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Location Marketing: London recycle bins track pedestrians as they pass

renew_title.jpgA very unique advertising service has recently run a test program which uses mobile wifi to track individual pedestrians as they walk down the street.

Although it clearly raises some issues around privacy, such technology would certainly open up some very interesting opportunities in marketing.

Renew is a UK based company that had the clever idea to install video screens on recycle bins throughout the central banking district of London. This area, known as the ‘square-mile’ is the work place of many, many, very affluent professionals, and therefore an excellent location for targeted marketing.


In return for permission to place the recycle bins on the public streets, Renew gives the city 5% of the advertising time for displaying public information.

Renew installed 100 of these internet-connected recycle bins just before the 2012 Olympics took place in London.


Recently Renew added a new technology which allows them to track certain pedestrians as they pass by. If the pedestrian has wifi turned on in their phone or other device, then the Renew unit captures a unique identifying number, called the MAC address, of that device. These ID numbers are then sent back to the company’s central servers.

Even though the MAC address does not allow Renew to know the actual identity of the passerby, by tracking these over time they can get some very valuable information such as:

  • has the person been in that location previously,
  • how often they come to that area,
  • which direction they are traveling,
  • how fast they are walking.


What could make this even more interesting would be if a local store also installed one of these recycle bins inside their shop. Then they would be able to, in essence, track their customers before and after they have been in the store! For example, as a customer is in the vicinity of a coffee shop, the screens on the relevant recycles bin could be triggered to display ads for that person.

Another possibility would be to install these devices in multiple points throughout a retail location. By installing one at the door, in each of the bathrooms, and in each of the main departments of a store, the retailer would be able to know how long the customer had stayed in the shop, perhaps their gender, as well as an idea of which products they are most interested in.

In the first month after installation, the company says that it picked up over 1 million unique devices. On the busiest day, the bins identified 106,629 people, taking note of their presence 946,016 times.. This chart from Renew, shows the readings over the course of a week from one recycling bin. Notice the spikes during commute times and lunch.


Of course this sort of non-opt-in tracking will raise debate about privacy issues (think Minority Report). People may argue that while using the MAC address by itself may be anonymous, linking this information with, for example, customer loyalty programs in a retailer might provide a way to fully track individual identities.

Renew itself is quite aware of these debates. CEO Kaveh Memari posted a personal note on the Renew blog, saying “… We wish to provide a functioning domestic service for the City of London and its inhabitants. We do not wish to detract from the company’s purpose, and always adhere to the ethical and lawful standards of the City…”

06.10.2013    Tags:
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