Data Shows that Pandemic Compelled Businesses to Act Faster Than the Government

  • Businesses more proactive than governments in Europe
  • Public behaviour no different in hardest hit regions in Germany and the Netherlands

The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown much of Europe into lockdown. Germany and the Netherlands have shut bars, while restaurants are allowed to stay open only for takeout and delivery services.

In recent days, both countries have also tightened rules on social interaction, banning groups of more than two or three people for gathering. It has been two months since the first confirmed case surfaced in Germany and nearly a month since the Netherlands’ first case – so have these moves come too late?

While this is up for debate among epidemiologists and public health policy experts, we analysed our CPG data* to determine two things: business response and public response to the crisis in Germany and the Netherlands over the first quarter. As a proxy for public behaviour, we looked at key indicators such as the number of transactions and sales volume at thousands of F&B outlets across these two countries.

Store closures preceded government action

In both countries, a plunge in open outlets occurred just days before the government introduced tougher measures to combat the spread of the virus, and mandated the closure of clubs and bars.

It seems that many businesses had already taken the initiative to close their doors before any government order. In Germany, voluntary closure of restaurants increased a few days earlier than in the Netherlands. On March 9, when the first COVID-19 deaths in Germany were reported, one-third fewer restaurants remained open compared to the Q1 weekly average.

Restaurants probably decided to shut down since more customers were staying home and shunning busy places in the wake of growing cases. Or they might have found it hard to enforce social distancing by seating diners at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart. Regardless of the reason, we can see from total sales volume below that this was a sudden, rather than gradual, dip in activity. It seems the rapidly escalating outbreak had little impact on public life – people were still going out to eat and drink as usual – but this was brought to a virtual standstill on the weekend of March 14.

We looked at sales volume in regions that were hit hardest by the pandemic – Germany’s North-Rhine Westphalia and the Netherlands’ Noord-Brabant province – to see if activity there differed from activity at a national level. But it appears that business and public behaviour in those regions were not significantly different from the rest of the nation, despite more stringent regulations being introduced there first.

In summary, the data demonstrates that even when the pandemic strikes close to home, it tends to be business as usual during the early days of the outbreak. However, businesses felt the impact earlier and acted quicker than governments did. While efforts to curb social interactions at a state or regional level can change public behaviour, not everyone will comply with the rules until there is a total shutdown.

About our data:
Suburbia partners with companies in the payments and retail industries to create data sets that track anonymized consumer purchases across Europe, delivering a daily view into some of the world’s biggest consumer brands. For insights on consumer packaged goods (CPG) trends, Suburbia’s data set covers sales in over 14,000 on-trade channels across six countries in Europe.

Monetizing Data: A Suburbia Partner’s Story

This payment solutions company has partnered with Suburbia to monetize its point-of-sale transaction data and create value for its clients. Due to client confidentiality, this company has chosen to remain unnamed, though every effort has been made to preserve the integrity and accuracy of their statements.

This fast-growing European company provides point-of-sale (POS) solutions as well as other payment related products and services merchants need to run their business smoothly. It specializes in several niche markets though its solutions can be found in tens of thousands of merchants.

Our goal: “Payments are becoming commoditized so we’re aiming to offer a variety of complete merchant solutions and value-add services to encourage greater customer loyalty. This will also create new growth opportunities for us as a business.” 

Our problem: “As our POS systems capture millions of transactions annually, we were sitting on a mountain of data – but we weren’t doing anything with it. But this data started drawing the attention of major market research companies.

We didn’t feel comfortable working with them. They would ask for a CSV dump or ask if we could simply load the data on a USB stick and hand it to them. Once we were asked to report numbers over the phone and someone on the other end would be recording them in an Excel sheet. There are a number of things that can go wrong in these scenarios. It also doesn’t build a whole lot of trust and confidence when you see data being handled that way.”

The solution: “When we met Suburbia, what we learnt was a real eye opener for us. We learnt how our data could be useful for a financial audience. The way that different sources of ‘alternative data’ are being combined to yield new insights was really interesting to us. It made us look at our own data in a whole new light and see the possibilities.

In the beginning, the challenge for us was in making sure we provided our data to Suburbia in a form so that our merchants remain anonymous. Our clients are aware that their data is shared in an aggregated and anonymized way. But you can make some accurate inferences based on, for example, the location and time of transaction. In some cases, there are own-brand products, like a store called Bill’s that sells an item called Bill’s Burger. We took pains to ensure they couldn’t be identified based on details like that, so Bill’s Burger is just listed as a generic burger.

Our mission is for our clients to see that our POS is not just a good investment but they will also see returns on that investment. We have been investigating different propositions and potential revenue models with a small group of trusted clients or ambassadors. So they can potentially be rewarded a certain fee for every transaction processed. They didn’t even know their data could be useful and valuable for others. That’s a fantastic value-add for them and it can become a competitive advantage for us.

It’s not just the money but there’s the possibility of sharing data and insights with our customers. Imagine if they can see not just their own data, but data from across the industry that allows them to benchmark their performance.

Advice for other businesses looking to monetize their data: “It will seem like there are a lot of initial hurdles to overcome. But if you’re working with a partner for data monetization, it’s important to just get to know each other and establish a relationship of trust. Once that’s done, there are two important things to keep in mind: 

First, go all in if you’re serious about monetizing your data. Don’t give out a partial data set. Commit to reliably delivering the data at the frequency specified without fail, whether it’s daily or weekly. 

Secondly, don’t rush it. Monetizing your data doesn’t happen overnight and we appreciate that it’s a long cycle. It’s a journey where we’re testing and learning together with Suburbia. It’s better to get it done right than to get it done fast, especially in a business like ours.”

If you think that your business generates interesting data, please talk to us. We have a simple, confidential process that lets us evaluate the quality and potential monetary value of your data, and come back to you with a roadmap to monetization.

In 2020, Every Day is Data Privacy Day

California rang in the new year with not just fireworks but a sweeping data privacy law. Not long after, Google made a monumental change to its browser, killing cookies that stealthily vacuum up our data. Is data privacy going to be flexing its muscle in 2020?

Some are already asking if this is going to be the year the US introduces its answer to Europe’s GDPR, a sweeping set of rules designed to protect consumer privacy. If so, this would usher in a new regulatory age and set a different digital tone for the coming decade.

As we look back at the evolution of privacy over the last decade, what is clear is that data protection needs to evolve with the times. The introduction of GDPR in 2018 was important but its impact can be debated. Yes, it has done a lot of good, especially in creating greater public awareness around the issue. It has forced companies to become more transparent and accountable over their handling of user data.

But what has that greater awareness and transparency led to?   

For one thing, we learnt that “informed consent” doesn’t mean much in an age of information overload. One study estimates that reading all the terms and conditions in the privacy policies you’re shown would consume 244 hours per year. 

Many firms have pledged to do better but such verbal commitments can be compared to New Year’s resolutions. While they may be guided by well-meaning intentions, it is much easier to eat a plate of cookies than a plate of vegetables, especially if they are third-party cookies…

So what is the future of data privacy in 2020, and beyond?

Well, we will make one bold prediction: Targeted advertising is on its way out. It might not happen this year, but it is surely dying a slow death.

After all, stopping microtargeting would solve many of the problems that have dominated the public conversation over the last few years: fake news, political manipulation, data mining practices, surveillance capitalism, etc. 

While Google will no longer allow microtargeting on political ads and Twitter has banned political ads completely on its platform, we’re asking: Why stop at political advertising? 

Currently, US regulators are being pushed to study ads that target children and investigate practices for collecting online data about them. Up until just recently, advertisers on Instagram could target teenage girls under the age of 18 to promote dubious weight loss products. Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said that societal issues have demonstrated an increasing need to ban this type of microtargeting.

It has never been more urgent for us to get rid of this toxic practice. Insidious forces are now employing the same ad targeting that has been used by brands to grow their customer base and sell products. Except now, the stakes are a lot higher because it’s not just about persuading someone to buy a pair of jeans. It is being used to erode democracy and polarize society, one optimized click at a time. 

Ignore all the panaceas that will inevitably be brought up – more safeguards that can be imposed, more people hired to moderate content, etc. These will only be stopgap solutions that treat the symptom rather than the root of the cause. 

For the tech giants controlling these platforms, it’s naturally not in their interest to put their biggest source of revenue at risk. As for regulation, it will always be a slow and incremental process – GDPR had been heatedly discussed by lawmakers for years before it finally came into effect. And there are still gaps and loopholes in GDPR being exploited. 

As such, brands themselves should be proactive and channel their energy into initiatives that are less privacy-intrusive. The ad tech industry is already acknowledging the writing on the wall. In fact, Gartner forecast that 80% of marketers will abandon personalization efforts by 2025 due to lack of ROI, the perils of customer data management or both.

Of course, no one likes to be the first to take a moral stance that may not be good for business. The industry lament seems to be: “If I’m not doing targeted ads and my competitors are, then I’m losing out.” Yet it’s unclear how effective personalized ads really are. When The New York Times scrapped behavioral targeting in Europe, a move prompted by GDPR, its digital ad revenue continued to grow. Instead, it focused on contextual and geographical targeting. That’s a way of serving relevant ads without being creepy or intrusive.

As a company in the emerging alternative data industry, we help our partners monetize data with strictly zero personal information – which is why we know it’s possible. We’re also in the business of uncovering the hidden value in data others might overlook or ignore. 

While data protection has long been a matter of concern confined to a specific group of stakeholders within a company, like IT, it is now a critical issue that impacts nearly every level of an enterprise – from the marketing department to the CEO.

This is why we call upon all organizations to not just put privacy first, but to truly embed it at the heart of their business. Embracing privacy doesn’t mean having less data to work with. Through compliance, collaboration and creative technology, firms can explore new ways of harnessing non-personal data to unlock value for themselves and their customers. And that’s the ultimate win-win scenario.


The History of Big Data: From BC to AD

Big data may be the big buzzword of our time, but the concept goes back hundreds of years.

By definition, big data refers to any data sets that are too large or complex to be easily dealt with. In the 1600s, John Graunt, the father of modern demography, also worked with huge, overwhelming amounts of data about the population of London. 

But it all starts with data collection, and we know this began millennia earlier with the practice of census-taking. 

Hunting and gathering (of data)

A census is basically a way of gathering information on a population, and it’s not restricted to people. The earliest known census was conducted in Babylon in about 3800BC. Records suggest that the census counted the numbers of people and livestock, along with quantities of butter, milk, honey and vegetables.

These numbers were recorded on clay tablets although unfortunately, none of the raw data has been preserved. The Daily Telegraph muses that it could be because “the Babylonians probably sent the tablets through the equivalent of clay shredders to make sure their privacy was protected!”

The Bible also relates several accounts involving censuses, the most well known being the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph had gone for a Roman census. 

Censuses were used by the ancient Romans solely for the purpose of determining taxes. A shame they didn’t do more with the data – because maybe they could have used it to predict the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire! 

Data of the dead

In the early 1600s, a London hatmaker named John Graunt tapped into overlooked data sources to produce remarkable insights about life, health and mortality in his city. 

He started studying death records that had been kept by London parishes and compiled fifty years of data into his book, Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality. This is also the first known table of public health data, and its timely arrival coincided with the waves of bubonic plague that were sweeping the region.

His report painted a vivid picture of how Londoners lived and died, and he was the first person to give an estimate of the city’s population. He even predicted the percentage of people who would live to each successive age and their life expectancy year by year. But the data he collected was not always thorough or accurate – for instance, Graunt observed that syphilis was often covered up as the cause of death. 

All these records were publicly available but before Graunt, no one had thought about aggregating and analyzing the information in this way. His work helped to surface valuable insights that would have been instrumental for the city in mapping disease outbreaks and making better decisions. 

AD: The rise and rise of alternative data

Fast forward to present day, when the world is practically drowning in data. Yet we are meaningfully using only a fraction of it.

Businesses, investors and research firms are mostly guided by traditional data – that is, the usual government or company-issued data such as earnings and economic reports. But the frequency and depth of such data are often insufficient for identifying opportunities and emerging trends. That’s why more are turning to data outside the traditional realm, that is ‘alternative data’. 

It’s growing fast, with the number of alternative data providers tripling in the last three years alone. But the concept itself isn’t really new. 

There’s an oft-told tale about Walmart founder Sam Walton who would count cars in parking lots as a barometer of business, and once was so absorbed in the task that he crashed his car into the back of a Walmart truck. Now this can be done more easily and at scale with satellite imagery. But the moral of the story is that patience isn’t necessarily a virtue when it comes to business or investing – after all, why wait for the quarterly sales report when you can monitor foot traffic or point-of-sale purchases in real time? 

At its essence, alternative data is any data that is under the radar and underutilized. This data doesn’t need to be exotic or complicated. You could say that over 300 years ago, Graunt was also tapping into alternative data by examining mortality records.

While Graunt had to crunch through all this data manually, we now have the ability to process vast amounts of complex information pretty quickly. That enables businesses and investors to glean insights faster so that they can act on them before their competitors do. 

But there is one issue Graunt would have run into today…

What syphilis can tell us about privacy

As Graunt had astutely observed that syphilis deaths were likely under-reported due to social stigma, people suffering from the venereal disease in that era probably wouldn’t have been thrilled about such information being exposed. 

We live in a pro-privacy world now, where high-profile scandals have made consumers increasingly distrustful of companies handling personal data. Ensuring data privacy and security should rightly be a top concern for every company. 

It is for this reason that a clear and hard distinction must be made between personal data and non-personal data. While it is legally and morally wrong to expose an individual suffering from syphilis, there’s a huge public benefit in tracking and aggregating anonymized cases. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes the importance of national syphilis surveillance to understand how it spreads so it knows how to focus prevention efforts.

While most companies may not be dealing with matters of public health, it’s imperative that they handle their customers’ data with just as much sensitivity. Suburbia offers point-of-sale transaction data but we make sure our data sets are stripped of all personal details to begin with. This means we take it one step further than simply anonymizing the data – it’s not just about masking John Doe’s identity, but leaving any demographic information out completely.

The future of data

More businesses will find ways of harnessing the treasure trove of underutilized insights hidden in plain sight all around us. The Internet of Things means that the variety of data available to us will grow exponentially. 

In turn, this data will become more accessible as our ability to harvest usable information from big data improves by leaps and bounds with advancements in AI and machine learning.

At the same time, the growing privacy movement will shake up the advertising practices and business model of many companies. But with constraints comes creativity and new inputs for decision-making.

This will drive more companies to embrace and leverage alternative data. If investors are able to use it to generate higher stock returns, why can’t companies use it to improve their operations and grow their business? 

Ultimately, alternative data won’t be so ‘alternative’ in the future, as data becomes the next frontier for competition. Those who are able to tap into new sources to generate insights will be the victors in this brave new world awash with data – and those who fail will end up victims of their own complacency, much like the ancient Romans.

Suburbia Goes to Japan: A Note from the CEO

The first Dutch ship arrived in Japan in the 17th century. It was called De Liefde, meaning love. Its arrival led to such strong links that, between 1639 and 1853, the Netherlands was the only European country allowed to trade with Japan. 

This trade was not only in physical goods, but in art, culture and knowledge. This knowledge sharing continues to this present day – in the shape of data.


As a data company, this special historical relationship between both nations sprang to my mind in September, when I was informed that Suburbia had become the first ever Dutch startup to be selected for Fintech Business Camp Tokyo – an accelerator program run by the office of the mayor of Tokyo along with Accenture Japan.


Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time understanding Tokyo and eating my weight in kashiage and yakiniku. Apart from gaining weight, I have also gained new perspectives into the Japanese market and made many valuable connections within the industry. 


Many say it’s not easy for foreign firms to crack the Japanese market because of complex bureaucracy and cultural factors. This is precisely why the support of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and Accenture has been so valuable, in providing us with access to top domestic companies and counseling us on things big and small, including the intricacies of Japanese business etiquette


We recently concluded the program with a pitch in front of members of TMG, media and some of Japan’s leading companies. We showed how our Amsterdam-based startup is building innovative technology to solve some of the biggest problems facing both data providers and data users. This technology transcends borders – we can process data from anywhere in the world and transform it into a rich source of insights. 


Japan is interesting for us for several reasons. There is a growing shift from a cash-focused economy to contactless and payment apps, which will generate a flood of raw data. If collected and structured, properly and safely, this data has tremendous value. The Japanese government has already proposed policies to encourage the sharing of this ‘industrial data’ and companies are beginning to take notice. As the use of alternative data in investment decisions rises rapidly, Japan is uniquely positioned to leverage new data and use it to make better decisions for its large pension funds and asset management industry.


While we have been working with mostly early adopters based in Europe and the US, we are witnessing the global rise of alternative data, especially from the frontlines of great initiatives like the Fintech Business Camp. With four hundred years of history between the Netherlands and Japan, we hope to contribute to four hundred more.

-Hamza Khan, CEO, Suburbia