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Nov. 10, 2014, 12:48 p.m.

Can mesh networks and offline wireless move from protest tools to news?

From the protests in Hong Kong to Occupy and Sandy in New York, a new generation of tools is allowing communities to connect without using the Internet. Can they have a use in news too?

In the rush to get from here to there, not many travelers in Boston’s South Station are likely to notice the two blue wifi icons near the Martin’s News Shop informing them that they are now in range of the “Pulse of South Station.” And if they did, they might rightly assume that it was some kind of marketing campaign.

But at its inception in 2005, the Pulse of Boston (of which that sign was a part) was also much more than this: It was a cutting-edge experiment in hyperlocal, offline, wireless news and community. And while the original Boston Globe effort lasted less than a year, today both global events and advances in DIY wireless technologies are rebooting interest in this physically proscribed approach to hyperlocal communications — exploring how wireless connections that don’t rely on the Internet can serve as both community hubs and crucial information sources.

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When D.C. Denison, a Globe tech editor, and his friend, MIT graduate Michael Oh, built what would become the first Pulse of Boston prototype in 2005, “I thought, ‘People are talking about hyperlocal,'” Denison says. “‘Maybe we could just put up a wifi router and when people opened their laptops, they’d see it.'”

The pair managed to persuade Barbara’s Booksellers in South Station to let them stash a Mac mini and wireless router on a shelf, and Denison and Oh loaded up some content and turned it on. “It worked right away,” says Denison.

The project quickly caught the interest of his colleagues at the Globe, especially once the paper revealed its plans for an ad campaign called “The Pulse of Boston.”

“People really got the idea,” Denison recalls. “It wasn’t like you would get supercritical, quizzical looks,” he says, despite the fact that “at the time, wifi was kind of new.”

Today, of course, wifi — and devices that can connect to it — are ubiquitous, with everything from smartphones and laptops to Fitbits and gaming devices connecting to the Internet to measure, store, and track information. Yet there are times when, both for relevance and privacy, hyperlocal offline connections can fill a need that Internet-based wireless can’t.

A tool for protest and crisis

During Occupy Wall Street, for example, an Internet-based discussion forum “forum was good, but a lot of it was from people who were not in New York City,” says Dan Phiffer, an artist and technologist at The New Yorker. “I didn’t feel like it was serving the people who were actually in the space that well.”

Phiffer already knew what could be done with offline wireless technologies, as he and his wife, collaborator Ellie Irons, had worked on an art and oral history project in upstate New York just a few months prior. In that area, Phiffer says, “only about half the towns have the capacity to get on broadband Internet.”

At Occupy Wall Street, Phiffer deployed a chat forum and content repository run off a small wifi router and USB stick he dubbed occupy.here. Though anyone with a wireless device could participate, it was only accessible to those in range of its signal, which reached a few hundred feet.

occupy-here

Artist Amelia Marzec was also experimenting with localized communications at Occupy, using the hardware from her 2010 project Signal Strength. Although the underlying mechanism is slightly different, her project lets users with compatible Android phones run a simple app that broadcasts messages to anyone else on the system without going over the Internet — much the same way that FireChat has during the ongoing Hong Kong protests.

Indeed, part of the appeal of these networks is their censorship resistance, a topic of increasing importance in news and communications in general, thanks to both political actions and legal policies like Europe’s right to be forgotten. And in times of network overload or even crisis, these systems can be much more resilient than traditional, centralized Internet connections.

After Superstorm Sandy, for example, residents in Red Hook, Brooklyn, were able to stay connected to each other — and the Internet — despite severe storm damage, thanks in large part to a mesh wireless program that had grown out of a community health effort called the Red Hook Initiative.

“The thing about mesh is that you don’t have to plan it out in advance,” says Georgia Bullen, a data analyst with the Open Technology Institute, who has been working with RHI on their mesh program for more than two years.

commotion-logoThis flexibility means that the Red Hook network was able to go from 2 to 7 routers in a matter of days, says Bullen, and the neighborhood relied on the connectivity it provided for several months. Today, the network has an Internet-connected backbone via Brooklyn Fiber connections and more than 30 routers running OTI’s open-source Commotion software to spread that signal across the neighborhood.

Though a connection in time of disaster was crucial, “the big takeaway is working with your community,” says Bullen. Even before the storm, there was local interest ways to stay informed about issues and events in Red Hook. Today, a visit to redhookwifi.org returns a list of community events like public hearings and job fairs.

Today the network itself is maintained by “digital stewards” recruited from and trained within the community, which Bullen sees as integral to the value of the effort — both in a crisis and day-to-day: “The more people who know how to do this, the more control we have over the infrastructure, and the ability to fix it if something goes wrong.”

Fostering a sense of control and community is also what inspired the subnod.es project, developed by artist and Barbarian Group technical lead Sarah Grant. Though similar in function to occupy.here, subnod.es runs on open-source Raspberry Pi hardware, which is even smaller and less expensive than other routers.

“There’s this ownership,” Grant says. “I own the hardware, I own the files — nobody can shut me down.”

Controlling distribution

Globally, stopping or restricting digital communications has become a very real threat in recent years, from Egypt’s 2011 Internet shutdown to Turkey’s DNS restrictions. Services like Twitter, Google, and Facebook may manipulate their algorithms or content in response to both internal and external pressures. These trends are especially troubling when news organizations increasingly rely upon these platforms and services to get news to readers.

Historically, news organizations have sought to protect themselves from the vagaries of economics and third-party suppliers by investing considerably in both production and distribution infrastructure, says Michael Stamm, an associate professor in history and journalism at Michigan State University. Stamm is currently writing a book about the history of the Tribune Company, which in the early 20th century even built its own paper mills to protect against price fluctuations in the paper market.

“Paper prices went up really dramatically during World War I,” Stamm says. “There were companies that were basically pushed out of business because they couldn’t afford to print the paper and make money doing it.”

Just because digital news operations no longer need a physical plant to get started doesn’t mean they don’t need to be concerned about their distribution infrastructure, says Stamm.

“In some ways,” he says, “bandwidth is now what paper used to be.”

Columbia Journalism School professor and historian Richard John also sees parallels between digital news distribution and the industry’s print past. John points out that during the early 1900s, Western Union offered favorable rates to early wire-news services in exchange for good coverage. For Western Union this made sense because “they’re in a good position [strategically], but they don’t want bad publicity,” says John. (Telecommunications provider Verizon seemed to be taking that historical lesson to heart when it made headlines recently for announcing the launch of SugarString.com, a tech news site with one alleged catch: coverage of Internet surveillance and net neutrality were off limits.)

Still, for all its potential for community information and organization, it’s hard to know what the news audience might be for this kind of hyperlocal network. For the Pulse of Boston, Denison says, “the traffic just wasn’t there.”

“What would have been just absolutely awesome is if there was enough traffic for the local restaurant to say ‘Hey, can I take an ad on that?'” says Denison.

If news organizations owned the wireless routers, it might give them an upper hand when it comes to advertising, since metrics wouldn’t have to be shared with an online ad network. There has also been a five- to tenfold drop in the hardware cost of these systems since the Globe’s effort. A more powerful router — with a likely reach of several city blocks — might cost $70-$80, while the smaller-range occupy.here and subnod.es technology can be had for under $50. And while setting up one of these systems might take an hour or two, all of the software they run is free and open-source.

“Out-of-the-box” solutions — such as Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox — can also be ordered online for about $150. Based on the open-source project PirateBox, LibraryBox (which is also open source), requires no special technical skills to set up.

“I want to see [the technology] used actively,” says Griffey. He says he started LibraryBox because “I realized that there was a limit to how I could grow the community while you had to telnet into the box.”

The community certainly grew in 2013, when Griffey’s LibraryBox Kickstarter was fully funded in 10 hours. By the end of the month-long campaign, the project had raised over $30,000 — more than 10 times its original target. Soon the LibraryBox community will be able to grow even more thanks to recent funding from the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund, which has financed the development of multi-language support and better internationalization. When the LibraryBox 2.1 software launches later this year, it will include support for 10 languages, including Swahili.

Challenges for news

Of course, even with open software and inexpensive hardware, successfully leveraging these offline-content “hotspots” has its challenges.

The first is the effort involved in finding partners to host the physical hardware. Though Denison says several business owners were downright enthusiastic about hosting the Globe’s Pulse Points, “It involved going in and talking up the cafe owner. It was very manual.”

Updating the content, too was very manual, though eventually (and ironically), one or two of the Pulse of Boston routers were connected to the Internet and could be updated remotely. While current projects are simple to update via USB, most are not pre-configured to be updated wirelessly.

Another issue is simply making people aware of the network and getting them to the content. That difficulty, Griffey says, is one of the reasons that weatherproof stickers with log-on instructions were an original part of the LibraryBox Kickstarter.

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NFC (near-field communications) stickers are also an attractive option, says Grant, because they’re inexpensive and “you can program them to do all sorts of things, like turn on your wifi, join the network and open a browser.” Although smaller projects can only feasibly make these compatible for Android phones at the moment, the content can still be reached by any device with wireless capabilities — it just means an extra step or two.

Today, the Pulse Point signs in South Station point users to a network that no longer exists. But perhaps one day soon it will be possible to stop by a newsstand to pick up localized digital edition of a newspaper or magazine, and know that even in a crisis, a lack of Internet doesn’t mean total isolation. Instead, news organizations and readers alike will feel confident that will always have access to an information network that is resilient, local and secure — for those times when the news is what we need most.

Susan E. McGregor is assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and assistant professor at Columbia Journalism School, where she helps supervise the dual-degree program in journalism and computer science.

Photo of Hong Kong protestors by かがみ~, photo of South Station sign by Rekha Murthy, and photo of LibraryBox in the wild by ActuaLitté all used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 10, 2014, 12:48 p.m.
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