It wouldn’t be a festival without a data dump from one of the big Chinese tech firms. Alibaba marked Qixi or “China’s Valentine’s Day” with the release of some whimsical maps of where singles live in Chinese cities and where people go on dates. Delve a little deeper and the group is profiling its users across all platforms to determine whether or not they’re single and using location data for our amusement.

The maps of Beijing, Hangzhou (Alibaba’s hometown), Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Chengdu were widely circulated in Chinese media yesterday, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month which is Qixi in China, a festival also celebrated in Japan and South Korea. Alibaba Group’s PR team marked the occasion with its “Qixi Singles’ Survival Guide” (七夕单身人士生存指南), intended as an amusing way to get coverage for promotions under the guise of helping singles avoid areas thronging with loved up couples.

Shanghai at Qixi: pink hearts for couples, blue TMall logo cat heads for singles (Image credit: Alibaba Group)
Shanghai at Qixi: pink hearts for couples, blue TMall logo cat heads for singles (Image credit: Alibaba Group)

The maps are of some demographic interest. In Beijing, it’s the northwest of the city (where the universities are) that has the highest concentration of singles, also because that area has the technology districts. Hangzhou has a similar concentration of singles in its large tech zones. Beijing’s smug marrieds, to quote Bridget Jones, are happily settled closer into town, within the Second Ring road. This is a pattern also seen in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Chengdu—couples live in the main residential areas. Shanghai and Shenzhen’s singles are more scattered across the cities while Beijing and Chengdu have tighter concentrations. Shanghai’s main area of single people turns out to be People’s Park, world-famous for the marriage market run by their parents.

30% of Taobao users are single (Image credit: Alibaba Group)
30% of Taobao users are single (Image credit: Alibaba Group)

Across Tmall and Taobao, Alibaba has identified via anonymous filtering that 150 million (or 30%) of its account holders are single people. On average, Taobao users opened the app 7.2 times a day in 2016 according to Alibaba. If their location service settings are set to “always” or even just “while using the app” then the company can gather rich location data, enabling the profiling to be crossed against location data to create useful targeting segments.

What we don’t know is whether the company identifies individuals who are thought to be in couples via their purchases and plots their individual location, or whether it is working out which two users have formed a couple and tracks their locations when they are together to create the maps. The former would mean the users could just be with friends or alone, the latter suggests just how much our friends at Alibaba know about us and those around us. It is more likely, perhaps, that Alibaba is tracking the types of purchase, including special deals for singles or couples, to determine who is who.

Either way, this data, when plotted on maps, reveals that when people in couples go out courting, in Beijing, they head to the Solana mall, Golden Resources Mall, Beijing Zoo, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and even the Forbidden City. Shanghai couples go the zoo too, as well as Disneyland and Fudan University.

Single people have less spending power across Alibaba, though probably because they’re just much younger. Customers generate points by spending across the e-commerce sites plus the group’s travel and ticketing outlets such as Fliggy. Of users with under 1,000 points a year, 60% are single. The proportion of singles drops to just 4% of the super users, those with 1,000 to 2,500 points who have significantly more spending power.

When it comes to spending for the Qixi holiday, Alibaba has revealed that male users are predictably hopeless at knowing what to buy, with their 280,000 searches for “gifts for girlfriend” vastly outnumbering “gifts for boyfriend”.

A reporter at Beijing Morning Post found out a little about Alibaba’s own private life (in Chinese) for once: at Alibaba’s Xixi Campus in Hangzhou, around 60% of staff are married and the roughly 30% of singles are concentrated at TMall and new retail projects.

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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