Former Dance Pro Taps Into Mobile Data

A Q&A With PlaceIQ's VP-Data and Insights Elise Neel

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Elise Neel, PlaceIQ
Elise Neel, PlaceIQ

Who says data pros have two left feet? Elise Neel, newly hired VP-data and insights at mobile-data firm PlaceIQ, took a roundabout route to her current position, in which she evaluates data partners and provides the company's sales strategists with information to help clients understand who's visiting certain types of businesses.

"What qualifies me for this data-related job the most is the creativity and visual perception strengths that I relied upon as a dancer," said Ms. Neel. "As a tap dancer, for example, you have four instruments at your disposal: two legs each equipped with a toe and heel piece. After more than 20 years as a tap dancer, you start to learn how to get creative and use those instruments in new ways."

Getting to this point wasn't exactly part of a planned career path for Ms. Neel, though. In fact, Pepperdine University was the only school she applied to when she reluctantly decided to give college a try. She got in. "It was literally just shy of a God-made miracle," she said humbly. She has a bachelor's degree in advertising.

She joined PlaceIQ in November, following stints at Comscore, Cars.com and a brief time at Carat Fusion. "I started out as a little agency brat when I was just a whippersnapper," said Ms. Neel, who works from Leesburg, Va. where she might spot a deer in the backyard while working.

PlaceIQ uses satellite data to organize physical locations into 100x100 meter areas. It ingests billions of data points referring to each of those areas, applying attributes to locations such as what type of business it is or the average household income of the area's population or people who frequent the location. The company can detect a device ID that's been hashed -- or obscured for privacy purposes -- when it is present at one location and later at another.

Using product-level shopping data, for example, the company can show whether a retailer's customers over-index for watching certain types of TV shows or going to the movies. The firm uses more than 40 data sources.

"We're helping provide more color," said Ms. Neel, who spends much of her time assisting strategists in the PlaceIQ sales team.

How do you evaluate data sets to help complement PlaceIQ data? What are signs that something is fishy?
There are two types of data we seek to obtain. First, there is the data that will improve the quality of our existing base layer, and second, there is the data that would add depth, uniqueness, and value to what we currently have in-house. Whether it's something as simple as garnering the latest census data or receiving real-time updates on consumers' purchases, our data scientists work to continually refine our data. In addition to finding better ways to make our data smarter, we also seek to add new sources to our mix. Our innovations and business development teams help lead that charge, evaluating, recommending, and examining sources that we'd like to acquire as well as overseeing the rigorous process by which we assess, test, and launch new data within PlaceIQ.

While PlaceIQ and other firms that use mobile data to provide consumer insights typically say they do not gather or use personally identifiable data, the practice remains controversial and has come under scrutiny by lawmakers. When friends outside of advertising or tech ask you about the privacy implications, what do you say?
I usually state these facts: We live in a world where data about your preferences can make your life easier, more convenient, and the ads you see more relevant. In order to do that, you provide access to bits and pieces of your information in nearly every aspect of your life (banking preferences, online shopping habits, wish lists, driving and routing behaviors, gaming preferences, and favorite TV shows). As a consumer you have control over what is and isn't made available, but the reality is, your life is better when you have little things like "auto-fill" do some of the leg-lifting for you.

Why shouldn't people be made aware of the types of tracking PlaceIQ does and the data it uses, outside of terms and conditions associated with apps or data partner agreements? If it's so harmless, why not be open about it?
Our industry is continuing its collective efforts to educate consumers regarding targeted advertising. For example, the Digital Advertising Association has gone to great lengths to promote its self-regulatory program for interest-based advertising, which extends to mobile. And when it comes to PlaceIQ specifically, we support those efforts and have shared our privacy policy publicly on our website.

Living in a bucolic setting, do you find that you're out of the tech loop sometimes?
Not at all. In fact, the area in which I live is affectionately named the Technology Triangle and has a pretty thriving community of digital individuals and startups. Washington, D.C. brings talent and innovation to a fluctuating population that yields talent from all over the world. Moreover, the D.C. Metro area is home to some of the biggest names in media and technology, including the headquarters for Verizon, AOL, and Comscore as well as major offices for every name in data.

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