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Leveraging Location: Where Are We?

My buddy, Michael Link, is Chief Behavioral Methodologist at Nielsen. A couple of weeks back he organized a symposium focused on location.  I asked him to do a guest post here and this is the first of his two reports.

Location can have a strong influence on people’s attitudes and behaviors, but what does the term really mean and how can we measure it with any degree of confidence? Location may be a stationary place or geography (i.e., home, work, store, theater) or a transitory pathway (e.g., route taken from point A to point B with stops or points of interest in between), with each providing different forms and levels of insights. Traditionally the province of recall surveys and activity diaries, mobile technologies and big data sources are opening an array of routes to our ability to measure and utilize location information. To address these and related issues, Nielsen recently hosted a symposium entitled “Measurement on the Move: Leveraging the Power of Location,” bringing together 30 research experts from telecom, digital, consumer goods, media, academia and government for two days of discourse on sources of location data, developing meaningful metrics, turning measures into insights, as well as legal and ethical challenges.

Borrowing concepts espoused by former Census Director Robert Groves, Nielsen Chief Demographer and Fellow Ken Hodges laid out the key issues by contrasting location as “design data” (collected from known populations for a specific purpose often with controlled methods) versus “organic” data (largely unstructured, massive datasets that arise from the information ecosystem with few controls). In the context of location today, design data are typically those captured via a mobile device using GPS-enabled trails and “check-in” features -- the link between the respondent and the locations is typically meaningful and durable, there is a focus on addresses/geography (fixed longitude and latitude), with researchers often seeking to freeze movement thereby capturing a moment in time. In contrast, “organic data” comes from sources such as telecom carrier records (largely cell phone tower information) where the link between people and location is often transitory and may actually have little meaning, focus is on broader spaces, proximity, and general patterns, with researchers seeking to extract understanding of movement over spans of time. Very different approaches to location, often addressing different questions and requiring different analytic techniques. Both have challenges in terms of coverage (persons and geography), location measurement specificity (variations in their measurement exactness), ease of capture, and validation of insights gained. Location isn’t a new concept, but is one being renewed by technological change, offering multifaceted opportunities as well as challenges.