, and once they start working with [TruFactor] they realize … there are additional use cases to unlock," said Habiger.

Meanwhile, SaintAmour said studying projects such as stadium construction that often combine both public and private funding could be something to explore in the near future.

"There's a lot of stuff there that can be leveraged to provide trend insights for either showing that there is a public benefit to building this or maybe there isn't a public benefit," he said. "Having the data is really a key piece to help these planners make informed decisions."

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