Unlocking the Potential of GPS Data: A Deep Dive into Navigation and Beyond

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First launched in 1973, the Global Positioning System (GPS) was originally restricted to use by the US government. Starting in the 1980s civilian access to the system was allowed — leading to innovations in both the system and its uses. Fast forward a few decades and broad adoption of GPS technology in consumer devices and individual navigation has made GPS data a source of critical insights for modern businesses with ever-evolving use cases.

For businesses today, GPS data has evolved to serve as a cornerstone for informed decisions, affording a clarity that facilitates better investment decisions, retail optimization, and innovation.

Sources of GPS Data

Where does GPS data come from?

Signals are generated and beamed to earth by a network of 24 GPS satellites. These signals are then detected and captured as timestamped latitude, longitude, and altitude data by GPS receivers in devices from the navigation systems in a commercial airplane to smartphones. These devices then correct for specific errors and calculate the receiver's position by comparing the signals.

When referring to mobile location data for business use cases, GPS data is sourced from mobile devices by applications. At Unacast, this data then goes through a rigorous methodology where it is scrubbed for privacy, aggregated, and run through Unacast's machine learning model to produce reliable location insights.

How accurate is GPS data?

There are several factors that can impact GPS accuracy like satellite errors, atmospheric interference, signal blockage from buildings or other structures. That said, most consumer GPS devices are accurate to within approximately 4.9 m and locations can be further refined through Wi-Fi positioning. High end equipment utilizing the L5 band can be accurate down to 30 cm and devices utilizing multiple bands can be accurate to within 2 cm.

When referring to mobile location data, GPS data is one data source that provides accurate location insights for understanding things like foot traffic, trade areas, cross-shopping behavior, and competitive intelligence.

Significance of GPS Data

While the navigational applications of knowing exactly where you are on the planet at any given moment seem fairly obvious, the impact that this capability has had on modern life should not be underestimated. From air traffic control to route efficiency across land, air, and sea to just the comfort of knowing where a loved on is — navigational use of GPS has completely changed modern life for businesses and consumers alike.

But it doesn’t just stop there. With over 85% of world’s population having access to a smartphone, the data generated by billions of people carrying GPS technology in their pocket has revolutionized business intelligence. Location intelligence (LI) is the analytical process of deriving meaningful insights from geospatial data sources. And while LI can exist without GPS data — adding the most accurate and universally available source of geolocation data makes it exponentially more valuable.

From instantaneous feedback of dynamic events, such as tracking a delivery fleet, to tracking consumer movement through a region or even a retail space over time, aka footfall data, GPS data is delivering incredible, previously unseen insights to companies across industries.

This is especially true when current data is combined with historical GPS data, demographic datasets, and more. By identifying patterns, emerging trends can be defined and predictive models built to inform business decisions from marketing to investments to identifying where to build the next brick and mortar location.

Industries That Use GPS Data

gps data

While businesses of any size or type can likely find a use for GPS data, there are several industries who have developed location intelligence efforts that rely heavily on it. Industries like retail, commercial and residential real estate, financial services, telcos, and even government agencies at all levels of government.

Retail

From customer promotions, to store competitive intelligence, to new store site selection, the retail industry has come to depend on GPS data for optimizing interactions with their customers.

Real Estate

Migration trends and consumer footfall data is critical for both residential and commercial real estate companies when it comes to knowing where to build next. GPS data also allows them to understand, and even mitigate, risks as they seek out investment opportunities.

Financial Services

From geo-targeted marketing campaigns to branch location selection to enhanced location-based security for their users, financial services providers can offer enhanced services to their customers. And much like the real estate industry, financial institutions can make lending risk assessments based on GPS data too.

Government Agencies

Whether planning transit and infrastructure projects, education or healthcare coverage, or disaster preparedness, GPS data helps governments understand how to best serve their constituents both now and in the future.

Challenges in GPS Data Utilization

gps data intelligence

As mentioned above there are some factors that introduce errors or otherwise impact GPS accuracy — but those are largely overcome with additional levels of technology. Algorithms have been developed to compensate for satellite clocking errors. Wi-Fi positioning helps create more accurate pinpoints of consumer-grade receivers (like smartphones), even indoors. But there are still a few ongoing challenges that complicate using GPS data. The largest two of them are the sheer amount of GPS data available and growing privacy concerns.

The Scale of GPS Datasets

With billions of connected GPS receivers around the world, the number of datapoints for any given region are likely massive. Simply mitigating accuracy issues at this scale is a challenge, but when the intention is to integrate GPS data with other location intelligence data, ensuring you have the right data is paramount. To correctly clean, stabilize, and integrate massive amounts of GPS data, modern GPS data providers are leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence to provide curated datasets tailored to their clients’ needs.

Privacy Challenges with GPS Data

Data is one of the single greatest commodities in the modern world. Unfortunately that holds true not just for businesses, but for bad actors as well. With cyber crimes constantly evolving it is imperative that all personally identifiable information (PII) be protected. And while not all geolocation data is considered PII, if GPS data can be connected to an individual, even indirectly, it is considered PII.

This means that it’s not only important to protect this data from hackers — but it’s equally important to make sure that this data is sourced ethically and in a way that respects the individual’s privacy choices. And while governments are tightening regulations regarding data privacy, it’s vital that companies act in good faith any time they’re dealing with PII.

Best Practices for Utilizing GPS Data

Properly and ethically leveraging GPS data in your location intelligence efforts is dependent on several factors — namely identifying your goals in using GPS data, finding the right data and provider, and ensuring the data is properly integrated into your tech stack to deliver the insights you need.

Obviously outlining goals is important in any business venture — but in the case of large datasets, narrowing your focus early will save time, money, and resources by targeting your efforts where they’ll have the biggest impact.

Once you’ve clearly defined your GPS data needs, sourcing a GPS data provider is a function of identifying providers with the right kind and quality of data and whether their data and platform or system integrates with your existing location intelligence process. Additionally, it’s important to use providers who are committed to ethically sourcing GPS data and protecting consumer privacy and PII.

Top GPS Data Providers

So who are the biggest names in GPS data providers and do they provide the right kind of data and services to meet your needs? Following are the top five GPS data providers, starting with Unacast.

Unacast

Unacast GPS data is sourced from multiple inputs and cleaned and stabilized by machine learning to provide robust, curated datasets. When paired with our platform, your location intelligence efforts can deliver deep insights.

  • Coverage: 14 Countries
  • Curated/Processed Data: Yes, data is cleaned and stabilized with machine learning and presented in curated datasets
  • Focus Areas: GPS data and a visual location insights platform.
  • Data Integration? Integrates with major cloud and big data platforms. Customer Data + Third Party Sources Platform integration.
  • API Available? Yes

Carto

Designed for modern location intelligence efforts, Carto is a cloud-native GIS product that was designed to integrate with a modern tech stack.

  • Coverage: 87 Countries
  • Curated/Processed Data: Data is sourced from vetted 3rd party providers and varies from set to set
  • Focus Areas: Geographic information System software
  • Data Integration? Integrates with major cloud and big data platforms
  • API Available? Yes

Veraset

Veraset provides raw, reliable global location data for enterprise business, startups, and researchers.

  • Coverage: 150+ Countries
  • Curated/Processed Data: Yes, cleaned
  • Data Integration? Manual data import into existing systems
  • API Available? No

Future of GPS Data in Business and Beyond

As technology across industries continues evolving, new, innovative uses for GPS data are being developed daily and savvy companies are using these uses to find a competitive advantage in an ever-crowded market.

AI and GPS Data

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already being paired with GPS data at Unacast to provide instant insights for companies working with this data. Utilizing generative AI summaries and chat, Unacast GPS data is poised to relieve much of the workload of people looking for foot traffic and location insights.

Smart Cities

With increasing adoption of smartphones and GPS-enabled wearable technology, forward-thinking cities are using real-time GPS data to improve public services from transportation routes and schedules to traffic mitigation to waste management to emergency response. These technologies allow municipalities to meet the needs of their populations and optimize for efficiency, sustainability, and comfort. Environmental monitoring, using GPS, can lead to more effective conservation strategies, ensuring that our planet's resources are managed sustainably.

Augmented Reality

Pairing GPS data with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) systems is creating more immersive environments for everything from navigation to entertainment and marketing.

Internet of Things

As both consumers and businesses make use of more and more connected devices, aka internet-of-things (IoT) devices, companies are developing new ways to leverage the data. While more IoT devices definitely help with the accuracy of GPS data, more importantly, they give deeper insight into how people are using spaces.

Conclusion

How GPS data is used has come a long way from its defense-oriented beginnings in the 1970s and is still constantly evolving. It’s obvious that use of GPS data is not just here to stay, but an integral part of both consumers' lives and modern business decision making.

As GPS data becomes increasingly integrated into more processes, companies seeing a competitive edge will push the use cases further and further. Because the amount of data and our reliance on it will only continue to grow, it’s vital that GPS data providers and the companies putting it to work both commit to privacy-conscious, ethical sourcing of GPS data, as well as ensuring that its integrity and accuracy is maintained.

That said, applications for GPS data are truly only limited by our imaginations. As we move into smarter, more efficient cities, more immersive virtual experiences, self-driving cars, and whatever is on the horizon, it’s clear that GPS data will play a major role in our technology moving forward.

Frequently Asked Questions about GPS Data

What exactly is GPS data, and how is it derived?

GPS, which stands for the Global Positioning System, is a satellite-based navigation system that allows any user with a GPS receiver to determine their precise location (latitude, longitude, and altitude) anywhere on Earth. The foundation of this system is a constellation of approximately 24 satellites orbiting the Earth.

GPS data is essentially geospatial information gathered from these satellites. When a GPS receiver attempts to determine its location, it starts by scanning for signals from nearby satellites. Once it connects to at least four satellites, the receiver can determine its precise location through a process called trilateration. This process involves measuring the time it takes for a signal to travel from the satellite to the receiver, and by comparing this timing data from multiple satellites, the receiver can pinpoint its exact position.

It's important to note that while the fundamental coordinates (latitude, longitude, and altitude) make up the core of GPS data, additional information, such as travel speed, direction, and timestamp, can also be included. This richer dataset is especially valuable in applications beyond basic navigation, including in industries such as logistics, real estate, and even agriculture.

How does GPS data differ from other geolocation data sources?

Geolocation, as a broader domain, encompasses various methodologies to determine a device or individual's location. While GPS is satellite-based, other geolocation methods rely on terrestrial infrastructure or different principles.

For instance, cell tower triangulation uses the known locations of cell towers and the signal strength from these towers to a device to estimate its location. Another method, Wi-Fi positioning, calculates location based on the proximity to known Wi-Fi hotspots. These methods, although efficient, might not achieve the level of accuracy that GPS offers, especially in more open or rural terrains.

GPS data, due to its satellite-based nature, remains consistent across the globe. Its precision doesn't waver significantly whether you're in the heart of a city or in the middle of a desert. However, it's worth noting that in dense urban environments with tall buildings (often referred to as "urban canyons") or deep indoors, GPS signals can sometimes be weak or reflective, and alternative methods like Wi-Fi positioning might offer better results.

Are there concerns about privacy with the use of GPS data?

Absolutely. With the granularity and precision that GPS data provides, privacy concerns are paramount. Tracking an individual's movements can reveal intimate details about their life—places they frequent, the people they meet, their daily routines, and more.

For businesses and applications leveraging GPS data, it's critical to ensure robust data handling and protection practices. Ensuring that the data is anonymized and aggregated can help reduce privacy risks. Moreover, many jurisdictions are putting in place stringent regulations regarding the collection, storage, and dissemination of personal location data. Such regulations might require explicit user consent before collecting GPS data and clear transparency regarding how this data will be used.

It's also worth noting that with advancements in technology and location analytics, even anonymized datasets can sometimes be de-anonymized by correlating them with other publicly available data. This raises further concerns about ensuring the robustness of anonymization techniques.

How reliable is GPS data, and are there conditions where it may not be accurate?

GPS data, by design, is incredibly reliable. Its satellite-based architecture ensures global consistency and a high degree of accuracy, often pinpointing a location within a few meters.

However, like all technologies, GPS isn't infallible. Its accuracy can be compromised in certain conditions or environments. For instance, urban canyons—areas surrounded by tall buildings—can cause signal reflections, making it difficult for a GPS receiver to triangulate its exact position. Dense forests or areas with significant overhead obstructions can similarly impede signal reception.

Atmospheric conditions, satellite clock errors, and multipath interference (where signals bounce off surfaces before reaching the receiver) can also introduce inaccuracies. However, modern GPS systems often employ techniques like Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) to correct for such errors, ensuring a high degree of precision in most situations.

For applications where utmost accuracy is paramount, such as surveying or critical transport operations, differential GPS (DGPS) might be used. DGPS employs ground-based reference stations to provide corrections to the GPS signal, achieving accuracies within centimeters.

In summary, while GPS data is generally highly reliable, understanding its limitations and the conditions that can affect its accuracy is crucial for those leveraging this technology in various applications.

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