What is geolocation data and where does it come from?

Mobile location data can be very tricky to understand, but we've got some insights that will fill you in.

What Is Location Data?
Think about where you are right now, while you are reading this... You're in a precise location on our planet, and if you needed to tell someone where you were, you could be general and just say what town you are in, or get nerdy and be really specific down to what precise latitude and longitude you are at. Remember latitude and longitude lines from geography lessons in school?


What does mobile location data look like?

Here's the short answer: It looks like latitude and longitude coordinates.

Want more details? Read the section below...

Smartphones collect mobile location data in the form of latitude-longitude coordinate pairs. These pairs of numbers represent every point on earth down to a very high degree of accuracy. The format of one of these pairs looks like: 51.500776, -0.124636. A mobile location data set then revolves around the latitude-longitude coordinates emitted by smartphones as they are carried around by the people who own them. These latitude-longitude pairs are associated with the specific device by use of a unique identifier, a string of numbers or letters that uniquely identify that device. 

What Is the underlying technology for the best mobile location data?

Here's the short answer: GPS, or Global Positioning System, is the best form of mobile location data.

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The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a U.S.-owned utility that provides users with positioning, navigation, and timing services. The number of humans carrying smartphones is expected to have topped 3 billion in 2018 according to market research firm Newzoo. These are primarily divided up between the two major operating systems: iOS and Android which are pre-loaded onto phones and provide a standard coding environment for software developers to make the apps we all know and love. There are over 2 million different apps for each platform. And some of those apps ask for user consent to get access to the phone’s location data.

Smartphones are able to collect a variety of location-based information using WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, magnetometer, barometers and cellular hardware, including cell phone towers. The most accurate mobile location data are typically gathered from GPS signals and are increasingly being augmented by advanced secondary systems that leverage hardware and machine learning. GPS technology was built and is operated by the U.S. government. Devices on Earth communicate with 4 or more satellites to determine its position on the Earth. As of the year 2000, high-accuracy GPS was made available by the government for civilian applications. This act caused an explosion in SatNav innovation, and opened the door for smartphones to become the leading navigation tool used on Earth. The government continues to refine GPS. As of 2018 a new L5 standard was released that typically allows GPS accuracy to within 12 inches.

Why does my phone collect data?

Here's the short answer: Your smartphone collects data through the apps that you use, according to what your privacy settings allow (each phone user sets their own privacy settings or has agreed to default settings), and this data is scrubbed of your personal information and sold as a way that app companies can make money and offer more free apps. The list of apps we get data from is constantly updating and changes in data privacy are automatically accounted for.

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There are a lot of viable reasons that smartphones collect mobile location data, mainly due to functionality available via apps. Examples include navigation apps, recommendation and shopping engineers, weather apps, fitness apps like run trackers, augmented reality games, useful push notifications for your airplane boarding passes, paid panel apps… the list goes on.

These apps use the location data for purposes of improving the behavior of the app, either by providing services (turn-by-turn directions) or the display of advertising (say, between levels of a game). In turn, these techniques allow publishers to monetize their free apps by using mobile location data. The mobile location data is passed on to data aggregators using an advertising identifier (IDFA or AAID). These are IDs which are changeable by users, and are not shared with location aggregators unless users have explicitly opted-in to allow its use. The access to these identifiers are also strictly controlled by the creators of the operating system to ensure consumers can be in control of their data. Reputable mobile location data vendors also take consumer privacy very seriously and abide by government privacy regulations like GDPR. As these policies evolve, it does affect data collection but you would be surprised to see how many people still allow their data to be collected-- even a quick glance at your own phone settings may reveal some things you have consented to for one reason or another!

Does mobile location data get collected all the time from everyone's smartphones?

Here's the short answer: Mobile location data does not show every location for every person, because it depends on their settings and the apps they use. However, it's a great way to see a sampling of trends in your location.

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Since mobile location data is intermittent, this means that not every move a device makes is captured. Mobile location data is a sample. It is not 100% of visitors, and it should not be treated as such. Like any sampling method, it can be subject to biases or lack of volume. 

Why am I unable to see full location data for the past 1-7 days when I look at the data in my modules?

Here's the short answer: Location data is always delayed because it takes several days to be processed.

Want more details? Read the section below...

The geolocation data is collected and processed to clean up any bad data before we load it into our application, for the purposes of normalization. Curious about normalization? Check out this article!

Is Zartico’s data strong enough in smaller rural destinations?

Our location data covers everywhere people go with their devices, such as mobile phones. If there are people moving around your destinations with a phone, we will get location data from a portion of them.

Want more details? Read the section below...

Regardless of the size of your destination, geolocation data provides valuable insights into the visitor flow for your visitor economy. We're able to provide the clearest view of your visitor economy by ensuring you have enough primary and contextual places of interest. By being able to customize our approach to how we filter the geolocation data we get, which comes from mobile devices, we can build a precise grid for even rural locations. Plus, you get to designate the primary places you want to monitor. Also, the way our location data is captured means it works even when there is no cell coverage in an area. Our location data is captured as GPS coordinates and stored locally on the device, and sent from the device to our data provider when it is next within range. For example, if a visitor went to a popular hiking trail where there is no cell service, their coordinates during their trip would be captured and then sent to our data provider when they next returned to their hotel.

Why use mobile location data?

Geolocation data is the most powerful tool we have for understanding...

  • Visitor Flow (where people are going, where people are spending their time and money)
  • Visitor Demand (when visitors are in certain places, in what volume level)
  • Visitor Patterns (what places are people visiting and combining together in their visit)

  • How Events Impact Visitation (how events change visitor behavior in your destination, and how they can be used strategically)

  • Understand the Role of Your Website in Influencing Visitation & Visitor Behavior (how viewing your website leads to travel within your destination)

  • Gaining Alignment with Stakeholders (how your destination's stakeholders can see visitor behavior and discuss this information's implications)

Is the geolocation data private? 

We take privacy very seriously. All geolocation data is anonymized and goes through our privacy protection policy. Read the section below to learn more...

Our mission is to help companies, tourist bureaus, and other customers grow by utilizing our business insights. In addition to following federal and state privacy and data regulations, we abide by the following principles to avoid the misuse of our data:

  • We do not accept and will terminate a client if we learn of any dishonest or illegal practices on their part.
  • We do not allow use of our data by law enforcement.
  • We do not allow use of our data to target advertising to people below the legal age (for example, alcohol and casinos) or to create audiences for locations primarily visited by children (such as preschools, playgrounds).
  • We do not allow use of our data for employment, credit, health care, or insurance purposes.
  • We do not allow use of our data to target vulnerable or sensitive communities (for example, by political, religious, sexual orientation or medical affiliation), or to identify those within sensitive areas (e.g.conflict zones, hospitals, protests, religious sites, clinics, etc) or to places.

How do I use location data?

Check out our article and webinar on geolocation data best practices!