OpenSignalMaps: Mapping the world’s signal strength

By June 1st, 2011 at 9:45 am | Comments (5)

OpenSignalMaps: Mapping the world's signal strength

OpenSignalMaps: Mapping the world’s signal strength

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?
James Robinson is the lead Android developer on the OpenSignalMaps team

James Robinson is the lead Android developer on the OpenSignalMaps team

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.

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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.

  • Jerry

    I question whether you shouldn’t create a Mac/Windows/Linux app to assist in this?  Data cards are growing like crazy and you could leverage that growth for an even better representation of antenna access…

  • http://twitter.com/opensignalmaps OpenSignalMaps

    Thanks Jerry, it’s something we’re considering. It’s also possible with some browsers (later versions of firefox) to access wifi information, that would allow us to build a neat cross platform web based app. Currently we’re working on iPhone and Blackberry apps, so those are the top priorities. James

  • http://twitter.com/paulbrichardson Paul Richardson

    Very interesting. It seems to me that a key element of the value of this would be reliable and comprehensive ‘zero’ records. This would best be done automatically. Will the app enable the phone to ‘remember’ where it had zero signal, in order to upload the record later?

  • http://twitter.com/opensignalmaps OpenSignalMaps

    Hi Paul, 
    The app does record zero points. If you look at the bottom of our network coverage maps you’ll see we have listed the number of zero points that the app has recorded for that network:
    http://opensignalmaps.com/network-coverage-maps/att-coverage-map.php
    We will soon have a map with these black spots plotted. 
    Thanks for the feedback – let us know if there is anything else you’d like to see!
    Sam

  • http://twitter.com/opensignalmaps OpenSignalMaps

    Excellent point! Zero records are far more interesting than records of good signal. The app logs all its measurements to a database on the phone, it uploads periodically (default is to upload over wifi to save people using up their data plan), so it doesn’t require any data connection or any sort of signal to run.