A New Frontier: OpenSignal Creates Crowdsourced Sensor Network

Apr 13 2014, 11:59am CDT | by

A New Frontier: OpenSignal Creates Crowdsourced Sensor Network
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

You have a smartphone, tablet and probably now, these days, a Fitbit or a smartwatch. Maybe you are an an early adopter or sports addict and have a sports shirt with sensors in it. All of these things, plus cameras, navigational devices, are full of sensors. All kinds of sensors and  lots of sensors  – somewhere between 15-20 sensors on each smartphone today.

There are sensors to detect GPS/location, the orientation of the mobile device (gyroscope), barometric sensors to assess the GPS to find altitude then there are sensors for humidity, pressure and  proximity sensors, ambient light sensors, UV light sensors and motion /gesture sensors.

null  they all work together to create a mobile device that literally senses the environment or changes in the environment around you and communicates that back to the phone to do what it needs to do. Sensors will make our smartphones smarter.

Separately, the data that’s generated from those sensors through the phone means little, but crowdsource all that data and it shows us a network with data (weather, location, biometric) we know virtually nothing about. That network is full of data that no one knows anything about. So why isn’t anyone looking at those sensors and trying to make some sense of them in terms of the network or the data they create?

There are now. According to a OpenSignal, new company funded by Qualcomm Ventures, they say that null

At the basic level, Open Signal wants to create a comprehensive database of cell phone towers, cell phone signal strength readings, and Wi-Fi access points around the world. But, there is more to it than that. It’s about knowing what the collection of those signals and networks create and how they can be tapped or re deployed.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, but the fact that billions of people are now carrying mobile devices that have more sensors than ever before is making much deeper understanding possible,” says Brendan Gill, Co-Founder and CEO, OpenSignal.  ”null  With this greater understanding of the world we can make better predictions on anything from the weather to modeling crowd movements and provide enormous value back to the community.”

So how can you build a company around a multitude of sensors inside the 1.5 billion smartphones out there globally and have that make sense.

Gill says the company started in one direction, and then evolved over time. When the company was founded, OpenSignal focused on the problem of helping people get better signal and providing unbiased coverage maps of mobile networks.  But in doing that, Gill says they realized that null . But now, the company has expanded its vision to encompass sensor networks in every domain.

So what’s OpenSignal actually monitoring?

OpenSignal monitors the signal coverage and performance a user experiences when using his smartphone. They look at where users have coverage and where they don’t have coverage, along with the type of coverage , like 4G. OpenSignal also looks at the performance of that signal e.g. download and upload speeds, latency and the reliability of the network, like how often does it seem to stop working even when it appears you have a good signal.

“We then use this all of this crowdsourced dataset to provide utility back to users of the app. We’ll show them where they can get a better signal in realtime; we’ll show them over time if they could be getting a better signal experience with another network based on their personalised history; we show them a full dashboard of stats on their signal quality and finally we can show them where they can find free WiFi in any city in the world,” says Gill.

In the next year the company plans to grow their crowdsourced network even further. To date, OpenSignal has six million downloads which they say produces actionable intelligence, but as they increase the number of nodes in their network, the insight and predictions they generate will improve.

Gill says they are working on contextual awareness technology to make the data sets richer.

“We want to understand the context of every data point we use to segment the data in more advanced ways.  Taking WeatherSignal for example, if we can detect when a device is inside or outside automatically, we can then analyze only the ‘outside’ data in making better weather predictions,” adds Gill.

And, it appears the biggest network and infrastructure players out there – Cisco and Ericsson – haven’t recognized the potential of this space to create a network or monitor the data from the sensors out there./>/>

Gill says it’s a classic innovator’s dilemma.

“So, it’s anyone’s guess when the biggest companies will start to take notice.  We believe that to build a large and active crowdsourced network you need to build a community that actively gains from their participation,” says Gill. “The good will of users will get you started but ultimately if you want to reach large scale you need to provide real utility to users to keep them engaged.”

Gill says he believes solutions that only work passively or in the background won’t be as successful, which creates an even playing field between the big guys and the independent startups like OpenSignal, as you need to create a new and dedicated community from scratch.

Waze, a Qualcomm Ventures investment, was a great example of this where there engaged and cross platform community was not easily replicable so it made more sense for one of the big guys (Google) to buy them then to try to recreate the community from scratch,” adds Gill.

But Qualcomm does see it and through their investment arm, Qualcomm Ventures, chose to back OpenSignal and their vision.

“We have been believers in the impending growth of crowdsourcing services via mobile device sensors. The OpenSignal team is pioneering a novel solution in this emerging area,” said Nagraj Kashyap, Senior Vice President, Qualcomm Ventures.

“Qualcomm is a company that believes in moving the entire mobile ecosystem forward,” adds Gill. “Qualcomm shares our vision that using mobile devices as part of sensor networks increases the potential utility of those devices and the wider mobile ecosystem. As more people understand this potential and the technology develops to enhance these sensor networks then the entire wireless industry will benefit.”

During the 2012 Presidential campaign in the United States, OpenSignal tried something unique. From their crowdsourced global database of almost 200 million WiFi hotspots, they analyzed the names of these for networks mentioning Obama.  They classified each of them as positive or negative sentiment and used their locations to build up a rough estimate of Obama’s approval based solely on people’s WiFi names and found the result matched up surprisingly close to what real opinion polls were showing.  To access the entire study, click here.

So you see, knowledge is power, or in this case sensors are knowledge and understanding the data they contain, mapping that data, is a new frontier for the users of those 1.5 billion smart phones in the market today.

 
 

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