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2/4/2013
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Big Data Helps Build Better Wireless Coverage Maps

OpenSignal collects smartphone user data to create more accurate and objective maps of cell network coverage.

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Don't trust your wireless provider's maps of cellular network coverage in your area?

Crowdsourced apps such as OpenSignal aim to create more precise and independent coverage maps by using big data, which in this case means signal strength data from users' smartphones. The apps then build cellular coverage maps that show signal strength in any particular area, as well as nearby cell towers. OpenSignal recently released an upgraded Android version of its free app. An iOS version should arrive by the end of February, said Brendan Gill, OpenSignal CEO, in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

The idea behind the OpenSignal app came from the company's earlier business of selling cell phone signal boosters. Many of its U.S. customers, it seemed, griped about spotty network coverage in their areas. "We had a lot of customers tell us all about the problems," said Gill. "It's clearly a huge issue, particularly in the U.S., given it's so distributed and less dense than places like Europe."

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The OpenSignal app contributes anonymized data to free wireless coverage maps, which users view in the app or at the OpenSignal website. Data collection requires no effort on the user's part, aside from accepting the default settings and, of course, running the app.

"There's a bit of an established industry for this sort of thing," Gill said. "Usually it's gathered through drive-testing. It's just that: driving around and measuring the performance of the network all over the country."

Gill estimates the OpenSignal app currently has about 500,000 active users. "What's allowed us to get to scale is that it's quite passive, what a user has to do," said Gill, a Londoner whose brief bio on the OpenSignal website says his accent has been tainted by "too much time in California."

OpenSignal might be at the forefront of an emerging trend: mobile device as data-collection tool. "We see crowdsourcing from mobile devices as a very interesting area," said Gill. "In the future, any sensor that goes onto these devices, you could start to do big data on a very large scale."

OpenSignal intends to keep its app free and build up crowdsourced data, which it then plans to monetize. The company's future plans include an enterprise-focused product, one with "granular insights" into how cellular carriers can improve their networks.

"It's sort of an interesting model we have, where we have to market to consumers to get the data, and then build a product for enterprise in order to bring in the revenue," said Gill.

The OpenSignal app allows users to view cellular coverage for all providers in their area, or view information for a specific carrier. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, the OpenSignal website map includes data for four major cellular providers: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

OpenSignal uses color-coded maps to show where signals are strongest (red) and weakest (blue). It ranks the carriers' performance and shows their tower locations. Users can also delve deeper to view coverage for specific wireless speeds, including 4G, 3G and 2G.

"We've always had a feeling if a network didn't offer good coverage in a particular area, there was never any data that a consumer could use to back that up," said Gill. "It's simply too difficult to assess the coverage on a national scale."

OpenSignal is one of several crowdsourcing apps in the cellular coverage space. A competitor is Rootmetrics, which also uses an interactive map to compare carriers.

"In terms of coverage and wireless plans, the balance of power has always been with the networks," noted Gill. But crowdsourced apps can help consumers by providing an unbiased view of cellular coverage, he added.

Mobile applications are the new way to extend government information and services to on-the-go citizens and employees. Also in the new, all-digital Anytime, Anywhere issue of InformationWeek Government: A new initiative aims to shift the 17-member Intelligence Community from agency-specific IT silos to an enterprise environment of shared systems and services. (Free registration required.)

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