What is mobile location data and where does it come from?

Mobile location data has the power to transform the way your business does its data analysis. In this article, the provenance of mobile location data is discussed, laying the groundwork to explore how you can use this powerful data source.

The Structure Of Mobile Location Data

Mobile location data is geo or spatial data from smartphones. When a user installs an app, they are often asked to share their location data with the company which provides the app and other companies who are partners with the app publisher. Users can opt in to location sharing (or choose not to opt in). When they opt in, then their phone collects data and shares it with the publisher companies.

 

What Is Mobile Location Data?
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 lat-long coordinates emitted by smartphones as they travel through time and space. These lat-long pairs are associated with the specific device by use of a unique identifier. Read more about the various identifiers in our glossary.

What Is The Underlying Technology?
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?
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 like Pokemon Go!, 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. They 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.