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

“Mapping the MIT Campus in Real-time Using WiFi”, by Sevtsuk, Huang, Calabrese, and Ratti

How to understand the interaction of wireless networks, physical space, and place

As the result of some conversations about a month ago, my team at 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. (Ed. This piece was first published at on 22 August 2008.)

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 my team and some students, counting.

(Ed. This work turned into a deeper strategic project with the State Library, mapping their wifi as if a physical structure, which led to a major expansion of the service, and triggered many subsequent strategic projects.)

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, the 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.


Where this work went next was a strategic project with the State Library, mapping their wifi as if a physical structure:

View at

Ed. This piece was first published at on 22 August 2008.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: