Ashley Smith-Hammond

WiFi technology now allows organisations and service providers to track people's location in realtime using their phone. Sounds simple (and perhaps a little scary!) but the potential benefits from doing so are real.

For audiences and visitors, there’s the ease with which they can receive tailored content and an improved experience based on where they are, allowing them to access information about their surroundings in a few quick swipes. On the other hand, arts venues, museums and galleries (leading the way at the moment) are provided with streams of data about how their space is really being used and how it can be improved.

This opens up exciting new possibilities for cultural institutions constantly striving to make the best use their venues. It’s an area where museums and art galleries have traditionally relied on tools like surveys or clickers to gauge visitor numbers or how people interact with new exhibitions or events. Technological advances are taking things a stage beyond that – in terms of convenience and a depth of spatial information.

How does it work?

This technology relies on the WiFi beacons that are now found in many public spaces. Platforms by companies like Cisco and Polkaspots allow beacons to detect the signals from users’ devices and map their location. This works even if users aren’t connected to your institution’s WiFi network.

What this means is that you can now gather reliable data on how people use your spaces; how they move from one area to another; how long they spend in one place and how many are actually taking advantage of your WiFi service.

The data collected can be displayed as visually-accessible heatmaps or with precise locations, colour-coded to show which devices are connected.


The National Railway Museum in York is among the institutions to have already deployed this technology. Gizmodo’s research into the museum’s pilot showed a 96% correlation between the number of WiFi devices detected and the actual number of people in the museum.

Feeding the raw data into their software revealed insights like how long people stayed in one area (‘dwell time’), where they got there from and where they went next. Data also showed details about repeat visits and how people used the museum on an ongoing basis.

Think of it as Google Analytics but for the real world.

Privacy and Protection

As with any new data collection tool, privacy will be front-of-mind for arts organisations and many members of the public when they find out that institutions can track their movements. Look no further than the controversy surrounding Google’s Street View service.

Recent media coverage reminds us that cultural institutions aren’t immune from scrutiny and will need to tread carefully if they do make use of this kind of technology.

It’s worth revisiting the ICO’s Data Protection Principles as a reminder on processing data in a fair and relevant way. A critical first step here is to anonymise any data you do collect.

Our advice? Remain open and transparent, and emphasise the positives for visitors. Trendwatching identifies ‘big brother brands’ as one of the top five trends for 2017, but argues that people welcome brands that provide ever more personalised experiences.

Perhaps there’s a way forward in catering to both, with transparency as your watchword. Let audiences know what technology you’re using and how they can opt in or out of it. But take things one step further and remind them why you’re doing this: to improve their experience within your cultural space.

Main image credit: Rome Photo Heatmap 2 by John Kelly (CC BY 2.0)