TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: MIT Wireless Network Tracks Info on Users

MIT Wireless Network Tracks Info on Users

Brooke Donald (
Thu, 3 Nov 2005 21:04:29 -0600

By BROOKE DONALD, Associated Press Writer

In another time and place, college students wondering whether the
campus cafe has any free seats, or their favorite corner of the
library is occupied, would have to risk hoofing it over there. But for
today's student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that
kind of information is all just a click away.

MIT's newly upgraded wireless network -- extended this month to cover
the entire school -- doesn't merely get you online in study halls,
stairwells or any other spot on the 9.4 million square foot campus. It
also provides information on exactly how many people are logged on at
any given location at any given time.

It even reveals a user's identity if the individual has opted to make that
data public.

MIT researchers did this by developing electronic maps that track
across campus, day and night, the devices people use to connect to the
network, whether they're laptops, wireless PDAs or even Wi-Fi equipped
cell phones.

The maps were unveiled this week at the MIT Museum, where they are
projected onto large Plexiglas rectangles that hang from the
ceiling. They are also available online to network users, the data
time-stamped and saved for up to 12 hours.

Red splotches on one map show the highest concentration of wireless
users on campus. On another map, yellow dots with names written above
them identify individual users, who pop up in different places
depending where they're logged in.

"With these maps, you can see down to the room on campus how many
people are logged on," said Carlo Ratti, director of the school's
SENSEable City Laboratory, which created the maps. "You can even watch
someone go from room to room if they have a handheld device that's

Researchers use log files from the university's Internet service
provider to construct the maps. The files indicate the number of users
connected to each of MIT's more than 2,800 access points. The map that
can pinpoint locations in rooms is 3-D, so researchers can even
distinguish connectivity in multistoried buildings.

"Laptops and Wi-Fi are creating a revolutionary change in the way
people work," Ratti said. The maps aim to "visualize these changes by
monitoring the traffic on the wireless network and showing how people
move around campus."

Some of the results so far aren't terribly surprising for students at
the vanguard of tech innovation.

The maps show, for example, that the bulk of wireless users late at
night and very early in the morning are logged on from their
dorms. During the day, the higher concentration of users shifts to

But researchers also found that study labs that once bustled with
students are now nearly empty as people, no longer tethered to a phone
line or network cable, move to cafes and nearby lounges, where food
and comfy chairs are more inviting.

Researchers say this data can be used to better understand how
wireless technology is changing campus life, and what that means for
planning spaces and administering services.

The question has become, Ratti said, "If I can work anywhere, where do
I want to work?"

"Many cities, including Philadelphia, are planning to go
wireless. Something like our study will help them understand usage
patterns and where best to invest," said researcher Andres Sevtsuk.

Sevtsuk likened the mapping project to a real-time census.

"Instead of waiting every year or every 10 years for data, you have
new information every 15 minutes or so about the population of the
campus," he said.

While every device connected to the campus network via Wi-Fi is
visible on the constantly refreshed electronic maps, the identity of
the users is confidential unless they volunteer to make it public.

Those students, faculty and staff who opt in are essentially agreeing
to let others track them.

"This raises some serious privacy issues," Ratti said. "But where
better than to work these concerns out but on a research campus?"

Rich Pell, a 21-year-old electrical engineering senior from
Spartanburg, S.C., was less than enthusiastic about the new system's
potential for people monitoring. He predicted not many fellow students
would opt into that.

"I wouldn't want all my friends and professors tracking me all the
time. I like my privacy," he said. "I can't think of anyone who would
think that's a good idea. Everyone wants to be out of contact now and

On the Net:

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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