City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

As the result of some conversations about a month ago, Arup have been commissioned by the State Library of Queensland to do some analysis of their free wi-fi service, which runs throughout their Infozone and Knowledge Walk areas.

I’ll be doing research there next week, looking at usage patterns from various quantitative and qualitative perspectives, some analysis of how the variability of wi-fi maps onto the informal use of space enabled by the Library’s open design, some benchmarking against best practice in terms of denoting the presence of public wi-fi, some technical discussions. That kind of thing.

I’m keen to explore new ways of discerning spatial usage patterns, including software-based analysis of video If possible. Otherwise, it’ll be students, counting.

I’m also keen to explore some interesting ways of visualising the use of wi-fi mapped onto use of space. Whilst thoughts on the methodology and sketches of representations are ticking over nicely I thought I’d ask readers if there are any interesting examples of similar research that we should be aware of. In return, I’ll post some observations on methodology and visualisations afterwards (IP-permitting, and with the Library’s approval of course.)

I know of two studies in particular. Paul Torrens’ work on ‘wi-fi geographies’, which layers signal strength data over Geographical Information Systems (GIS), usually for urban-scale spaces such as this visualisation of wi-fi access points in Salt Lake City:


I quite like the visualisation of a wi-fi cloud hanging over the city (see movie here, about half-way through) though I’m not sure how actually meaningful the representation is. Additionally, I’m dealing with a microcosm of this space, rather than an aggregation of numerous wi-fi access points across a city.

Then there’s Andres Sevtsuk, Sonya Huang, Francesco Calabrese, and Carlo Ratti's work with the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT (see “Mapping the MIT Campus in Real-time Using WiFi” (in Foth 2008, full ref. below.) Their work focused on mapping usage of the campus-wide wi-fi network, using a system (iSPOTS) which observed the volume of traffic emanating from the numerous wireless access points. This gave them a way of producing images of the blooms of wi-fi coverage across the campus (incidentally, nice axonometric view reminds me of Stirling, Archigram etc.), as well as graphs mapping the amount of usage at different times of the day.




Both interesting approaches. Any others?

I'm also interesting in surveying best practice in denoting the presence of wi-fi. This is an interesting area, as – obviously – wi-fi is invisible, so the service is usually denoted by the presence of people with open laptops, and/or small signs, for which a universal language has not quite emerged. Perhaps both of these indicators are fine, but are there better alternatives?




I know, c/o Fabien Girardin, of Orange Innovation's idea of faux-bamboo wi-fi signal strength indicators, which would actually fit in quite well from a local flora point-of-view, while also indicating the variability of wireless signal. Strikes me you could also look to communicate speed (in a non-technical sense), or use a proxy like number of users currently connected, as a way of indicating the likely levels of service before you flip open your laptop.


But do you know of other interesting, robust, useful and beautiful ways of communicating the key facets of a wi-fi network (presence, availability, speed etc.)? If so, please add to the comments below, and many thanks.

Sevtsuk, A., Huang, S., Calabrese, F., & Ratti, C. (2008, in
press). Mapping the MIT Campus in Real-time Using WiFi. In M. Foth
(Ed.), Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and
Promise of the Real-Time City
. Hershey, PA: Information Science
Reference, IGI Global. ISBN 978-1-60566-152-0.
State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, Donovan Hill Peddle Thorp, plus some notes on libraries in general


6 responses to “Sketchbook: Post-occupancy evaluations of public wi-fi”

  1. kiskarakter Avatar

    I’d like to mention Aether Architecture’s Wifi camera (by Adam Somlai-Fischer, Usman Haque, Bengt Sjölen) It’s at
    It’s more to the low-tech & art-tech side, but I think it’s exactly what you mentioned by “denoting the presence of wi-fi” 🙂


  2. Timo Avatar

    Good summary Dan, and some lovely to see the ‘wi-fi geographies’ work.
    The visual representation and communication of invisible interaction affordances is becoming more and more important to us. You might have seen Ingeborg’s work from last year, fictional visions of various wireless technologies.
    I would point to Dunne & Raby’s early visualisation work in Tunable Cities (nasty javascript resize alert) as one of the canonical references, albeit entirely fictional.
    Semiconductor’s Magnetic Movie is a pure example of beautiful visualisation, behaviour and motion.
    Then there is the scientific/engineering approach, which uses robots, sensors and then simulation tools, which I also find quite fascinating.
    From an academic perspective there is also ‘The spatial character of sensor technology’ by Reeves et al (2006) that studies camera/torch based interactions. This is a starting point perhaps for looking at other sensor technology.
    As far as best practice in denoting the presence of wi-fi, I’m documenting all the forms that I can find of visible, situated signage for interactive affordances. There is clearly a lot more documentation to do!


  3. lauren Avatar

    funnily enough, i’m more excited about the bamboo signal strength indicators that i am about straight-up “wi-fi was here kind of signage”.
    i’m quite enjoying this period of not-quite -there-yet development for a universal code for this kind of ‘space’ – where human behaviour is still the primary indicator. especially as it sets up possibilities for the kind of interaction you talked about: see someone with a laptop and either set up and see, or ask them. some of the kindest public interactions i had in london were ‘is the wifi working for you?’ kind of conversations.
    also, it poses the question of whether we’re aiming for completely wi-fi enabled cities, in which case, there’s no need to develop long-term cohesive signage, as we’ll just assume there’s wi-fi.


  4. Ben Kraal Avatar


    I’m keen to explore new ways of discerning spatial usage patterns, including software-based analysis of video If possible. Otherwise, it’ll be students, counting.
    While the software and hardware exists to “see” people in spaces, you need video, which is problematic unless you can get good coverage of the space.
    Then, you’d need to configure the software. Spotting/counting people isn’t too hard. Spotting/counting people who are using a space is much harder (cf Adam Greenfield’s recents posts on context vs location).
    In short, I think students counting is a better, cheaper, faster bet.
    OTOH, I can drum up a few names and email them to you. 🙂


  5. Stan Lee Avatar

    I’d never though about the invisibility of WiFi before. We take radio, TV and mobile signals for granted. But WiFi?
    I really became aware of it when I got my iPhone. There’s a real sense of excitement when the 3g signal indicator switches to a WiFi signal.
    It’s as if I am an explorer uncovering things that have lain hidden for years. I expect that by the time my kids have grown up WifFi will be as ubiquitous as all the other invisible signals.


  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks all.
    Ben, I was planning to use CCTV footage and chuck it through iOmniscient, but of course CCTV footage is bound up in all kinds of legal scenarios. So not so easy to get, even when the Library ‘owns’ it, despite the opportunity it would’ve afforded. So I ended up using the firm TTM, who did a good job.
    Fully understand what you’re saying about using versus counting – but I basically lived in the space for 3 days, so I think I have a decent idea now. This job was an inital observation really, so no time/budget to go deeper than that, sadly. Still, many fascinating patterns emerged.


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