Exclusive: Here's What 3 Big Museums Learn By Tracking Your Phone

By James O Malley on at

At least three of Britain’s most popular cultural institutions have been tracking visitors using the wifi on their phones, Gizmodo UK can exclusively reveal. Following a series of Freedom of Information Requests, the National Gallery and Natural History Museums in London, as well as the National Railway Museum in York, have all revealed that they have tested or deployed tracking software - which could conceivably help curators and managers make decisions.

Back in February, we exclusively revealed the results of a wifi tracking study carried out by Transport for London (TfL). While an utterly fascinating implementation of the technology, TfL is far from the only organisation using the technology - with tracking becoming increasingly common in shopping centres and other public spaces.

Dippy the dinosaur, a previous resident of the Natural History Museum. Image Credit: Flickr.

According to the documents we’ve seen, it appears that both the Natural History Museum and National Railway Museum (which is now part of the Science Museum Group) is currently - or was previously - using Cisco software to track visitor locations. The National Gallery appears to be using - or have been previously using - software provided by a company called Polkaspots. And brilliantly, we’ve now got a pretty good idea how it all works. Read on to find out.

The National Gallery in London.

How It Works

Wifi is now common in most public places, but what you might not realise is that even if you don’t connect to the network, if the wifi on your phone (or any other device) is switched on, those same wifi beacons can detect your device. Then Cisco’s software will analyse which beacons can pick up your phone, compare the relative signal strength from each and use the data to estimate your location in the building.

Do this for everyone who has their wifi switched on, and before you know it you’ve got some really awesome maps like this below showing visitor locations in the National Railway Museum:

The map above shows visitors to the museum at a given moment. Each dot represents a mobile phone. Green for people who have connected to the wifi, and pink for people who have merely been detected by the museum’s wifi beacons.

Above you can see a heatmap of the museum - which is mostly made up of two large halls, the Great Hall (which contains a Japanese bullet train, and a replica of Stephenson’s rocket) and the Station Hall, which is home to a bunch of royal train carriages.

The system is similar for the National Gallery. Here’s a heatmap showing different spots in the Museum. Annoyingly the software they use overlays it onto Google Maps - and it appears that the Museum hasn’t done a deal with Google to get the insides detailed, like its neighbour the National Portrait Gallery has.

Though the Natural History Museum did confirm that it is using similar tracking technology, it didn’t release any cool maps, instead citing security concerns. So you’ll have to use your imagination, and presumably imagine a heat map in which the dinosaurs section is more densely packed than the Central Line at rush hour, but almost exclusively with screaming five year olds.

What Can Be Learned

So what’s the point in this? Other than the cool heatmaps?

According to this one slide from the Railway Museum, there was a 96% correlation between the number of wifi devices connected and the actual data on the number of people in the museum (presumably based on tickets). So knowing this, wifi data can be assumed to be reflective of the public at large - and so this data can offer further insights into how people actually move around the buildings, and how people consume what’s on offer.

For example, the National Gallery data was able to differentiate between people simply passing through individual locations and dwelling - which presumably means standing and staring at a few paintings, perhaps while stroking a beard or wondering why nobody in the olden days wore clothes.

During the National Gallery’s pilot it looked at data across two Mondays in June 2016 and was able to produce statistics on which rooms in the gallery were the most highly traffic’d. For example, on Monday 13th June 2016, the wifi data reveals that after the entrance and Central Hall, room number 9 was the most visited - this is the room containing paintings from Venice 1530-1600. This actually makes a lot of sense - because who doesn’t love Jacopo Tintoretto?

The Railway Museum’s analytics package appears to take this a step further - and reveals that most people spend around 93 minutes hanging around the museum as a whole - with 33.5% of visitors being the uber-nerds who spend over two hours looking at trains. Yes, I would probably be in this group.

The data can also reveal the routes people took around the museum - with this slide showing where visitors to each main hall came from - and where they went to after.

Similarly, the NRM was also able to use to the wifi data to track new and repeat visitors - who, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed very interested in a trip to one of the museum’s cafes.

It’s easy to imagine how this data could be used to improve the museum experience. For example, by building in better wayfinding through the often maze-like National Gallery. It could also be used to help figure out what it is that people are actually interested in - which displays and objects are attracting the most attention, or have the biggest dwell times. We all know that Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Water Lilies are going to draw a crowd, but are there lesser known works that are intriguing visitors?

It’s also easy to imagine how commercial companies - which are obviously not susceptible to annoying Freedom of Information emails - could use this technology. If our national cultural institutions are using this technology, you can sure as hell bet that our biggest shopping centres are too.

Other Museums?

At the moment, it appears to be relatively early days for wifi tracking in museums. Judging by the documents we’ve seen it appears that the NRM and National Gallery were using the technology only during short pilots - and it appears that only the NHM is using it full time. We’ve reached out to all three to ask for some clarification on whether the technology is currently being used.

And obviously when we realised that this was interesting we fired off an FOI request to every big museum or cultural institution we could think of - the range of responses is pretty interesting, and reflects how new and tentative this sort of technology is.

We thought it'd be weird to write about a railway museum without including a picture of a train. And let's face it,
if you've read this far then trains are probably relevant to your interests.

The Science Museum Group, which operates the National Railway Museum told us that of all of the group’s properties - including the big, famous Science Museum in South Kensington - only the York museum is currently equipped to track. It was was also keen to point out that all of the data was anonymised as you might expect it to be.

The British Museum told us that it doesn’t have any documents related to wifi tracking, because it doesn’t have the technology, and the Imperial War Museum revealed that it does not track visitors “at present” and that “this has not been discussed at a formal level”.

Perhaps the most interesting response came from the British Library, as it reflects the inevitable privacy concerns that this technology raises. Currently it doesn’t have the capability to track - though it almost installed it:

“An interactive art installation that might have used this type of technology was briefly considered last year for inclusion in our recent ‘Drawing the Line’ maps exhibition but it was dismissed as too intrusive to our visitors’ privacy; instead a camera-based and time-delayed heat mapping technology was used to create the artwork in question instead.”

We’ve reached out to all of the institutions featured in this piece to confirm their current arrangements, and will update this post should any of them get back to us.

Given the clear benefits it could bring to places like this though, it seems though that the wifi tracking of your movements is here to stay. If you’re a paranoid train enthusiast then perhaps it is time to upgrade to a tinfoil anorak.

Read More: Here's What TfL Learned From Tracking Your Phone On The Tube

James O’Malley is the Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.