Open Access Open Badges Methodology

Detecting activity locations from raw GPS data: a novel kernel-based algorithm

Benoit Thierry1, Basile Chaix23 and Yan Kestens14*

Author Affiliations

1 Montreal University Hospital Research Center (CRCHUM), Pavillon Masson - 218 3850, St-Urbain, Montreal, H2W 1T7, Canada

2 Inserm, Paris, U707, France

3 Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris6, Paris, UMR-S 707, France

4 Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada

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International Journal of Health Geographics 2013, 12:14  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-12-14

Published: 16 March 2013



Health studies and mHealth applications are increasingly resorting to tracking technologies such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to study the relation between mobility, exposures, and health. GPS tracking generates large sets of geographic data that need to be transformed to be useful for health research. This paper proposes a method to test the performance of activity place detection algorithms, and compares the performance of a novel kernel-based algorithm with a more traditional time-distance cluster detection method.


A set of 750 artificial GPS tracks containing three stops each were generated, with various levels of noise.. A total of 9,000 tracks were processed to measure the algorithms’ capacity to detect stop locations and estimate stop durations, with varying GPS noise and algorithm parameters.


The proposed kernel-based algorithm outperformed the traditional algorithm on most criteria associated to activity place detection, and offered a stronger resilience to GPS noise, managing to detect up to 92.3% of actual stops, and estimating stop duration within 5% error margins at all tested noise levels.


Capacity to detect activity locations is an important feature in a context of increasing use of GPS devices in health and place research. While further testing with real-life tracks is recommended, testing algorithms’ performance with artificial track sets for which characteristics are controlled is useful. The proposed novel algorithm outperformed the traditional algorithm under these conditions.

Global Positioning System (GPS); Activity location detection; Kernel-based algorithm; Neighbourhood effects; MHealth; Activity space