FEATURE20 May 2011

Location, location


Researchers are excited by the prospect of sending surveys to people based on they places they visit. We asked SSI’s Jason Buchanan for his verdict on where the industry’s at with location technology.

Jason Buchanan says the future potential of location technology is “enormous”, helping both in instances where “moment of truth” data collection is required and to understand people’s precise movements around town or in places like shopping centres or the stores themselves.

So convinced was Buchanan of this potential that he jacked in his job with Research Now in 2009 to set up the GPSi Group, with one part of the business focused specifically on using GPS technology to support market research.

He’s now back on more traditional research ground as Asia Pacific MD for Survey Sampling International (SSI), but he’s still keeping his hand in with GPSi. Research asked him for his verdict on where the industry’s at with location technology.

“We are just scraping the tip of the iceberg… The market response has been very positive, and further development will only enhance the suitability of the technology”

What is the potential for GPS and other location-based measures in market research?
I think the future potential is enormous for a number of specific applications. As anyone who is experimenting with the technology will tell you, however, there are technical, methodological and privacy considerations that are yet to be addressed properly. That said, I can certainly see a time in the future when location-based technologies will add a lot of value to understanding consumer decision making. The feedback to date has been encouraging to say the least, but there is still a lot to be done.

Are different types of location technology better suited to different kinds of research projects, and could you give examples?
As with any technology, understanding the precise nature of what it can and can’t do is vitally important. Let’s take GPS for example. GPS is an outdoor technology, and the hardware and components available now can be accurate to one metre, an incredible result when you consider that this information is coming from satellites in space. However, the technology becomes incredibly unreliable indoors, and that is the root of some major misunderstandings around GPS capabilities.

Yes, it is possible to use a mobile phone’s GPS functionality to confirm a person’s location, and record location data. We often get asked, however, about its use for retail and in-store research, because people aren’t always aware of its limitations indoors. Technically, there is a way to use GPS indoors, but it is a potentially complicated solution. Wireless and RFID (radio-frequency identification) also have an interesting future for various applications both indoors and outdoors, and these technologies are next on the list to experiment with and evaluate.

The GPSi website says you launched in January – could you talk about some of the projects you worked on?
We have been selective with the projects conducted to date, and have mostly focused on research problems that are in outdoor environments. I will give you two examples of projects that illustrate how, depending on the nature of the research problem, the technology can be extremely useful in prompting questions that would otherwise remain unasked.

We have just completed a project with a property company that wanted to understand how people use various facilities and amenities within one of their residential developments. The data was aggregated in a way that allowed the client to understand where people went and how long they were there.

A second project, which is still ongoing, is investigating how reliably we can replicate a travel diary – the end goal being that a person’s trip activity can be automatically collected. The individual can then simply add the detail. Our vehicle technology can very reliably support this new application. We are continuing to develop our person-based travel diary and see tremendous potential for it to simplify and enhance diary projects.

“Whenever any type of surveillance or tracking technology is involved, there is going to be concern from consumers and privacy groups”

How would you sum up your experience to date in location-based research and the market response to it?
We feel as though we are just scraping the tip of the iceberg, and as with all early-stage businesses, we are learning a lot as we go. Location-based technology is certainly very topical at the moment. The market response has been very positive, and further development will only enhance the suitability of the technology to a growing range of research problems.

What about respondent acceptance? Are there concerns among consumers about the privacy aspects of having their behaviour monitored, whether anonymously or otherwise?
This is extremely topical at the moment with companies like Apple and TomTom admitting that they are potentially collecting and using de-personalised location data. Whenever any type of surveillance or tracking technology is involved, there is going to be concern from consumers and privacy groups. We in market research, however, already deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis.

I believe there is a way forward that will suit all concerned, but I guess time will tell. Certainly, as an industry, we can put our experience to work to create solutions that are in the best interests of both our clients seeking information and the consumers providing it.

So, what led you to take up your new position at SSI?
Opportunities are often about timing. After being approached by Kees de Jong, SSI’s CEO, and hearing first hand his vision for the company and his commitment to ongoing innovation, I immediately saw this was an organisation that was the right fit for me.

SSI is now a reseller of GPS Interactive products and services. What benefits do you think this will bring to the location-based research business?
The commercial opportunity for GPS Interactive is significant – and with SSI’s resources behind it, we are in an even stronger position to develop and grow the business. I see a bright future ahead, and once we put the right people in place, it will be a case of watch this space.

SSI brings a strong international market presence, the investment strength of a larger organisation and a worldwide pool of experienced and talented individuals – and this type of support will be invaluable. It is an excellent deal for all concerned.