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Echo Nest, Spotify link may target Pandora

Could Spotify further chip away at Pandora?

Could Spotify further chip away at Pandora?

These stories and other coverage of Boston’s technology and biotech scene can be found at the Globe’s new site, betaboston.com.

I am a big fan of Spotify. But the service’s radio station option, which automatically picks songs for you based on your first song choice, a la Pandora, has not impressed me. To me, Pandora remains the superior product.

That could change with Spotify’s acquisition of The Echo Nest of Somerville, which provides the key technology behind Spotify’s recommendations and radio station playlists. But as Echo Nest chief executive Jim Lucchese said last week, there are limits to the personalization the company’s system was able to deliver to Spotify users.

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“There are a bunch of things you can’t do at arm’s length, that when you’re fully integrated, you can,” Lucchese said.

What exactly Spotify and Echo Nest have in mind is not being detailed for now. The general premise is that “we’re trying to understand who you are as a music fan,” Lucchese said. “Spotify sits on an incredible amount of interaction data, which we’ll have much better visibility into.”

That could position Spotify to further chip away at Pandora. Pandora remains popular — with 76 million active users — but faces pressure from other sources, such as iTunes Radio. Spotify reports having 24 million active users, with 6 million of those as paying subscribers.

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Echo Nest uses artificial intelligence to analyze massive quantities of data on the Web in order to predict users’ music preferences.

Along with Spotify, the technology is used by ClearChannel’s iHeartRadio app, MTV, and Rdio. Pandora is based on data created by hired experts about songs and artists, what is known as the Music Genome Project.

The price tag for the Echo Nest acquisition may have been $100 million, according to TechCrunch, which cited unnamed sources. That dovetails with what Matrix Partners’ Antonio Rodriguez said — that the acquisition was a good deal for all investors, who had put $27 million into the company since its founding in 2005.

Kyle Alspach

Fitness tracking: What about privacy?

An interesting consensus emerged from the big White House/MIT Big Data and Privacy Conference last week: Most people would contribute personal information to large data sets if they could retain ownership of it, see a tangible incentive, and limit what others see.

So, what does that look like in real life? Like Virgin Pulse of Framingham.

Virgin Pulse (yes, part of the Virgin family) makes a personal fitness tracking system that other companies — Coca-Cola, BP, and Zappos — offer to employees. A wearable device, called the Max, measures stuff like steps taken and calories burned, and an online portal for users to record other healthy habits, such as eating nutritious meals.

As employees collect fitness points for hitting the gym and the salad bar, their companies reward them with prizes, such as rebates on health insurance premiums.

Could we be veering into Big Brother territory? Is my employer tracking every step I take — or don’t take? My insurance company?

“We tested it with an insurer, actually,” said Virgin Pulse chief executive Chris Boyce. “And when the insurer got the data, more than half of their employees wouldn’t sign up.”

Virgin Pulse tweaked its model so that an employer sees only how many points an employee collects a month. Since there are many ways to amass points, the numbers do not reveal much about what the employee has been up to.

Insurers, meanwhile, do not have access to fitness data.

There has to be some trustworthy repository for this raw data. In our fitness example, that is Virgin Pulse, which has quantities of data about exercise, diet, and sleep habits, and uses the information to improve its service. But Virgin Pulse does not claim ownership of the data and cannot provide it to third parties without permission.

The balance between data collection and privacy seems to satisfy customers.

“Our employees felt comfortable, once they understood that this was a tool to help them be healthy, and the company wasn’t spying on them,” said Andy Pfeifer, a senior director at Smith & Nephew in Andover, which introduced Virgin Pulse last fall.

Callum Borchers

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