Location Data Companies Rise to the Challenge of Covid-19

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The location data market has responded to many external pressures in recent years. Guided by new privacy regulations such as GDPR and CCPA as well as operating system updates by Apple and Android, the industry has put the consumer back at the center. The old days of capturing data and selling to ad tech firms without permission are over.

These shifts are good news for society. But they are also good news for the location industry, which has pivoted to thrive in this new world where squeezed supply impacts the quality of location data.

Now, Covid-19 has presented a new challenge, with movement data restricted to unprecedented levels. So, how are location data companies responding to the crisis?

Providing practical solutions

On the surface, you would think the industry would be devastated by the lockdown of entire populations. Yet we are seeing the opposite.

Restriction on the movement of people has triggered a wave of innovation, with some of the brightest minds – at startups and tech giants alike – proposing solutions to track and reverse the spread of coronavirus. Solutions have included detailed mobility reports at a regional level, symptom trackers, and technology access.

This has the power to change the narrative of companies that collect and manage location data. Companies that do good and solve problems during this time will be remembered for the right reasons.

Guiding government and consumer decision-making

There are some big decisions to be made around approaches to contact tracing apps. Some countries are using the new Google and Apple APIs, which exchange data via Bluetooth in a decentralised way — the data is stored on the phone rather than a central database and then sent to a server if a person is at risk. Yet other countries prefer a government-centralized method. Both solutions shine a spotlight on privacy protections.

The location data industry is supporting governments to develop solutions that encourage user adoption. One barrier to regular and long-term use, for example, could be significant battery drain. Methods to reduce battery drain can take years to perfect. But by offering their API, for example, Google, Apple, and other companies can facilitate smooth implementation of crucial technologies. An ineffective solution could result in lower public usage and therefore less effective disease prevention.

Delivering data-driven insights

In recent weeks, we have seen some outstanding movement data insights. Google, for example, released a detailed report on the traffic movements in every region in the UK. Foursquare (now Factual and Foursquare) completed extensive tracking of urban vs city movement. It found that, in urban areas, foot traffic to bars was down 67% as of March 27, yet in rural areas it was down just 43%. Following lockdown, our own data revealed a 75% drop in commuters passing through transit stations and a 55% drop in movement to workplaces.

In the US, Unacast gained widespread attention for its social distancing scorecard – which monitored how different states are conforming to lockdown. Cuebiq took another deep dive into the US market, while Xmode and Tectonics partnered for a fascinating analysis of the movements of spring breakers.

All these initiatives help leaders better understand how social distancing impacts our everyday lives and could even influence society’s ongoing response to the lockdown.

Getting back to business

Clearly, location data has been useful to show governments and businesses the decline in movement. But it will play an even bigger role as we emerge from lockdown.

Already, our research has shown that footfall into stores has dramatically dropped. Yet some retailers have fared better than others during this crisis. Monitoring these trends will be critical for retailers and advertisers to kickstart the economy.

We are already seeing requests for real-world insights from transport, retail, and government entities as they develop detailed plans to get back to business safely and profitably.

Location data companies will be on standby to support businesses with insights to support the recovery. This could include the locations and stores seeing an uplift as we come out of lockdown, the regional differences in movement, how far people are travelling, and how various socio-economic groups are adapting back to normal life. Not only will this help businesses to make decisions around which stores and services to re-open and when, it will also help brands to allocate and maximize advertising spend.

Working together

Location data, if collected in a transparent and consensual way, can be a force for good. The current crisis could mark a turning point for the industry, allowing it to demonstrate the wide gamut of socially beneficial solutions it can provide. It has also shown the power of collaboration, with the industry coming together to find innovative solutions, reveal trends, and advise governments on the road ahead.

The industry is well-versed in responding to disruption and turmoil. It will continue to adapt and do increasingly important work in these challenging times.

Mark Slade is CEO of Location Sciences.