U Group & Co taking on Big Tech

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U Group CTO Jason Gan & CEO Tyler Spooner. Image - Benjamin McCormick.

In the era of major tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Facebook – the latter which kindly blocked us early last year – many users have become increasingly alarmed at how our data is used.

Founded in Perth in 2018, U Group & Co is in the process of developing globally applicable, ethical alternatives to the practices of data collection methods used in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market.  

After all, what does a clothes store wish to do with your mobile, email and postcode?

U Group’s computer vision and artificial intelligence technology extract, deciphers and clean receipt data. This classifies and maps receipt codes to products and categories across retail stores, proving some of the biggest brands in the world with insights into consumer demographics and purchasing behaviour.

Unlike Big Tech, U Group said it doesn’t exploit, misuse or sell personal information. Instead they argue they let the users control their own data.

Users upload shopping receipts to the company’s apps and collect points in compensation for their data.

Tyler Spooner, U Group co-founder, noted that AI has been adopted by many industries for low level operational decision-making, although it is yet to be trusted for high-level strategic thinking for big businesses.

“Whether this is due to outdated impressions of the technology, or a lack of capability until now, AI has been under-utilised when it comes to extracting real, useable information from raw data,” he said.

The U Group suite puts AI at the forefront of OCR and computer vision technology, making it possible to extract every data point from receipts that shoppers upload.

Tyler Spooner, U Group

“From this, U Group can provide clients with accurate and in-depth de-identified consumer behaviours and trends, without relying on data scraping or similar means.”

International attention

Through its machine learning algorithms to categorise information shoppers receipts, U Group has been able to connect with multiple brands across an array of sectors – both in-store and online – while remaining transparent about how data is used.

Already, the company has partnered with big names in the sector such as Red Bull Unilever and Nestle.

Mr Spooner said a relationship is built with users through Receipt Jar which aggregates and de-identifies the data uploaded from receipts.

“The aggregated and de-identified receipt data gives us insights like do people aged 18-25 prefer to shop at Coles or Woolworths, what are the demographics of shoppers who buy my products, and are shoppers loyal to my brand,” Mr Spooner said.

“Unlike some Big Tech companies, we do not ‘opt you in by default’ and collect your data without you even knowing.

“If you want to share your online receipts with us, you can share it with us, you have 100% control over what you want to share.”

He added that U Group’s sytems don’t allow for the storage of personal information such as emails, phone numbers, addresses or names, something other players have increased in gathering, especially in light of the e-commerce boom.

“Big Tech collects our personal data on a scale few understand, and mostly without the knowledge or consent of the consumer. We are working to change that,” he said.

“We’ve seen how easy it has become for large companies around the world to steal, sell and misuse personal data.

“That’s why ethically sourced data is so important. It’s an international problem, and we are here to help provide an international solution.”