Meet Mark Hansen: humble, mild-mannered, 42-year-old statistics professor; artist and co-creator of the “Listening Post,” an art installation that culls text fragments in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms; and, perhaps most interestingly, a proud new faculty member of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA.

Though the center's name might sound terribly esoteric, the goal of its research is quite simple and, in the end, absolutely fundamental to the creation of a high-functioning community. Simply put, embedded networked sensing systems are collections of wireless smart sensors and actuators (devices that transform input signals from these sensors into data) hidden in the natural and built worlds. These networks monitor previously unobservable events, leading to better understanding and management of our complex physical environment.

Last year, Hansen created a UCLA graduate seminar called Site Specifics (Statistics 160/260) to map the wireless networks of the greater Los Angeles basin. Setting out to investigate a number of physical, localized sites, from hospitals to high schools, Hansen and his students conducted “Bluetooth sweeps” using GPS units to map the broiling invisible infrastructure of contemporary communication.

In one of the more compelling episodes, a group of students trolled West Hollywood, as Hansen explains, “scanning for open wireless networks—routers that people install in their homes, often without any password protection, ‘inviting' anyone to share their internet connection.” Hansen and his students found that many of the informal networks had names like “are you stealing my stuff,” “go away,” and similarly unfriendly monikers, exposing the fact that despite the seemingly private world of these hidden networks, “people are clearly aware of how visible they are.”

 

Though technology has often been labeled a community-killer because of its ability to obliterate public interaction, Hansen's work, true to the stated goals of CENS, seems to suggest that in fact our social realm is merely morphing into a privatized kind of public existence. “The wireless maps give us new views of our neighborhoods,” Hansen says, “a shared view of the digital layers that exist on the built environment, pointing to just how connected we are.”