Seattle WiFi Map Project

Students of COM300, Fall 2004
Basic Concepts of New Media
Dr. Philip Howard, Assistant Professor

Department of Communication

University of Washington

Alice Marwick, Teaching Assistant and Project Manager
(amarwick%u.washington.edu)

2/15/2005

In December 2004, 100 undergrads from a class offered by Department of Communication at the University of Washington set out to make a map of Seattle's WiFi networks. The students were enrolled in the course Basic Concepts of New Media, taught by an Assistant Professor in the Deparmtment, Dr. Philip Howard. As part of their lab work, students followed online instructions for war-driving, and the data they collected was used to generate maps of Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) distribution across the city's core neighborhoods.

SEE MAPS

Students organized themselves in groups of four, and armed with a laptop, WiFi card and a global positioning device, they patrolled the Seattle's central neighborhoods scanning for WiFi fields. On average, each group was assigned about 8 square blocks to cover. They used a program that recorded basic information about WiFi fields: the name of the field, whether it was set to be secure or set to be shared, whether it was commercial or free, and the strength of the signal. All of this information was recorded in a log file, along with the longitude and latitude coordinates provided by the GPS device. The log files, once uploaded to wifimaps.com, allowed software designer and WiFi expert Drew Celley to produce maps of our increasingly wired city.

The groups drove around each block in their area, with the GPS unit hooked up to a laptop with Wi-Fi card enabled, running a piece of software called Netstumbler. Netstumbler uses Wi-Fi and GPS to detect wireless networks in an area and associate them with a location (latitude & longitude). These can be open Wi-Fi connections (like the ones at internet cafes) or closed wi-fi connections (like in an office). This is not hacking and it is not illegal or shady in any way; it is just a method for detecting whether or not a connection is present.

Working in shifts over several weeks, the students slowly mapped the ethers. Sometimes it was a trial to get the equipment to work, but such trials were important learning experiences. Students valued the opportunity to get out into the city. For some it was their first experience using a laptop for more than word processing, and they reported getting a lot of 'street cred' with their more tech-savvy friends.

Connection Type
N
%
WEP Enabled
2323
44
Open, No WEP
2741
52
Free
na
na
Pay
161
3
Total
5225
100

The WiFi maps reveal some expected and unexpected things about the ethers of our city. Some of the poorer residential neighborhoods have fewer WiFi fields, and the downtown core is a wash with WiFi fields that are secured and private. Main streets also have commercial wireless internet fields, but you can see that between the main streets, many people seem to be sharing their wireless fields with their neighbors.

The data collected by students reveals a wireless profile roughly bounded by Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and Safeco Field. Although other hobbyists have been uploading data about WiFi fields, this is one of the largest collective efforts to map Seattle's wireless fields.

Researchers expected to find many unsecured WiFi access points, but the map reveals that Seattle's WiFi security has improved significantly.

The goal of the class is to introduce students to the basic concepts of new media. The impact of new communication technologies on the economic, political and cultural aspects of our lives has been profound. But along with studying theories about technology and society, Howard wanted students to gain some practical expertise. So towards the end of quarter, students were given a one-hour training session, and the remaining lab meetings were cancelled so students could get out into the streets.

In The News

Slashdot: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/02/05/2132232&tid=193

WiFi Networking News: http://wifinetnews.com/archives/004789.html

Business 2.0: http://business2.blogs.com/business2blog/2005/02/seattle_hot_spo.html

Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2002183464_wifimap18.html

university of washington | department of communication | intro to new media