Cell phone location data to fuel marketing analysis in Grand Forks

Business leaders may launch $90,000 project aimed at growing Grand Forks' economy.

Interstate 29 and University Avenue, looking northward. Grand Forks business leaders hope to use cell phone location to analyze people who head to Grand Forks -- where they came from, where they went, how long they spent there, where they went afterward, and so on -- as part of a broader market analysis. Many Canadians who patronize the city do so via this roadway. Photo by Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald

What businesses can Grand Forks’ economy support that it doesn’t already have? What about entertainment venues? How much retail business leaves the area, and where does it go?

A Monday vote by Grand Forks’ Growth Fund Committee furthered a plan to use people’s cell phone location data in a broader Chamber of Commerce study that aims to answer questions like those. The chamber plans to pay about $50,000 to Buxton, a Texas-based analytics firm, as part of a broader “market capture analysis.” The company uses cell phone location data purchased from carrier companies, Chamber President Barry Wilfahrt told the Herald, and will filter and analyze it for the chamber, which will then use it for part of the study.

The data, Wilfahrt told members of the city’s Growth Fund Committee, will be “historical,” meaning that it will not be up-to-the-moment. Verizon, AT&T and Sprint all pledged last summer to stop selling location data to brokers after a rash of privacy concerns -- Wilfahrt said he wasn’t certain how old Buxton’s phone location data is, but said the chamber asked for the most recent available data and that the data will still be “fine” even if it's a little old.

Chamber staff could ask Buxton to analyze and present different tracts of that location data to understand, for instance, how visitors from Canada spent their time in Grand Forks, including which businesses they visited and where they went afterward. Location data also could collected during Fighting Hawk home games.

“Who’s in the Ralph Engelstad Arena parking lot? Who’s in the Ralph Engelstad Arena on those specific dates and those specific times? And then we can track all those people back to ZIP Code,” Wilfahrt told the Herald. “Wouldn’t that be interesting? Because then we’re gonna know who’s our market. What’s our market look like?”


Wilfahrt said on Monday that about 13 such “filters” will be requested.

Committee members unanimously agreed on a measure that would put up $50,000 -- $25,000 this year and the next -- from the city toward the chamber study. Their vote forwarded the measure to the city’s Jobs Development Authority, which is scheduled to meet next on July 1.

Under a plan outlined in documents supplied to committee members, the chamber is set to pay another $10,000 for the study, as is the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation and the East Grand Forks Economic Development Authority. The project’s total budget is $90,000 over two years, the majority of which comes from public sources.

A different firm would study federal statistics, analyze demographic data and set up focus groups for the study. The goal of the market analysis is to grow Grand Forks’ economy, tax base and “quality of life offerings and services,” according to a staff report submitted to the growth committee by City Administrator Todd Feland.

“There might be some that disagree with this approach, but I don’t think anybody can argue with the fact that we’re being proactive and doing something,” said Jonathan Holth, a committee member who’s a community and client development manager at JLG Architects. “So I think it’s the right thing to do.”

article2731290.ece POLL: Do you think local governments should mine cell phone data? Do you think local governments should mine cell phone data? Yes No


Grand Forks City Hall
Grand Forks City Hall, 255 N. 4th St. Sam Easter / Grand Forks Herald

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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