Activity & Discussion: Where Am I?

Credits Alix Dunn Last Updated 2014-03

This is an activity that illustrates how mobile devices communicate with mobile networks, highlighting how locations of mobile devices are triangulated as part of routine communication with these networks.This leads into a discussion that will get participants thinking critically about the implications of the geolocation and tracking capabilities of mobile devices.

ADIDS Element

Activity and Discussion

Parent Topic(s)

How Mobile Networks Work

Duration

30-45 minutes

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Materials to Prepare

  • Flipchart or whiteboard with markers
  • Make sure you have a big enough space for the activity for participants to spread out and see each other.
  • Ensure you don’t have anything that can block visibility (e.g., pillars)

Optional

Projector and images of mobile network towers - this site has a good range that are included below.

Running the Activity

Step 1: What Are Mobile Towers?

Ask if anyone has seen and can describe what a mobile network tower looks like. Expand from their answer to describe (and optionally show) that what we commonly call “towers” can indeed look like towers (example image), but can also involve different types of hardware. This system of hardware works together to provide the service we think of when we say our mobile devices communicate with the network via “towers.”

The hardware of mobile network “towers” that our devices communicate with can present as panels, antennas and small dishes on buildings and other structures, especially in urban environments (example images here, here, and here).

Some of them are only pointed in one direction, and others can receive and send signals 360 degrees. Mention that you’ll be calling them “towers” for the sake of simplicity, but you wanted to explain that they are made of different types of hardware and may not look like towers.

Step 2: Mapping it Out

Ask for one volunteer to be your mobile phone moving through the mobile network. Then ask for three more volunteers to be “cell phone towers,” and ask them to stand at different points around the cell phone, with some being closer and others farther away.

  • Ask participants what it was like when they first saw a cell phone. They thought it was amazing, right? They didn’t have to go to a physical location to use a phone, or wait for a call. They could go anywhere, and the phone was right with them.
  • Remind them how our calls go through quite quickly, especially if they are local (vs. international) calls. Even international calls are amazing, even though we take them for granted.
  • Someone in a far away city or country can dial my number on their cell phone, and my phone will being to ring in a matter of seconds after they’ve dialed or requested a connection to my phone, which is associated with my phone number.

Remind the group that coast-to-coast or otherwise long-distance calls via land lines in large countries used to take several minutes to set up, with the assistance of operators; people would make the request to the operator on the phone, and then wait quite a while for the call to be “put through” before they finally got through to the number they’d requested.

Step 3: What Do Mobile Networks See?

Describe to the group how we can sometimes take this comparatively immediate access and service for granted, and the recent growing awareness that mobile network providers can also see a LOT of information about us via our cell phones makes many people nervous.

We need to remember the reason why mobile network operators can do this: it’s because the network needs to constantly be in communication with our mobile devices. This is in order to know where we are in order to direct calls and text messages intended for us, to us as quickly and as efficiency as possible.

Ask: Why would that then keep track of that information? Answer: So they can bill us!

Step 4: How Does My Phone Connect to a Network?

Explain that is a very simplified version of how our devices “talk” to the mobile network, but the principle is the same.

  • Our phones are constantly communicating to the mobile network that is closest to it. To illustrate this, the person in role of the cell phone will ask “Where am I?
  • In response, the closest person in the role of a tower will say “Marco,” the second closest will say “Polo,” and the third closest will say either “was a famous adventurer,” or “was a traveling man”.
  • The first two are more fun as tongue twisters, but if you’re working with a group who are less comfortable with the language of the training, make this third response as short as possible.

Have participants run through this more than once if necessary, to ensure that the purpose and setup is clear to everyone.

Step 5: Urban and Rural Networks

Trainer’s Note

In this step, you’ll simulate this process with the group in the context of a variety of locations and scenarios, where mobiles are interacting with the network in different ways.

Urban Networks

Now have more towers come stand near by the first cluster of towers - approximately half to two-thirds of the participants if you can.

  • Mention that sometimes we stay in one place, but most of the time, we’re on the move.
  • Therefore, the mobile network needs to stay in contact with us and know where we are in case it needs to route a call or a text message to or from us.
  • Have the cell phone participant start at one side of the cluster of mobile towers, and walk in until they have a few towers around them - have them ask “Where am I?” then have the closest towers respond.
  • If two towers are equidistant, allow them to say “Marco,” together, then the next closest say “Polo,” and so forth.
  • Have the cell phone participant walk even further through the group, and stop a few more times to ask “Where am I?” until they are through the group of towers.

Congratulate them on helping the cell phone participant stay in touch with their network, while also “triangulating” their approximate location for the network, which lets them know (and log) approximately where the cell phone is, even if the phone does not have GPS.

Shifting from Urban to Rural Networks

Now ask the entire group to think of a time when they’ve experienced a strong signal (or full “bars”) and then a weak signal (low “bars”) for their mobile devices.

  • Expand from their answer to describe how how mobile network operators (MNOs) spend money to provide more infrastructure in more populated areas than rural areas, due to the greater density of customers.
  • So, there tend to be more towers in urban environments than in rural environments - the other challenge in rural environments is providing service over large areas of land where there may only be a few mobile customers.

Explain that the demonstration they just saw was more akin to a denser, more urban environment, but now we’re going to demonstrate what the rural experience would look like as well.

Rural Networks

Tell participants that the previous setup was an example of an “urban” environment, but we also experience rural environments, where towers are typically farther apart and provide “weaker” service.

  • The remaining participants, who have not yet been part of a demonstration, should now choose a person to play the cell phone, with the others spreading out as far apart as possible across the room as the towers, so the number of towers is “fewer” and “sparser”.
  • The cell phone participant do the same thing as the previous steps, where they walk through the “rural network” and ask “Where am I?”, with the towers replying accordingly.

To close, mention to participants that mobile phones ask a more complex digital version of “Where am I?” to the networks around them approximately every three seconds. That’s a lot of communication with the local network!

Leading the Discussion

The closing of the activity should lead cleanly into the discussion - here are some questions to pose to the participants, to get a sense of how well the basic process of mobile phone functionality was understood:

  • What did they think of the activity?
  • Did it match their understanding of how our mobile devices communicate with the network, or was it different?
  • Did they understand how the triangulation of a rough location of the phone works with at least three or more points?
  • Do they think that the network’s accuracy & detail of your phone’s location increases when there are more towers near it?

What about fewer towers? (Answer: Yes - explain that with more “towers” in contact with the mobile phone, they have even more accuracy to pinpoint its location, which becomes even more detailed if the towers are closer to the phone, which is typically in urban environments).