Museums are tracking visitors through their WiFi… to see what’s popular

News has come to light that several large institutions in the UK have been monitoring people through their smartphone WiFi connections so they can tell which exhibits are popular.

Technology website Gizmodo has discovered that three of Britain’s most popular institutions – the National Gallery and Natural History Museum in London, as well as York’s National Railway Museum – have been tracking their visitors, after logging a Freedom of Information request.

The Natural History Museum, London. Image credit: Unsplash (Licensed for use under Creative Commons 0.)

The museums have said that this data will be used to reduce congestion and improve layouts, but concerns have been raised about the institutions accessing visitors’ devices without their knowledge.

Using the anonymous data code emitted by WiFi enabled devices, the tracking system can use this data to estimate visitor’s location within the building.

The data collected can trace the patterns in the flow of visitors within the museum, giving an insight into how visitors interact with the space, such as how long they stop and look at a particular painting or what time of day is the busiest in certain areas.

WiFi is common to many public spaces nowadays, made easier by the SuperConnected cities WiFi initiative, which has been funded by the DCMS. This is great if you want to check information whilst you’re out and about, but what you might not realise is that the beacons can pick up signals from anyone who has their WiFi switched on – even if you’re not connected to the museum’s network.

Many have raised concerns about the privacy issues this imparts, with Gizmodo calling it a “slightly Orwellian turn”.

Image credit: Unsplash (Licensed for use under Creative Commons Zero.)

Whilst WiFi tracking is still in its infancy, tracking visitors via technology is not new. The Louvre in Paris has been tracking visitors using sophisticated Bluetooth technology for several years already, as part of a study into visitors’ behaviour.

Those behind the Louvre study claim that museums suffer from ‘hypercongestion’ – where the number of visitors in the museum is more than the capacity of the museum. This can have a negative effect on visitors’ experience, especially if certain areas are continually too crowded. Problems like this can be addressed by managing the flow of people between the museum’s spaces, but a detailed map of visitor behaviour is needed to create a solution.

To fully understand what is happening within their museum, personnel can either rely on questionnaires filled out by visitors at the end of their visit, or by observing visitor behaviour. While these might be good ways to find out visitor demographics, tracking can provide curators with an accurate analysis of how visitors interact with the space.

Looking at data from the Louvre, the congestion patterns show that it’s an incredibly popular tourist destination, yet the increasing number of visitors could be detrimental to the quality of the museum experience for others. Museums are expected to achieve seemingly contradictory aims at the same time: firstly, to increase (and maintain) the number of visitors, and secondly, to enhance the quality of the visiting experience by maintaining a healthy flow of visitors.

The use of this technology is not confined to heritage sites. It has been implemented in airports, shopping centres, and even on the London Underground. Transport for London use the software to look into how they can improve their services. For users/visitors it could result in improved layouts of museums, institutions, transport hubs and other public places, but the potential for prying is very real if the tech isn’t used with privacy in mind.

Is this news enough to make you think twice about leaving your WiFi switched on in public places?


 Header image licensed for use under Creative Commons Zero.