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Baidu uses millions of users’ location data to make predictions
July 28, 2016 News

China’s internet giant, has shown what you can learn when you have access to enough location data.

The firm’s Big Data Lab in Beijing has used billions of location records from its 600 million users as a lens to view the Chinese economy. It has tracked the flux of people around offices and shops as a proxy measurement for employment and consumption activity. The lab even used the data to predict Apple’s second quarter revenue in China.

Location data has already proved useful for purposes such as keeping tabs on population movements and the spread of disease. This is the first time that a company the size of Baidu – similar to Facebook or Google – has shown what it is capable of doing with the data from their huge user bases, giving these firms enormous power and insight that they don’t typically talk about.

The researchers hand-labelled thousands of areas of interest – offices, shopping centres and industrial zones – across China. Then they studied location data from the end of 2014 to the middle of 2016 to see how many people were at those places at each time, and how that changed through the year.

The data presents a bird’s-eye view of Chinese society. For example, it captures a large shoe factory in south-east China closing down in early 2016 – the area of the factory, once buzzing with location traces, suddenly emptying like an abandoned beehive.

The data also shows success and growth. The number of people going to a Beijing technology park doubled from 2014 to now, while attendance at a start-up’s offices skyrocketed after it won investment in mid-2015

Baidu has collated the data to build an employment index for China, a number that reflects the state of the labour market by tracking how many people visit industrial, manufacturing and technology zones. This shows that since 2014, China’s manufacturing employment has dipped by around 10 per cent, while high-tech employment has grown slightly.

“Baidu used the number of visits to Apple Stores to predict the company’s Chinese revenue“

A similar index for consumption measures changes in shopper footfall. Baidu used the number of visits to Apple Stores to predict that Apple’s Chinese revenue for the second quarter of 2016 would be down 20 per cent over the previous year – roughly in line with Apple’s published results.

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