Big data

In many sectors, there is a need for data and information to better understand the business and the environment, and take the right decisions. Tourism is no exception to this rule : we are all searching for the right information, and the number and type of visitors is certainly one of the main figures to look at.

Even if our National Statistics Offices provide us with data on visitor numbers, origin and sometimes purpose of trip, this provides only a limited, high-level view : very little information on day visitors (if any), mostly limited to official and commercial accomodation, figures based on types of accomodation… Of course, we can amplify this basic information with surveys which go into much more detail, and go beyond what is provided. These surveys are very important to us as they can be very detailed, measuring expenses, activities, reason for visit, source of information, … but they are quite expensive and focus on large groups of populations.

With the development of technology, a new type of information came to the market: Big Data, i.e. gathering and analysing the highly numerous trails that people leave from their use of technology. Social network posts are of course an important source of Big Data, but these are biased to a certain group of the population (the people that have the technology and use it), even if this group is constantly growing. But recently, telecom companies have discovered that important Big Data information can be extracted from the use of mobile phones, not only the calls that are made or received but also the “technical” information like connections to antennae which can be used to locate people.

And tourism is certainly one of the sectors most interested in this data. That is what we covered in Brussels in our discussions with Proximus, the largest telecom operator in Belgium. They understood our need for reliable information, and were able to respond to it. We together launched a project to use mobile phone information to obtain a better understanding of visitors coming to public events and going to touristic spots in the city.

Since December 2014, they have been providing us with daily, and even hourly, figures on visitors in 10 areas of the city and events locations, with the details that the methodology permits:

  • How many visitors come to an event or to an area ? “Visitors” exclude people living or working there and the transit traffic of people “just” passing by.
  • Where do they come from ? Which country, which region/province/municipality for nationals ?
  • Did they stay overnight or come for the day ?
  • How many days did they stay ? How many hours did they spend ?
  • What transport did they use ?
  • Where were the visitors going ?

As you can imagine, the applications are numerous, and can range from knowing the share of internationals at your events or analysing the spatial and temporal spread of visitors in your city, to confirming that the summer city beach fulfils its social purpose by welcoming people from the less fortunate part of your city…

Of course this does not explain everything but the value for money is attractive. You can additionally augment with surveys if necessary.

Oops… I was close to forgetting the most crucial point : the private life of mobile phones users. It is very important with this type of data to remain at a figure-only basis without any consumer information or the possibility of tracking down individuals, as this data is very powerful. No information can be based on invoicing or personal information.

In conclusion, this big data information based on mobile phones is very powerful and can answer a lot of questions about visitor behaviour and flows… I hope you will all be able to experience this in the future as we did. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions regarding this project in Brussels.

Frédéric Cornet
Manager Research & Development
Member of the ECM Research & Statistics Knowledge Group