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Forums Home : The RED Project : Peer Response   view project   project page  
With the proliferation of cell phones, Wi-Fi laptops, handheld TVs and all sorts of wireless communication devices, the radio spectrum has become one of the most important natural resources and one of the most valuable. Like all things valuable, spectrum therefore finds itself at the center of heated battles to decide who should be able to use it, under what conditions, for what purpose.

But how do you debate the governance of things invisible? The only way is to visualize them first, and to do that you first need metaphors. Various metaphors have been used: spectrum is like a liquid through which waves travel; spectrum is like real estate in which property rights guarantee exclusive use; spectrum is a commons, which many can share peacefully; spectrum is a canvas, in which 'white space' remains to be filled; spectrum is layered, so that 'underlays' and 'overlays' help us squeeze more use out of it. These metaphors, and the visualizations that derive from them, are critical because they shape public discourse. They influence how we decide whether spectrum is used intensively or not, how many users can co-exist peacefully, or how much room is left for additional users. Ultimately, each suggests a different approach to spectrum governance.

This project encourages us to play with one such metaphor and its visualization, in the particular case of radio frequencies used by Wi-Fi devices. By contrast with most other frequency users (such as TV stations or cellular service providers), Wi-Fi users don't need a license. As a result, the only way to find out how many of them are taking advantage of the Wi-Fi spectrum in a given place is to go there with a Wi-Fi detector and count the number of Wi-Fi transmitters one can 'see.' Over the past four years, Christian Sandvig and his team of mappers have done precisely that, driving through an eclectic selection of U.S. neighborhoods, and plotting the Wi-Fi transmissions they detected—a painstaking process. There were a number of surprises: some well-groomed neighborhoods where they had expected to find much Wi-Fi use but detected little; and some run-down places showing a surprising degree of Wi-Fi activity.

Hence the idea for 'Rendering Electromagnetic Distribution' (RED): it turned out that the detailed demographics of these neighborhoods 'a weighted combination of race, age, income, education and density' explained much of the variation in Wi-Fi activity. So the RED team designed an interactive map generator that uses demographic information to predict how much Wi-Fi use should be expected in a given place. RED depicts Wi-Fi as a scarlet haze floating over the city, denser where use is greater.

It is worth using RED to poke around places you know (or think you know) and see whether the modelÂ’s predictions fit what you would expect. One of my own surprises was to find that RED predicts almost no Wi-Fi use in the South of Market area of downtown San Francisco known as 'multimedia gulch', where I would expect intense Wi-Fi use (search the map for misson and 6th, san francisco, ca.) It could be that few people actually lived there when the census data was collectedÂ… but maybe something else is at work? Thus, RED leads us to question our assumptions about the relationship between the visible places we know and the invisible spectrum that surrounds them.

Beyond its stated predictive purpose, RED also invites us to think about the implications of seemingly arbitrary visual design choices on policy decisions. For example, spectrum maps often depict radio transmissions as circles centered on the transmitter, suggesting (wrongly) that signals travel smoothly in all directions and donÂ’t stray beyond the boundaries of those circles. Would it make a difference if policy makers looked instead at RED maps, and began to think of spectrum as colored fog rolling over the landscape? And what about color choices: one of today's hot policy discussions centers on finding uses for the 'white spaces' in the spectrum. Would the FCC reach different conclusions if we colored those spaces RED?
- François Bar, USC Annenberg School of Communication, 09.26.2007