Location Precision: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

jonathanlenaghan“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Jonathan Lenaghan, head of data science at PlaceIQ.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “precision” and “accuracy” in the world of mobile marketing. But it’s becoming clear that the pressure to pinpoint high-quality mobile location data is blurring the line between what is good and bad, and realistic and unrealistic.

Here is a little context to help set the record straight.

While it’s true that the degree of precision determines the speed and relevance of mobile ad delivery, in some cases, bigger is not necessarily better. And when it comes to hyperlocal, smaller is not necessarily better, either. This means that some location points, which may sound hyperlocal in theory, can actually mislead or confuse mobile marketing clients.

Latitude And Longitude

Consider the digits or decimals to which location signals are gathered. It works like this:

Latitude and longitude (lat/long) figures represent the point on a map where a location sensor is picked up. The decimal places of that lat/long figure indicate the size of the fence surrounding that data point. Two decimals equate to a 1.1 km x 1.1 km fence, or roughly two-thirds of a mile. Three decimals equate to a 100 m x 100 m tile, which is roughly the size of a city block. Four decimals zoom in to 10 meters, which is where the line is drawn between good and bad data.

While a location data company is capable of capturing five, nine or even 12 digits, that doesn’t mean it should. Five decimals hone in on a 1 m x 1 m meter space, at 8 decimals (1 mm x 1 mm) you’re looking at an ant, and when you reach 12, it’s plain ugly. Twelve decimals gets you accuracy somewhere between a micrometer and a nanometer, which has no applicability in mobile advertising. It is (almost literally) splitting hairs.

Don’t aim for these hyperlocal levels of accuracy. They are not only ludicrous from a location technology point of view, they are also computationally infeasible to execute given the latency requirements found in today’s real-time bidding environments, not to mention the lack of consumer willingness to wait for application or page loads on their mobile devices.

Think about the time it takes the GPS on your smartphone to determine your location or find your destination. If a marketer is trying to determine the location of a smartphone on the move,which has a GPS accuracy of 3 meters at best, then 10 meters or four decimal places in lat/long is as accurate as you can get.

Four decimal places is usually the sweet spot. Precise location signals can be dependably gathered at ad tech speed within 100 m x 100 m, which requires no more than four decimal places. While 100 meters may place a device in a few locations (if the area is dense), applying time of day to the tile greatly improves the precision. And for a majority of less dense areas, 100 meters produces data that is quite unique and accurate.

The Right Strategy

When trying to determine whether the money you put into a mobile ad campaign is buying good, bad or ugly data, you’ll want to make sure that the strategy being used to gather location data sensors is close enough to target devices in specific stores, rather than a shopping complex or general area.

The strategy should also be designed to accurately determine behavior trends in desired users. Underpinning the strategy should be logic that can be consistently applied across the United States.

Mobile advertising is about using best-case accuracy to serve low-latency, highly relevant marketing messages to targeted audiences. Don’t get lost in the numbers.

Follow PlaceIQ (@PlaceIQ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. Phillip

    Two major points of correction to this article:

    1) If you take a spot reading during a banner ad request, your error rate may be as high as 1,000 meters or more. If you take continuous readings, the error rate reduces over time — 20 seconds is what’s required in most environments to properly calculate a location. The GPS hardware is technically rated to 2 meters of accuracy, but poor antenna design and the fact both android and iOS are enhanced for ‘navigation’ vs. ‘spot location readings’ is why we have greater inaccuracy in adtech created before 2013.

    2) The author confuses 100 meters of precision with ‘being with 100 meters of a location’. 100 meters of precision refers to a radius…the actual location may be 200 meters away (600 feet, or 2-3 city blocks.) This is fine if you’re interested in identifying walmarts in the suburbs (which have no stores within 600 feet). But it doesn’t work in urban environments in which stores can be 20 feet away.

    PlaceIQ was founded at a time when 100 meters of accuracy was the best we could hope to achieve. fast forward to 2014: there are many adtech companies which are consistently delivering higher accuracy at scale. Perhaps we should recognize fast-moving evolution in the adtech marketplace instead of defending the quirky technology of the past.