A Brief History of Location Analytics [Infographic]

A Brief History of Location Analytics

Location Analytics is using data from a physical location to learn something.  This article goes through a brief history of how this technology has changed over time.  Like any other analytics, its power grows exponentially with each source of data added. At it’s most basic level, location analytics is just counting what happens is a space. In that case, it’s as old as mathematics. The inventor of Location Analytics would be a Sumerian shop-keeper counting customers on an Abacus.


Fast-forward a few thousand years, and the idea of using maps to visualize data was not well-known. In 1854 a doctor not ironically named John Snow simultaneously invented epidemiology and geospatial intelligence. Dr. Snow was doing some detective work on a cholera outbreak. He super-imposed cholera cases on to a map of London and discovered a single well that appeared to be the focal point of an epidemic. Sure enough, the well was the source of the disease, and thus became the first documented case of geospatial intelligence.


The late 1800’s brought about industrialization and mechanization of many devices, including tally counters. As simple as it seems, the simple hand-held clicker counter did not exist until 1871, but it was quickly adopted in factories and the burgeoning retail industry.


The turn of the century brought new standards for businesses and automation. As corporations grew into international merchants, demand grew for analytics on trade. A particularly clever entrepreneur name Clarence Sanders dreamed of a completely self-service grocery store, and to do that he invented things to improve the store experience. One of those inventions was the turnstile. The turnstile combined with the mechanical counter made running totals of visitors counts an automated process.


World War I and II accelerated the development of technology, and location analytics was hugely influential, particularly in World War II. Geospatial Information was a burgeoning discipline that was growing with the advent of computers. Harvard pushed the research into academia with the Formation of the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis. That laboratory would close within a year, but it was soon followed by computer GIS laboratories all over the country. The Location Intelligence we know today was born.


Macro-level analytics is only part of this story, and people counting would still be in its infancy all the way into the 1970’s. Then, legend has it; a Canadian man used an infrared beam machine the size of a refrigerator to count each time the beam was broken, creating the first beam counter.


The next big leap in location analytics would come with the invention of thermal imaging counters and infrared beam counters. Both were released soon after the turn of the millennium. Stores were able to build reports on visitation at an affordable cost, making foot traffic a valuable data asset.


Before 2004, WiFi Access Points were proprietary technology owned by major corporations. Then, Linksys released the source code for its WRT54G series Access Points after a legal matter regarding GPL code.  The opensource community released the OpenWRT firmware for Linksys routers, allowing anyone to create router add-ons and firmware. This series of events lead to rapid development of new capabilities.


Chilispot made captive portals possible, and consumers were ready. Publicly available WiFi went from an exciting feature to an expected service. Businesses had the opportunity to grow revenue as well as collect information on the customers that visited their locations.


Splash pages aren’t the only great source of information from Access Points. AP probes can be collected to passively gather information on foot traffic without any interaction from customers. Even though AP Probes haven been used since WiFi’s inception, using them to count passersby was not patented until 2010 by Shopkick.

The year 2010 also brought the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Standard. Developers could make apps that passively communicate and report on consumer patterns with laser-precision detail. BLE beacons provide the most accurate detail on consumer foot traffic, with the trade-off of more difficult implementation.

Today Location Analytics uses multiple data sources to gain powerful insights for organizations from every industry. Modern WiFi analytics can be used in conjunction with GIS data to analyze consumer trends across regions or in a single store. There’s never been a more dynamic time to be in location analytics, and the future looks even brighter.