At OpenSignalMaps, we’re mapping cell signal strength and wifi access points. Through our Android application, 400,000 users have submitted readings — from the remote island of Svalbard north of Norway to Ushaia, the world’s southernmost town, our maps are filling out. We’re building an impartial view of the world’s networks.
For many people, a smartphone will be their first “computer.” Smartphones are cheaper than netbooks, use less electricity, and you can make calls if you have signal. But poor signal or low network speed (another thing the mobile app measures) can make smartphones pretty dumb.
Using our Android app (the iPhone & Blackberry apps in development), we’re building a comprehensive and unbiased map of global networks. Previously, coverage maps have been provided by carriers who have their own interests to serve. We think it’s crucial to give an independent account of the carriers, and the citizen scientists who use the app are helping us determine which network is best for any geographical region.
The app is not just about helping consumers choose their network provider. Wireless access is as much a part of modern infrastructure as roads, and it’s essential to the transport of data. While it is vital that we map roads and other lines of communication, it is also vital that we map access to telephone and network data. So, apart from comparing carriers, here are some other questions we hope to answer:
- Which countries need to develop their wireless infrastructure?
- Are some phones better at picking up signal than others?
- Is there a correlation between areas of declining bee populations and areas of strong signal strength?
- In areas of high network competition, do we see better signal?
- What proportion of our lives do we spend within reach of the web?
- What does the distribution of signal look like? Is it fair?
On this last question, it has been pointed out that, based on our data, the distribution of wireless access points is roughly “pareto“. This means that 80% of the world’s wireless access pointss are within the reach of just 20% of the population. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done to bring rural communities and developing countries to the same level of access as the most developed cities.
Smartphones and citizen science have a bright future. Within one device, you can fit a wealth of tools in your pocket: camera, GPS, accelerometer, and microphone. More than this: smartphones can aggregate data and send it via the web. Phone cameras, gyroscopes, and GPS could be used to build crowd-sourced telescopes. With the barometer on Motorola’s Xoom, pressure data could be collected on an unprecedented scale to build a weather prediction engine. If you can build an engaging mobile app, you can start a citizen science project.
We don’t know of any experiments before the year 2000 which could claim 400,000 technicians, or that could have taken readings from all over the world without a budget of millions of dollars. With the advent of mobile apps and websites like ScienceForCitizens, we’re confident this is going to change.
This guest post was written by James Robinson, lead Android developer on the OpenSignalMaps team. OpenSignalMaps was founded by four friends who saw the need for an independent means of comparing cell phone carriers. James holds a Master’s degree in Physics and Philosophy from Oxford University.