Undergraduate Blog

Making a Difference with Data: Josh Anton (McIntire ’14), Founder of X-Mode

Anton’s company is using its location data in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

Josh Anton

Josh Anton

When we last spoke with Josh Anton in 2019, he was rightfully excited to see how his company X-Mode would be able to leverage the device location data it had been collecting through its apps. He also noted that he felt lucky to have the unique opportunity to change the rules in the location intelligence industry, rules that would allow him to provide consumers with the power to opt out and to witness firsthand how their data was being used for good.

The need for understanding the details of the pandemic’s spread has dovetailed with X-Mode’s quest for creating accurate and transparent standards in its particular area of tech. As such, Anton’s company is now being recognized for how its location data is being used in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

In a recent CNN segment, Anton explained how X-Mode’s use of anonymized data collected from college students during spring break on one specific Fort Lauderdale, FL, beach shows in frightening clarity the dangers of flaunting social distancing and how interconnected we are.

In the interview, Anton said that by tracking the students’ devices throughout the remaining weeks of March, X-Mode was able to trace where thousands of students traveled up the Eastern Seaboard and to the Midwest, inadvertently taking the virus along with them.

“The power of this location data is that it can be used to understand not only how people and where people are traveling post-gathering, but also, potentially to prepare and to be proactive if something happens, to be able to identify future hotspots of where the coronavirus could happen before they happen,” Anton says.

The mapping technology visualization, created in partnership with Tectonix GEO, was also referenced in “The Costly Toll of Not Shutting Down Spring Break Earlier,” a New York Times article about the fallout from ignoring the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March.

Anton reassured CNN that X-Mode is serious about acting ethically with its users’ data. That concern, which X-Mode explicitly empowers users to control on its website, complies with GDPR regulations in the EU and CCPA consumer protection for California residents, allowing for the legal use of anonymous data for the 25 million American and 40 million worldwide devices the company tracks.

So while X-Mode relies on location data for ad targeting and promoting smarter investing, there is suddenly a much more pressing use for it. And though the company has previously explained to users who buy in to tracking that the building of smart cities is a potential beneficial outcome of sharing their location data, combating the pandemic in real time offers a crucial and immediate way to show the potential long-term importance of analyzing location data.

But Anton’s company hasn’t stopped there. X-Mode’s “Data for Greater Good” program, Picket, has been bringing the benefits of location tracking to nonprofits and research organizations. These include higher education uses at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and UVA, where McIntire Professor Natasha Zhang Foutz collaborated with other colleagues on Grounds, as well as researchers at Old Dominion University and the College of William & Mary. The group teamed up with X-Mode and the city of Charlotte, NC, to create a method for dispatching ambulances more efficiently in catastrophic conditions.

Most recently, X-Mode launched a partnership with analytics company OmniSci, assisting it in identifying contact and interaction patterns among local and regional populations.

Anton is effusive about his enthusiasm for the collaboration and the potential insights that X-Mode’s data holds: “I’m very excited for X-Mode to be powering OmniSci’s new dashboards that aim to help policymakers and researchers understand the effects of social distancing, influence contract tracing, and gain a better understanding of the effect COVID-19 has on our nation’s health system!”

The project has taken nearly 160 billion raw geolocated data points from X-Mode, collected over a month from about 5 million devices, to help health authorities monitor specific groups in a targeted way, referencing, for instance, all devices at a specific airport on a date and time or within proximity to a hospital with a high number of COVID-19 patients.

At a time when many organizations need to rethink their business to appropriately face the challenges of the pandemic, Anton’s X-Mode has been ready to offer its accurate location tech to support broader efforts, as insight during such an ambiguous time is nothing less than essential.

Find out about all the exciting things happening in the McIntire community. Visit our news page for the latest updates.

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