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Location, location, location

These days it seems that everyone wants to know where you are. It took a while for it to dawn on those of us who enthusiastically adopted the first mobile phones that this marvel also had the down side that we were never out of touch (well, at least allowing for shoddy signal coverage which, come to think of it, doesn’t seem to have improved that much in 20 years…). 

Stamps from around the worldNow the trend seems to be that every app, every device and every service provider wants to know what we’re up to at any given time. Of course this is because your location and the patterns created by your movements have a tremendous value. Not only can it mean advertising targeted to you but it builds up previously impossible to tap social data about how people move around, who we interact with, where and for how long. Potentially this could even be combined with what we actually did while we were in that location (checked our email, went online shopping, etc).

It’s amazing how much information you can glean by examining the patterns in people’s lives. Merely knowing the places an individual visits can tell you a lot about their lifestyle and interests. Add that to the websites they visit and searches they carry out and you could soon make some accurate guesses about their health, family structure, financial situation and more.

Even if you’re confident that you’re not buying into this location broadcasting madness (because you never felt the need to be the mayor of anywhere on FourSquare…), you might be slightly deluding yourself; the first thing any smart phone wants to do is usually to let someone at Apple or Google know where you are at any given time, in the guise of delivering relevant information when you need it. When your phone touches a wi-fi hotspot, whether you actually connect to use it or not, it can pinpoint itself without the need even for GPS.

In the context of this being a business-focused publication I think this raises two key issues: the personal question of whether we should individually be giving so much away; the cold, hard fact that we might be in a business that should be making use of this trend before, or at least as, our competitors do the same.

The value of location data may not be immediately obvious, but you don’t have to think very hard about use cases of being able to map or pattern match data from the movements of your customers, competitors or even your workforce. Some of this information people give up willingly, some they are ignorant of, some they have no choice about. What will change in coming years is how it is used and by whom.

This is another genie that is out of the bottle and it won’t be put back in. Whether you choose to view the development as sinister is a personal matter, though I imagine it’s the people who are cautious with their location data who will have less problems in the long run.

As with any emerging technology that comes up against social norms and leads to changes in our behaviour, there are going to be concerns, scandals even, but there are also going to be new laws (or better enforcement of existing ones) and we will all adapt, having to get more savvy, possibly more protective, about our digital trail. Mind you, many have still to adapt to shredding unwanted bits of paper with their names and addresses on to avoid fraud, so this is an education job that’s going to take some time!

You can be sure that as the tools and techniques for gathering our data spread, so too will the ones that help us to protect ourselves, but we’re all going to have to learn along the way, whether that’s in order to make more money or to avoid becoming a commodity ourselves.

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