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You Are Here: The Merits and Pitfalls of Location Data



You Are Here: The Merits and Pitfalls of Location Data

By Steven Read, Senior Pre-Sales Consultant, Marketwired

Everyone knows that what’s hot in the social media landscape is constantly changing and evolving. In the years I’ve worked in the sector I watched Justin Bieber rise to a position of uncheckable dominance in terms of fan-driven social activity only to see his popularity ebb in the face of a tidal wave of support for One Direction. One area that has continued to attract attention throughout both the Bielieber and Directoner periods is the importance of location.

The importance of location isn’t news to us at Marketwired. Throughout our history we’ve delivered targeted news based on location, knowing that what’s hot to a local newsroom might not set national networks schedules alight. Location is also a big deal to our Powered by Sysomos products where we use user-defined demographic data

Foursquare is the most widely known social location service, with over four years of usage under their belt. They pioneered the global check-in format, which would later be adopted by other social networks (including Facebook) – and today they boast over 33 million users including President Barack Obama.

So is it fair to say that everyone using social media is a fan of location data? Well… not really.

The first alarm bells surrounding location started ringing when burglaries were linked to postings on Facebook. If the possibility of being robbed wasn’t bad enough, location disclosure could be even worse if your house wasn’t empty: specifically, if you (or more likely your teenage children) were having a party and suddenly hundreds of people arrived who turned out not to be the most considerate of house guests.

I should probably point out that those links were just two of many that a quick visit to Google will pull up; there are countless other horror stories to choose from, all with distressingly similar storylines.

It’s fair to say that very soon after the advent of location data in social media people became aware of the potential pitfalls of putting too much information out there. (Although in the interest of balance, if you were a savvy burglar or destructive party guest it represented a fantastic opportunity.)

Fast forward to summer 2013 and location data hits the headlines again with the rise of the machines. In the City of London impressively sized recycling bins have been in use since the 2012 Olympics. Each has dual display screens ensuring commuters don’t suffer LCD withdrawal symptoms between leaving their monitors at the office and taking out their smartphones on the train home. It turns out that the bins themselves were recording any WiFi-enabled phones that passed them with a view to identifying user behaviour.

The technology aimed to personalise ads based on behaviour. If you head to a particular coffee shop every day, it would be possible to put a rival’s ad in front of you (and then continue tracking to see if you stopped visiting your original supplier). But the trial was stopped. Few people realise that the same convenience that logs them onto their WiFi as they walk through their front door can actually be used to track their journey to it.

It turns out that WiFi is even worse than social media when it comes to giving away our location. We’re all happy to take the good bits. Most GPS satnav systems actually use something called A-GPS, which looks at local WiFi signals before they start looking for satellites. And if you’ve ever had to use Find My iPhone to find a lost phone you’ll know how useful it can be, but we’re not so happy when someone else makes use of what we’re broadcasting.

The potential uses of location data are huge, but it seems right now technology has overtaken our willingness to share. Or maybe we’re just fussy about how our location data is used. I’d want my friends to know if I’m in the VIP lounge for a big event, but I don’t want someone stealing my silver soup tureen while I’m there. I want to find my phone if I lose it, but I don’t want someone tracking me when I sneak off to the cake shop. Find my iPhone is a great example of how WiFi sharing can be incentivised. I could also be persuaded to publicly check-in to the cake shop for the odd choc chip muffin, but then again who wouldn’t?


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