Is time more valuable than distance in location-based data?

November 3, 2015

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The majority of businesses and mapping software programs use distance to define and deliver geographical information. So why is this a bad thing? Because distance-based analysis doesn’t reflect the way real people think.

Locations are only relevant to a business or consumer when put into context. Distance analysis or location-based search filtering doesn’t understand that people use different modes of transportation. Nor does it take into account congestion on roads and public transportation at different times of day. In fact, a lot of distance-based search filters assume we can travel ‘as the crow flies’.

Time is the only metric that can take into account how we really travel. A mile could take five or 50 minutes, but travelling for a minute will always be the same. When filtering search results by time, customers can immediately know which suggestions are the most desirable. Location-based business decisions become more accurate when using time. In this article, I’ll show you how you can begin using time rather than distance, and why it will impact your business’ bottom line.

If time is so great, why is everyone using distance?

Time is harder to calculate than distance; it requires a lot more data and coordination. When searching miles radius, all that’s required is the distance between an origin and each result. Time requires information on routing, the speed of travel, average walking speeds, timetables, expected congestion rates and more.

Getting over the time hurdle

There are 3 ways you can analyse location data by time: create an API from scratch, request that your web developer designs this or license the API directly from a provider.

To create your own time search mechanism, use web scraping to gather transport data, location data and data for any modes of transportation that you’d like to assess. For this, you’ll need dedicated development time for data screening so that no erroneous data affects the accuracy of the search. Developers will then need to generate an algorithm that generates a multi-polygon — a shape that draws a perimeter around ‘X minutes radius’ rather than ‘X miles radius’. This allows all latitude and longitude data points within the shape to be returned.

The key to receiving an excellent time search platform from your developers is providing them with an excellent brief. In it, you’ll need to specify how accurate the timings need to be, as they’ll need to source data if it’s for:

  • Real-time data, to account for traffic accidents and delays as well as roadwork
  • Accurate timetable data based on routes and congestion levels
  • Average travel time data that doesn’t take into account differing levels across the day

If you don’t want to create a platform from scratch, there are APIs that can help you out. At iGeolise, our team focuses on delivering a fast and accurate search. Licenses are available for consumer-facing sites or location-based strategic analysis. Others that provide time-based analysis include Pitney Bowes, Map Mechanics and Javelin Group.

Time vs. distance

The most common mistake using distance-based analysis is for locations to be identified as suitable when, in fact, they’re inaccessible. As it can’t understand built up areas, one-way streets and rivers, it delivers erroneous information. It also ignores that we’ve developed brilliant systems to get from A to B quickly, meaning that places within easy reach can be ignored if they’re further away.

Comparing a time-based search at 7:45 a.m. from London’s Waterloo station to a miles radius circle. On average, 50 percent of relevant results are ignored, while 50 percent of the miles results delivered are hard to reach. ( Image)

 How to implement it

Time is more important to customers in a variety of areas: hotel search, finding a venue to meet friends, office relocation, targeting direct marketing efforts, defining new retail locations and lots more. Here is how a few currently do it.

A property search by Travel Timeenables house hunters to find their ideal home by entering their office location, maximum commute time and preferred transportation mode. ( Image)

The UK-based job search company, Jobsite, created an appthat helps job seekers shorten their commute by listing jobs by travel time. ( Image)

 VisitBritain’s site helps tourists understand the UK like a local with their "What’s Nearby" search, filtering the options by walking and public transportation. ( Image)

Concluding thoughts

Time provides more relevant location results, as it takes into account the context of the landscape, providing a more human way of understanding maps. As the process of acquiring, managing and maintaining time data is more complex than distance, organizations should fit their time search method to their goals and capabilities.


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