Wireless mesh networks provide low-cost, shared Internet access to communities that can’t afford standard access to the Internet. Socially engaged users on these interconnected devices are also more resilient against threats that cripple centralized communication infrastructures, like censorship and natural disaster. However, for long term social sustainability, these community networks need ritualized, face to face interaction between residents and defined roles/social capital to occur.
Current civic and community platforms are not very engaging – they don’t tailor to the subtleties of cultural expression and community needs on a micro-level. They are usually designed top-down, with static housing boundaries, user needs and regimented user data that don’t take into consideration the cross-pollination of cultural and migratory patterns across borders. By demonstrating the value of locally meshed resources and by preempting outages, Tidepools extend network value beyond simple access to the Internet.
Working with the Open Technology Initiative at New America Foundation and the Red Hook Initiative, Tidepools is tailoring a custom engagement platform, based on local needs and interests, for the Red Hook Housing Projects – a remote and unconnected area of Brooklyn, with little WiFi and Internet access primarily through Android mobile devices. At the same time, it is bringing low cost Internet access through the same wireless mesh that Tidepools is hosted on.
Tidepools is about bringing granularity of expression to individuals and communities, through creation, sharing and collaboration on custom, hyper-local maps on mobile and desktop devices that bridge the digital and physical space. This “Ushahidi” meets “The Sims” gaming-style, hyper-local mapping web app is hosted on community plug servers, with an internal DNS name system specific to the community (e.g. http://redhook.news). Delivered through mesh networked WiFi routers and antennas, Tidepools augment communication and civic awareness at a local level, by providing tools for modular, user-generated map population. The project aims to spark interest in the cultural and needs-based values of shared networks, from the ground up.
Users can drop in various geo-coordinated, metaphorical and literal landmarks to new or pre-existing maps, to signify: Upcoming Meetings & Events, Alerts, Civic Reporting, Coupons & Deals, History & Notes, Secrets & Mysteries, Physical Buildings & Groups, and Wildcards. Users build reputation and gain awards over time, based on how valuable others find their contributions. Others can follow and comment on these landmarks in a Twitter-like feed of local announcements and news. Visual feedback of landmarks comes through fluctuations in their size and color, based on number of followers, activity level and public opinion. For example, foliage might grow around the Red Hook Initiative community center if a large number of meetings have taken place there, recently.
The Tidepools interface has organically evolved over months of community meetings, brainstorming sessions and feedback with residents from a “shoutbox” anonymous chat feed hosted on the wireless network. Creating and sharing custom maps emerged from the concern for and desire to plot Alerts of where police “stop and frisks” were occurring in the neighborhood. Potholes and broken building signs led to integration of the civic reporting tool, Open311 “SeeClickFix.” The need to spread awareness of locations and times of Upcoming Meetings & Events at the Red Hook Initiative and other organizations in the area soon followed.
Long Term Applications
Long term community and civic engagement, is reinforced through chronicling the passage of time over that of space. As the social network of a fixed location fluctuates more with the progression of time, it integrates years long migratory patterns of people and culture, the mapping and visualization of rituals, seasons, and holidays. On the short term, this is seen through the day and night cycles of the map, synced up to the actual time zone.
For long term networks, API aggregation onto a global map and a community app marketplace stimulate a pan-regional, ecosystem of sharing. In order to counteract the instability of wireless grassroots networks past the community level, metropolitan and policy involvement is recommended, from advisement with the Harvard Berkman Center and New America Foundation.Read More