Use the Weather Network app? Why it's sharing your location with advertisers

Afternoon showers could make for slick roads in Toronto today

When you use an app like the Weather Network, there's a not-so-secret trade-off. Opt in to get a free weather forecast based on your precise location and, in exchange, advertisers learn a bit more about you and your habits.

That exchange of user data — the non-personally identifiable kind, of course — is where the money is. And it's where Pelmorex, the network's parent company, thinks the future of its business lies, too.

This transformation into a data-driven company has been going on for the past few years, but in recent months those efforts have really picked up steam. 

In the spring, the company split itself into two divisions — one for its traditional weather and media business, and another for data monetization.

In July it announced the hiring of Sam Sebastian, who had been the head of Google's Canadian operations since 2014, as its CEO. Then in August it updated its privacy policy, adding a section on location tracking using technology called beacons in places such as stores and airports.

And on Tuesday Pelmorex said it had acquired a mobile advertising company called Addictive Mobility. It declined to say how much it paid.

"Their DNA is data and targeting, and more and more that has been very important for us," Sebastian said.

On its website, Addictive Mobility says it tracks users, not with cookies, but through the unique IDs associated with mobile devices. The data associated with those IDs can be used to target users with advertisements based on their browsing habits, GPS location and the type of device, as well as more traditional categories such as age and gender.

It will also let clients who already advertise with the Weather Network reach a much larger audience by tapping into Addictive Mobility's network, Sebastian said.

(Since 2014, weather-related stories from CBC News have appeared on The Weather Network's various platforms, while CBC News features weather forecasts provided by The Weather Network.)

Location, behaviour, weather

The acquisition of Addictive Mobility is expected to bolster the work that Pelmorex is already doing — sharing user location data, behavioural data on how its services are used, and the Weather Network's own trove of historical weather information with advertisers.

For the past couple of years, for example, the company has been trying to convince retailers they can find new insights into shopping behaviour by mashing their own data together with what the Weather Network has. Location data could indicate peak times, for example — something Google already does — while weather conditions might in part explain the ads people click on or the products they buy.

In August, the company updated its privacy policy to include a new section about Bluetooth beacons — small devices that communicate wirelessly with mobile devices and can be used to track the location and movement of visitors in places such as retail stores, museums, and airports.

The update states that if a user allows the Weather Network to use their GPS location, the app can collect location information from beacons as well, and share the data with third-party advertisers.

Pelmorex vice-president Bala Gopalakrishnan recently estimated that 75 to 80 per cent of its users enable location services to use the Weather Network app, which would mean that at least three-quarters of the app's users have consented to being tracked (whether users realize it or not, the Weather Network is upfront about how location data is used for advertising, the first time users open the app). 

Sebastian says the company has begun working on an unspecified number of beacon campaigns with partners, but says the initiative is still in its early days.

"I think as long as you're transparent and clear with users, that's all you can ask," Sebastian said. "And then it's up to them to make the decision."