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Data Startup Wants to Create 'Automotive Graph'

Can Dash Recruit Drivers to Divulge Their Car Data?

By Published on . 1

Progressive Insurance is acclimating consumers to having their driving habits tracked in exchange for discounts. Now mobile app developer Dash Labs hopes consumers will be willing to divulge even more data it could then sell to insurance firms, automakers, and even use for ad targeting based on driver location. The company counts Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley among its advisers.

The firm is testing its Dash mobile app on around 400 different car models driven by a small number of closed beta participants. Dash pulls data from a small device -- the same kind used in Progressive's Snapshot program -- that can be installed under the steering wheel of any vehicle made after 1996. Though typically used by mechanics to diagnose car problems, the devices actually track a variety of data points that can be valuable to drivers and corporations.

The app tracks 300 data points, including the type of vehicle being driven, who's in it and the time of day she's driving and vehicle location. The system can even infer why the driver is going where she's going (is it for work, school, home, or some other purpose?). And, because Dash has a game component that ties into a user's social accounts, the company can measure that information against Facebook friends, or connections on Foursquare, Instagram and Twitter.

"We're creating the automotive graph," said Jamyn Edis, CEO and founder of Dash Labs, alluding to Facebook's social graph. So far, the firm has gathered 15 million data points on trial participants, he said. Each time a Dash user starts her car, the app begins harvesting data that can be transferred from the device to her phone via Bluetooth or wi-fi connections.

Ad targeting?
A Dash user could keep track of where she's driven on a map and tag it with meta-data. In turn, that information could be used by gas stations or other retailers and services to push out offers based on where people travel. A billboard network might ingest this data and use it for dynamic billboards targeting women coming home from work, for example, suggested Mr. Edis.

Unlike Dash, Progressive does not track Snapshot users' location. "Snapshot does not have GPS so Progressive does not know where you are," said Dave Pratt, general manager of usage-based insurance at Progressive Insurance. According to Mr. Pratt, more than 1.4 million people have signed up for Snapshot, which is available in 44 states and Washington, D.C., since 2008.

In some cases, Dash would probably provide user data through a middleman rather than working directly with an insurer, said Mr. Edis. "It's more efficient for us to do a deal with Experian or Equifax and have them do [deals] with insurance companies," he said.

Mr. Edis said he has spoken with tire manufacturers, oil and gas companies and government agencies about potential tie-ins. The company is negotiating with an insurance company that would use Dash data to target offers to the app's users, he said. The data Dash provides would be aggregated without including personally-identifiable information unless a user opts-in to exchange personal data for more targeted offers.

Dash Labs is "in the midst of fundraising" and aims to attract $1.2 million in this investment round from strategic, angel, and institutional investors, said Mr. Edis.

Mr. Crowley is assisting Dash Labs as an adviser through TechStars, a startup accelerator. He is helping with strategy, fundraising, engineering and product development, according to Mr. Edis who called the Foursquare founder "a data junkie" who "loves this whole 'Internet of Things' trend."

Of course, if Dash is to attract a critical mass of users, it has to offer some incentives to consumers. Among the benefits Mr. Edis touts is an audible notification if someone brakes too hard or over-accelerates. The system also suggests a diagnosis if the check engine light goes on and indicates a reasonable price for repairs. The system provides a Dash score, which counts driver fuel efficiency or whether she uses her phone while driving. Parents could use the technology to track their kids' driving habits, said Mr. Edis.

Progressive's Snapshot added audio notifications last year, so if a participating driver has a hard brake, he'll hear a beep; users can opt-out of that feature in Dash and Snapshot.

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