User location data could support satellite launches

June 23, 2016  - By

Let’s look through the other end of the telescope this month. The satellites are nattering along, lining up in orderly fashion at the rocket pad, extending their solar arms smoothly in space once they arrive on orbit. The constellations accrue and new signals inch closer to maturity.

The only blips on the horizon come from Ligado’s terrestrial impulse and a looming gap in GPS ground control. Just possibly, the latter might coincide with activation of the full European constellation and Galileo could come to the rescue of suitably equipped users who hunger for greater accuracy. This has been Galileo’s raison d’etre for two decades now, and it may actually be on the cusp of coming true.

At any rate, back to the telescope’s other end. What might that be? Facebook.

FB_Location-W“When you think back to the beginning of online advertising, this is what advertisers have been waiting for.” That is Facebook’s director of monetization product marketing — an actual job title, and a powerful one in time to come.

All this — what advertisers have been waiting for — is made possible by GPS. Soon, by all GNSS. And by your smartphone.

From a GNSS Design & Test point of view, this means we are about to see some real money come available for constellations. Fast-multiplying applications of position, navigation and timing data have always shaped GNSS evolution, to some degree. Making this latest development different by a degree of magnitude is its potential to alter the way GNSS policy is shaped and the way GNSS funding is provided.

Facebook will soon roll out a new Store Visits metric for business clients: location data and purchases correlated to Facebook ad performance. Partnerships with point-of-sale systems like Square and Marketo will “prove” (let’s use that word loosely for now) who bought what after seeing Facebook ads.

The way the company tells it, “While people use mobile in 45 percent of all shopping journeys, more than 90% of sales still happen in brick-and-mortar businesses.”

Even if you don’t buy something, Facebook will know that you — assuming, and this is a big jump, that you are a Facebook user — visited a store by aligning GPS, beacon, Wi-Fi and other radio-frequency signals and cell-tower locations with brick-and-mortar coordinates. You may not be a Facebook user, but I’ll bet one of your loved ones is.

With the new feature, instead of having to (gasp!) leave Facebook to visit an unfamiliar website for a store locator, users can view the address, hours, phone number and estimated travel time without exiting the social network.


I know people who rarely or never leave Facebook. Do you? This is a plus for them.

Facebook, one of the new corporate mega-giants, duels with Google, Apple and Microsoft over various pieces of digital turf. One of the most hotly contested treasures — the Holy Grail, in marketing execs’ terms — is the capture and use of user data. It is getting more than a little bit creepy.

To date, the even-bigger giant that is advertising has used metrics such as ad views and clicks to measure effectiveness: how much an ad actually inspires purchase or response to other calls to action. I know this because I use these metrics, or someone in my organization does. Such metrics are now deemed “flimsy” by the standards of aligning GPS, beacon, Wi-Fi data and so on as outlined above.

Facebook is not alone in exploring the fertile ground. Google recently launched ads that show maps of nearby locations, and the others surely do not lag far behind. For the moment, these massive integrators aggregate and anonymize the data to protect privacy, but that’s not to guarantee they would always do so. Currently, there’s no specific opt-out other than turning off location services for the app on the user’s device, which people might be reluctant to do if it degrades other app functionality.

Let’s shield our eyes from the dark side for the moment, and consider what this means for GNSS.

We, you and I, those of us in the PNT industry, have known for some time how integral to critical infrastructure GPS is and GNSS soon will be. But the vast public does not. And lawmakers, bless their little hearts, largely do not either. That will change when the desperate craving of large companies to reach billions of buyers enters the PNT arena.

We can envision mega-marketing bolstered by alliance with the transportation industry, both ground and air, as driverless vehicles and drones become more commonplace. With powerful lobbying interests behind it, GPS might finally get some respect, and other systems around the world with it. Modernization might proceed more smoothly and quickly, without funding hiccups and capability gaps. That’s the bright side of all this.

It reminds me of nothing so much as an old rock’n’roll song. In “Top of the Pops,” the Kinks sang:

Now my agent called me on the telephone
He said, son your record’s just got to number 1
And you know what this means?

This means you can earn some real money.

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.