As Gil Elbaz shapes the way we obtain and use information, his company is broadening the horizons for what is possible
By Jason Carignan
This article appears in the Winter 2012/13 issue of CSQ Magazine
Gil Elbaz proudly announces upon my arrival that he has broken his iPhone and is “upgrading” to the new Google Nexus phone. Why? Because he wants an even larger screen to display all of the mobile apps powered by his company’s data.
Elbaz, founder and CEO of Factual, Inc., believes that thinking for ourselves is overrated. According to him, the technology in our smartphones can help us outsource the menial tasks of our brain to computers so that we can focus on higher-value activities, such as creativity.
“There are all sorts of decisions where we don’t want to think for ourselves, such as I don’t want to think about triggering my anti-lock brakes when the driver in front of me suddenly stops. And I don’t want to think about keeping an airplane door closed during flight.”
He has a fair point.
Today, “apps” can track every moment of our lives, from sleep patterns, to calorie counts, to our favorite places, to calendar appointments, you name it––and they can use that intelligence to help us make smarter, quicker decisions. Factual has built an open platform that enables application developers to tap the power of “big data” in new ways through better organization and greater accessibility.
“Now that we all have iPhones or Android devices, we are living in a time when geo-contextual information (that is, information based on where you are, what you are doing, and how much your app knows about you) should always be available at our fingertips.”
“Technology has evolved to a point where simple mistakes should be nearly impossible. For example, if gas is cheaper down the street, my car should alert me to this fact before I pay 10 percent more at the station near my office.”
Gil Elbaz knows a thing or two about developing game-changing database applications. An LA-native, Elbaz left the area after graduating from Caltech to work as a database engineer at several notable Silicon Valley firms including IBM and Silicon Graphics. In 1998, he founded Applied Semantics, the company behind the AdSense advertising platform that was acquired by Google in 2003 and now generates almost $10 billion a year.
“The idea behind AdSense was based on our database technology that enabled computers to interpret information on Web pages. Of the hundred things that the Applied Semantics technology could do, contextual advertising was just one of them . . . but that is what took off.”
After remaining with Google for a few years, Elbaz’s new startup has set out to tackle the other 99 uses for contextual data. He founded Factual in 2007 to build the “ultimate data layer” for the Internet that is comprehensive and easy to implement. His first series of data APIs (application programming interfaces) were focused on providing the definitive global data on places and products.
Factual’s “places data” alone has information on an astounding 63 million local businesses and points of interest in 50 countries. And their products data set can provide the ingredient list for over 650,000 of the top consumer packaged goods. Want to know which brand of pasta offers organic, gluten-free options? Factual can tell you.
It turns out, the fastest growing and most important demographic accessing information on the Internet is not humans, but computers. Companies such as Foursquare, Yelp, Booyah, and LivingSocial rely on Factual data for their flagship applications every day. These days, private and public databases, even raw Web pages, are increasingly being queried by Web applications seeking information via an API. But, making information easy for other computers to understand is difficult work.
As an example, Elbaz notes that when we see a “3-star” restaurant rating we can quickly guess that the score is based on a “3 out of 5 stars” scale. But computers lack this cultural context. In some countries, 4 stars is the best rating possible. So, in order to make the data truly helpful, it needs to be cleansed and structured in a consistent manner.
“Factual is about developing technology to understand unstructured text. In order to understand a word or phrase, a computer needs to understand context. At Applied Semantics we only scratched the surface. Factual is like going back to the basics.”
But it’s not long before Elbaz begins discussing his other passion – helping others tackle the big issues of our day in his role on the Board of Trustees for the X-Prize. “At X-Prize, we try to address what we call ‘The Grand Challenges’: the major innovations that, if created, would move the world forward and would help people across the globe. Typically, these are areas that we believe are ‘stuck,’ where the markets aren’t going to solve problems for themselves.
“It’s very inspiring to think about how to solve problems without worrying for the moment of whether it is possible, if the technology exists, or how it will be funded … just sitting there imagining a better world, and the ideas that will get us there.”
Elbaz is also an active angel investor and plans to devote even more of his time to helping foster the startup ecosystem in Los Angeles. In fact, entire businesses and new business models are already being built on the Factual framework. Mobile application developers in particular are leveraging the company’s data layer to build their businesses. One popular foodie app, foodspotting, is a visual guide to good food nearby where people share and discover new dishes through photos.
But it is not just startups that see the value in external data. Factual is helping large enterprises augment and enrich their own limited customer data with the more robust information available through its interfaces.
“Large organizations think they have a lot of data, but in reality, they only have a small part,” he says. “In order to gain real insights, you need to go outside to develop truly meaningful information.” For example, Parthenon Group was able to utilize the Factual data to perform an analysis on its client’s vast network of hair salons to identify expansion opportunities via trends, business landscape, marketing decisions, and so on.
At the conclusion of our interview, Elbaz transitions seamlessly to browsing GoogleNow on his Nexus 7 tablet, musing aloud: “My lunch meeting was just cancelled and I’m hungry, so why hasn’t one of the restaurants around the corner pushed me a discount offer to give them a try, now that my calendar is free?”
The fact is, someone is probably already developing an app for that, using the Factual data.