Part of Million Fishes’ Physio/Logical show.

PacketWeather is a visualization and sonification of the data traffic that continuously surrounds us. Every second, computers are sending information “packets” out into the ether. These might be low level, such as checking the time on the network, or part of a storm of bits that represent email or html web browsing. While action is initiated by the user in the latter case, it can be surprising how much communication is generated automatically and occurs beneath the surface. Not only are data packets passing around us on wires, they are also passing straight through us as part of wireless data networks that are becoming ubiquitous. PacketWeather exposes part of the ocean of data that we are currently immersed in, but are usually unaware of.

PacketWeather employs Carnivore (officially DCS1000), a network “diagnostic” tool that the FBI has used to sniff out internet packets. Carnivore has been ported to run in Processing, an open source image, animation, and data visualization environment. It is here that the IP addresses and port numbers, of incoming packets are examined, and plotted visually. The spatial location of the plots corresponds to the IP addresses of the sender and receiver, while the color of the plots indicates what kind of traffic that packet represents (blue is html, red is instant messaging, green is email, etc.) Processing then packages this information into the OpenSoundControl, a communications protocol that originated in music synthesis. This protocol is passed along to Max/MSP, a data-flow based audio programming environment. Max keeps a running histogram of what packets have been seen, and uses that to generate a sonic environment based on the current packet climate. Repeated ports become more prominent, and different packet types (UDP or TCP) are identified by individual timbres.

PacketWeather is both site and time specific. Since it picks up all the traffic on the local area network, it can be extremely dense and active on a large network and much more minimal in a home environment. The nature of the prevailing traffic also influences the moment-by-moment evolution of the environment, and is strongly determined by the specific activities of users on the network.

PacketWeather can be installed on a computer with a VGA monitor and stereo speakers, or projected. In the former case, the artist provides all hardware for the installation, the only requirements are electricity and an internet connection.