Less travel, more talk: Startups use analytics to gauge virus impact

Less travel, more talk: Startups use analytics to gauge virus impact

Israeli tech companies Moovit, Zencity, Tastewise use their tools to measure coronavirus effects on transportation, online sentiment, nutrition trends

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

New Yorkers wait in line outside a Whole Foods supermarket in Manhattan, March 20, 2020. (AP/John Minchillo)
New Yorkers wait in line outside a Whole Foods supermarket in Manhattan, March 20, 2020. (AP/John Minchillo)

Several Israeli startups that collate public data as part of their business models released reports this week on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting public discourse and movement.

The data provides insight into the virus outbreak in the US, Israel and elsewhere separate from media reports and official statements.

Israel-founded urban mobility app Moovit made public daily tracking statistics on public transit systems in 27 countries. All have seen a drastic reduction in usage since the start of the crisis compared to average usage before the outbreak.

The public transportation data closely tracks the virus’s international spread. Hong Kong, near the virus’s starting point in mainland China in December 2019, saw traffic start to drop on January 25. Public transportation usage reached its low point on February 14 at 45.5 percent below average. Usage in the city has climbed slightly since, and is currently around 35% below its pre-crisis average.

Moovit did not provide data for China, Iran or South Korea, which all saw early virus outbreaks.

Italy was the first Western country to see a significant drop in public transit usage, starting at the end of February. In Milan and Lombardy, the first Italian areas hit hard by the outbreak, traffic started to fall on February 24. Rome was the last major Italian city to record a decline, starting on February 29. As of Sunday, all major Italian cities had seen a drop in ridership of 82-91%.

A man wearing a protective mask walks by the Spanish Steps at a deserted Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on March 12, 2020. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

The data for traffic in Israel, which is not segmented by city, began to show a decline on March 11. On Sunday, average usage of bus lines, trains and light rail was down 60%.

In the US, Seattle saw its decline start on January 21, and New York and New Jersey ridership began to fall on March 9. All other major cities followed suit by March 14. On Sunday, usage was down 50.5% in New York and 61% in Seattle and San Francisco. Washington, DC, and Baltimore saw the least severe drop at 36%.

The cities hardest hit of the 88 municipalities measured were Rome, at 87%, and Madrid, at 82%.

The app services some 720 million users in over 3,100 cities in 100 countries. It utilizes both crowdsourced data and publicly available information. The company collects up to six billion anonymous data points from users each day, creating the world’s largest source of transit and urban transportation data, it said. It offers the data to governments, cities and companies to grow their public transportation systems and boost efficiency.

The Moovit app, commonly referred to as “Waze for public transportation,” was launched in 2011.

Tech companies Zencity and Tastewise use AI to monitor public online conversations.

Tel Aviv-based Zencity works with municipal governments by advising them on residents’ priorities gleaned from online discussions in their communities.

In the first week of March, the firm recorded 1.5 million online data points from residents of US cities relating to the virus. The most common topic of conversation was school closures, which were mentioned in 42% of all comments.

The conversation then shifted, and expanded, the company said on Friday. The startup analyzed 6.7 million public online conversations between March 11-17 in over 100 US cities, with volume peaking that week on March 16.

Zencity offices in Tel Aviv. (courtesy/Zencity)

The most common topic of conversation was entertainment and cultural institutions, which was part of 44% of all coronavirus-related conversations. Next were public event cancellations, at 20%, school closures at 11%, and support for local restaurants and bars at 8%.

Most people were supportive of cultural institutions that remained open, and many asked whether the venues would accommodate social distancing guidelines, Zencity said.

For public events, conversations revolved around cancellations, with residents wondering why some events remained open and others were closed, and sought clarification about openings.

After school closings became commonplace, the volume of conversation on the topic dropped off, and focus shifted from closures to remote learning, providing children with meals, concerns about social distancing and childcare. School closures were generally favored, but many students were disappointed by canceled games and activities, Zencity said.

Conversations about public transportation declined in the past week as many Americans isolated themselves indoors. Attitudes toward social distancing have increasingly turned positive, the company said.

People generally shifted from discussing the burgeoning outbreak to talking about coping strategies and minutiae such as food delivery, family services and paying bills.

Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New Orleans all turned to the startup in recent days, the company said. Zencity is backed by Tel Aviv investment firm i3 Equity Partners.

Empty shelves in a supermarket in London, Thursday, March 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Tastewise, an AI-powered platform that uses computer learning to monitor food trends, saw a jump in interest on social media between mid-February and mid-March in foods that benefit the immune system, relieve stress and treat sickness.

Thirty-six percent more people online were discussing the immune system, and 45% more talking about sickness treatments. Conversations about elderberry, which is believed to benefit the immune system, jumped by 108%, and rosemary, seen as a stress reliever, saw an increase 114%.

The most popular item for sickness treatment was melon, for medicinal befits, kombucha, for the immune system, pickles, and for anti-inflammatory purposes, chamomile.

At the beginning of March Tastewise saw a 44% increase in discussions on recipes for kids as children were increasingly kept home from school. The patterned mirrored the typical increase at the start of summer vacations, Tastewise said.

The Israeli startup’s technology aims to keep abreast of changing food trends by scouring menus and billions of social media posts, photos, and recipes, providing real-time data on food and beverage trends.

Tastewise bills itself as a tool for hospitality and food brands and counts Campbell’s, Coca-Cola and Nestle as customers. The company was founded in 2017 by Israelis Chen and Eyal Gaon.

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