Yesterday’s Internet Isn’t Good Enough for Tomorrow’s Cities – Next City

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Yesterday’s Internet Isn’t Good Enough for Tomorrow’s Cities

Making connectivity more resilient is about more than floods.

Story by Carly Berwick

Photography by Alan Chin

Published on Oct 3, 2016

Katherine Ortiz sat at her kitchen window in Red Hook, Brooklyn, watching the rain and wind build the evening of October 29, 2012. Then, around 8 p.m., almost exactly as Hurricane Sandy made landfall, block by block, the lights turned off. Across coastal New York and New Jersey, power went out for millions, including residents of the Red Hook Houses, one of New York City Housing Authority’s largest public housing developments. Elevators stopped working, as did phones, once batteries ran down. To leave or get to her apartment in the following days, Ortiz walked 14 flights, until NYCHA restored power two weeks later. But where she worked, at local community organization Red Hook Initiative, power was still on — and the wireless internet network still worked, because RHI had built it themselves.

In 2012, RHI and its technology director, Tony Schloss, partnered with the Open Technology Institute, an arm of think tank New America, to set up a kind of homemade local WiFi network. It would host audio stories created by youth in RHI’s radio program. They had been uploading the stories online, but Schloss thought putting them on a community network might bolster their reach in the neighborhood. The setup was modeled after a program OTI was working on at the same time in Detroit. So, when Sandy hit, Red Hook already had a tiny but self-sustaining WiFi network using a “mesh” design. Though power was out in the neighborhood, including in hundreds of NYCHA units, the renovated factory housing RHI luckily maintained electricity. RHI and some public housing residents maintained an internet link thanks to that mesh network. When FEMA came by several days later, officials were pleasantly surprised to find a developing neighborhood network — and helped to augment it with more bandwidth and a satellite link.

The Red Hook story has served as a case study for how to help communities help themselves in a disaster. The waterfront hamlet became a base of operations for recovery operations. Portable toilets, charging stations, Twitter updates: Red Hook had them all before other hard-hit neighborhoods. “People were able to put in that they needed something: food, or someone was stuck, or they needed a pump,” says Ortiz. “There was a number and form online. You could text that number or go on that form. You could send a text and someone was monitoring the board. We had a ton of youth volunteering at the time and could get people supplies if they couldn’t make it to RHI.”

Red Hook is an unlikely place to go looking for a model of disaster preparedness. A chunk of land jutting out into the New York Bay, cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by a freeway overpass and tunnel, and without a subway stop, the Brooklyn neighborhood is highly vulnerable to climate change effects and economic vicissitudes. One of the oldest New York neighborhoods and home to century-old docks, it sits at sea level, a kind of East River sentry. Mostly abandoned by the shipping industry and then the city from the 1970s until the 1990s, Red Hook became synonymous with urban neglect. Today, the neighborhood’s open views and former industrial spaces have made the main drag, Van Brunt Street, a place to find artisanal gelato and lobster rolls sold behind fashionably distressed facades. Red Hook is a geographic island with a split personality, with one census tract boasting incomes nearly one-third higher than the city’s median and another reporting incomes at half of it. “I should get in touch with my friend there,” Ortiz mentions as she passes the glass-front window of a real estate agent on Van Brunt; she wonders, though, if she could still find something affordable in the neighborhood she has lived in all her life.

Schloss, RHI’s director of technology, moved to Red Hook in 2005, making him something of a first-wave newcomer in the tight-knit neighborhood. The day after Sandy hit, he returned to his home to find the basement-level kitchen submerged in water, along with his yard. Fish were swimming beneath his front steps. This may be the entire neighborhood’s future in a hundred years or less, according to projections.

This month marks the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, and similar storms and “sunny-day flooding” are inevitable, say climatologists. Much of New York City’s coastline could be permanently under water in just six decades — and between now and then, disasters like Sandy are nearly inevitable for the city of 8.4 million. For the famously tech-savvy New York, the threat of enduring another disaster without the ability to share information and respond to neighborhood needs efficiently is its own nightmare scenario.

Which is why community organizers in six neighborhoods across the five boroughs began work this summer on an ambitious plan designed to help local businesses and residents to help themselves through building and sustaining their own disaster-proof energy systems and communication networks. The small but potentially transformative effort is part of the city’s small business recovery and resilience program, branded as “RISE : NYC,” and is intended not only to support vulnerable communities in times of disaster, but also to lessen the divides felt in daily life.

“This is an opportunity to think about the vulnerabilities that Sandy exposed,” says Kristin Bell, project manager at New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Center for Urban Innovation and the program manager for RISE (which stands for resiliency innovations for a stronger economy). “There were entire neighborhoods that couldn’t communicate with the rest of the city. Small businesses were playing a role as community hubs and places where people were staging recovery efforts.”

A MODEST AND HUGE ENDEAVOR

Underwritten with a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, RISE began with a competition that solicited proposals from small businesses and organizations that proposed plans to build autonomous energy systems and communications networks that could keep ticking, even if much of the city blacks out, as it did during Sandy. NYCEDC went with a competition instead of sending out a more typical request for proposals, hoping the approach would inspire innovative projects with the potential to reach different communities and grow. It worked: The city received proposals from more than 200 groups, a number of which had never worked with government before.

“This is a model we hope can be used in the future for other federal grant programs to connect with the private sector,” says Bell. Among the 11 winners are New America and the Red Hook Initiative. The two groups won for proposals to establish community-built wireless mesh networks like the one in Red Hook in a half dozen new neighborhoods, including the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, East Harlem in Manhattan, Far Rockaway in Queens and Staten Island. Brooklyn, Gowanus and Sheepshead Bay will also get their own networks.

The project is still in development; no new routers have been installed on rooftops yet. That will happen in 2017 and when it does, the networks will operate differently than those that most of us use. The standard WiFi connection is made through a system best imagined as a hub and spoke, where the hub router has a direct connection to the internet, and the “spokes” are connected to and rely on the hub. In contrast, the mesh network RHI uses, has routers that connect directly to one another (and some potentially connect to the larger internet as well), in an interlocking weave that can be easily expanded with new routers. In this case, the routers are not dependent on the hub. In a hub-and-spoke design, if the hub goes out, the network is down; with mesh, the network can still function if part of it gets knocked out.

Part of what excites community organizers and technologists alike about mesh is this very physical embodiment of democratic principles: Routers talk to each other instead of one autocratic access point set up by an internet service provider, and the networks are community run and maintained. Mesh networks are also hard to monitor and regulate, since there’s no central collection point — although aggregate data may pass through local servers. A few communities internationally have established ground-up massive mesh networks, such as Spain’s guifi.net. And while at some point, these local networks do need access to the wider internet, mesh can work just fine on its own to connect neighbors in a disaster or to talk about local issues. Functional cities don’t tend to crowdsource their sewage, water or road maintenance. But as a tool for communication — even perhaps liberation — the internet is a different kind of infrastructure. Mesh, in particular, is near-infinitely expandable, as long as folks are willing and able.

The ambition of the community wireless project is both modest and huge. On one hand, it can be seen as an effort to get volunteers and small local businesses to work together to put small bits of technology on rooftops and maintain them. On the other hand, it means creating a network that is able to physically and socially bridge divides, whether caused by socioeconomics or a natural disaster.

A TOOL TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS

As Ortiz walks around Red Hook, she casually points out the internet routers she installed. “Almost fell off the roof on that one,” she says, pointing to one hoisted above Baked, a popular cafe known for its fluffy, all-natural marshmallows. Tall, lanky and generously tattooed, Ortiz nods toward Pioneer Works, a cavernous arts nonprofit, hosting a giant bubble and a grand piano. “Did their internet too.” After learning how to install and augment RHI’s wireless network, which started as two routers pre-Sandy and has grown to 15 hotspots, Ortiz started to get her own independent clients. She worked for Brooklyn Fiber, which also partners with RHI, to install temporary WiFi for events, such as one for Barbie in Union Square, which netted her a doll.

RHI hired Ortiz and seven other people from Red Hook to become digital stewards, who master building and maintaining a network. Now Oritz is a program associate at New America, helping to train staff of community-based organizations in the other six RISE neighborhoods. She recently spent a Thursday afternoon showing the community organizers how to build their own ethernet cables. “It’s better and cheaper,” she explains. “You can fix it yourself if one wire goes out.” No sitting around waiting for Verizon.

Tony Schloss of the Red Hook Initiative works with a digital steward. 

The idea of job training is attractive to some of these partner organizations. Others are lured by the promise of bringing connectivity, online and off, to under-resourced communities. “The most important byproduct of building the network,” Andy Gunn, a technical consultant with New America’s Resilient Communities, tells the community organizers, in a training session, “is the ability of local individuals to support each other.”

“The technology is a tool to emancipate,” says Primavera De Filippi, a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “But a mistake in the past for many mesh networks has been to focus so much on the technology but not so much on the community. First they need to think about how the community can work together.”

Gunn and Greta Byrum, director of New America’s Resilient Communities and a current Loeb fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, figured that out through experience. An earlier State Department-funded OTI project, Commotion Wireless, which installed wireless mesh networks in Tunisia, didn’t fully take, in part because other open-source platforms had an already established user community, driven by the passion of those who built it locally rather than through the auspices of an outside institution. (Commotion still exists and is used by some groups.) “Our work has been this long process of figuring out the social aspects of developing local community-run infrastructure,” says Byrum.

In Detroit, where the process of building local wireless internet has been pioneered and codified by the Detroit Community Technology Project, the end goal is to improve access to information — a basic human right, organizers argue. Forty percent of residents in Detroit do not have broadband internet access at home. (Nationally, 33 percent of Americans have no broadband at home, and 20 percent overall have neither broadband nor smartphone access.) In part because local government has been ineffective at bridging the digital divide, community groups such as DCTP and the Allied Media Project have sprung into the void to be forceful creators of access and community participation. OTI has worked with DCTP to develop the digital stewards program in Detroit and to bring similar programs to 11 international sites, in Myanmar, Belarus, Nigeria and Timor-Leste, among others. “One of the things we found as we moved from Detroit to Red Hook and then abroad to Tunisia was that in general the stuff that was really useful was the training materials and organizing materials,” says Byrum. “The software ended up being the least important part of what we had to offer.”

The RISE project does not rely on specific software, such as Commotion; it depends on the transfer of knowledge from tech experts to digital stewards to the wider community. New America and DCTP, with support of the RISE program, have developed a 112-page how-to handbook for building community wireless networks. “Instead of trying to fit our communities to existing technology, we need to reshape our technology to fit our communities,” writes author and DCTP organizer Diana Nucera. Detroit now has seven community-maintained wireless mesh networks, with the tantalizingly possibility that they may all one day link up.

“I have always felt that the networks and tech are just a communications tool,” says Gunn. “They do not make a neighborhood more resilient by themselves. It’s a method by which people build other relationships.”

“EVERY RESTAURANT WILL HAVE A STICKER”

In Hunts Point, nearly 36 percent of residents don’t have broadband internet access and 60 percent of children live below the poverty line. When Yamil Lora, the digital media coordinator at The Point, a youth organization working with New America, explains why his organization is building its own internet network, he recalls the time that they rehabbed computers to give to students who came to their after-school programs. The students said thanks, but no thanks; they didn’t have internet at home.

The nonprofit works out of a large brick complex that used to be a bakery. It sits on a residential street in an industrial neighborhood, home to one of the world’s largest produce shipping terminals yet precious few grocery stores. On a summer day, teenagers and local construction workers wander in and out to use computers, or buy fish tacos and chicken tenders at the Point Cafe, which is run by the organization. Lora, a musician by training, envisions the everyday uses of a community-built-and-managed network: an internet radio station managed by students and WiFi at home for students to do homework. “When we say resiliency, it’s not just for a future storm but every element of the community,” says Angela Tovar, director of community development at The Point. “Addressing the digital divide and giving access to real-time information is part of that.”

Raul Enriquez works with New America to help manage its resilient mesh wireless initiative. He developed a brochure to recruit businesses and goes out with community group liaisons to talk to bodega owners and cell phone shop managers. “We explain it as: You can socialize with your colleagues and friends and access the internet,” says Enriquez. “If the storm comes and destroys everything, this will still be up. It’s like having a walkie-talkie with the other businesses. The business owners instantly thought of when the storm hit, things were flooded, nothing worked and I couldn’t talk to anybody.”

Enriquez, a media artist and educator turned community organizer and technologist, wears white-collared shirts and black jeans nearly every day. His eyebrows jump and turn with his expression. He invites everyone he meets to a meal. One day at New America’s Flatiron District office in New York, he tosses a large white walkie-talkie on the table. “This is the device,” he says. The walkie-talkies are the routers.

Raul Enriquez of New America shows how a NanoBeam works. 

The networks will be installed and supported by a company called Sky Packets, which has installed free wireless internet in places across the city like Bryant Park, Chelsea and in the Link NYC phone kiosks. The community groups get the routers through New America to give to local businesses for free. But at the training sessions, they had lots of questions about add-on costs down the road, in about two years, when the grant runs out. Who fixes things when they break? (Sky Packets will help, but long term that’s what the digital stewards will do.) How much do you have to pay for data? Turns out, even free comes with a cost over time. As much as New America and RHI want the mastery of the technology to be easy and intuitive for the community organizers and new digital stewards, some of the more technical aspects require actual tech support and network help. The challenge of maintaining growing internet networks within resources-strapped nonprofits is something Ortiz alludes to in Red Hook — some of the routers she installed aren’t functional anymore. The Teaching Community Technology handbook is a start, as the community organizations think about how to pass on their new expertise after the grant runs out.

Each of the six community groups that New America is working with has slightly different visions for how to fund the project after that two-year mark and who the work serves. Over the summer, Byrum, Gunn, Ortiz and Enriquez met with the groups several times to help them articulate their long-term vision for a project that is promising a lot — not only free internet for their communities but jobs, community cohesion, new funding sources and even that elusive goal of empowerment.

Valerie West was at her home a few blocks from the last stop on the A train in Far Rockaway when she realized that Sandy had hit and that her community was on the front lines. Her friend called in a panic about water rushing into her basement so West went down the stairs from the second floor of her own home. At the stairs to the basement, she stopped. Water was seeping in through the garage door. After Sandy, power was out for nearly three weeks in the neighborhood, she says. Many merchants lost food and inventory. Since Sandy, the city’s department of transportation has given money for a small new plaza near the A-train terminus, where Christmas lightings and summer music festivals are held. “We say Sandy was a blessing and a curse because now everyone’s looking at the Rockaways,” says West, the community affairs and government relations head for the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, one of the six partner organizations working with New America. She is looking to the mesh network as a way to connect local businesses, new and old. And of course, to create job opportunities for neighborhood residents, a group that is already served by tech training classes held at RDRC offices on Mott Avenue.

Community organizers in small nonprofits are an optimistic group. One potential stumbling block with the mesh networks is their inability to connect to the wider internet in a disaster. Even if many nodes of the mesh network are undamaged, if the main gateway to the internet is flooded or disconnected from the electrical grid — and if there’s no electrical backup, such as a generator — local users can’t communicate with outside responders. But the community organizers power past that concern.

Vadim Shiglik, 26, is the special projects director for the Sheepshead Bay partner organization, the Kings Bay YM-YWHA. Only 22 when Sandy hit, he exudes an air of enthusiastic efficiency. After the storm, he started a community board and website, Empower Sheepshead, and reached out to community representatives in the multiple languages of the Y’s constituents. The Y quickly became a locus for activity. A rescue mission of Russian seniors stranded in their homes by the storm was organized. Neighbors stopped in for medical supplies and information about which knocks on the door to respond to as public agencies began making door-to-door visits. The mesh network is a way to make that kind of information sharing easier next time there is a disaster, he says. Shiglik, who speaks Russian and was born in Kiev, ticks off the ways he will make sure people know about the network: “Every restaurant will have a sticker with information. We’ll coordinate with OEM, FEMA and Red Cross. We have a network of PTAs and principals at local schools to send alerts.”

INFRASTRUCTURE FROM THE GROUND UP

Internationally, it is not uncommon to find communications infrastructure that has been developed with few resources, in collaboration with grassroots groups. Lack of resources can even allow for unpredictable technological jumps, in areas for example that missed land lines and went right to cellular. For instance, in a rural area of Myanmar, where Gunn and others helped establish networks, mesh gave many people in small villages the ability to communicate and access the internet for the first time, albeit with low bandwidth.

Meanwhile, in Spanish Catalonia, the community-driven mesh internet provider guifi.net has nearly 30,000 nodes and covers nearly 60,000 kilometers. In all of these cases, internet access is a shared good maintained by either the sweat equity or nominal fees of community members. Now small businesses in New York are being asked to think of themselves as similar users of the commons. Yamil Lora in Hunts Point says that local businesses use 35 percent of the energy in the neighborhood and often create most of the waste. They have a responsibility to participate in civic life — and in the case of New York’s nascent mesh network, their participation is not just recommended, but necessary. Businesses agree to host routers, which means allowing professionals like Ortiz on their roof, and agree to promote the existence of the community network, even if through word of mouth. The mesh envelopes the small businesses and the users in a kind of mutual dependency.

A building on Van Brunt Street hosts an internet router installed by the Red Hook Initiative.

Victor Spadaro, owner of Jimmy’s Famous Heros in Sheepshead Bay, has signed up for a router already. His shop was ruined in Sandy. “The cars were floating down the street. Boats were floating by, refrigerators — going right down the street.” Everything inside his sub shop — tables, chairs, refrigeration units — was floating too; cases holding food were broken, a total loss. Like many of his neighbors, he was denied aid from FEMA and the city. “If you needed help, you went to your neighbor — but your neighbor needed help too,” he says. “There was zero communication. I would never have believed in 2012 that we would be down in terms of communication.” Spadaro negotiated with contractors and did work himself and opened two months later. Now he’s ready to join the network.

If the internet is urban infrastructure, like plumbing or electricity, then arguably it should be fixed by agencies and government-appointed providers, like ConEd. But there are perils to handing over this particular public service to bureaucracies. Communications scholars such as London School of Economics’ Alison Powell have examined how the good intentions of companies and governments to provide free universal WiFi might wither and drift away. Even if cities roll out free WiFi for everyone, through initiatives such as LinkNYC, privacy advocates caution that the cost of free is often user data or targeted advertising. Community-created wireless networks may be less likely to harvest data for commercial uses, to advertise, or to set up public interfaces before checking what the public might need or want them for. They may simply be better — more robust, more sustainable.

In the end, the $30 million in RISE projects is a small drop in the city’s disaster mitigation plans. And bolstering communication doesn’t change the fact many coastal areas of New York may simply be uninhabitable in the near future. But the project represents the redistribution of disaster relief funds to groups disproportionately affected by the ongoing disaster of poverty. It also suggests that access to information and the ability to talk back may be the most valuable survival tool we have. If we know something is dangerous and we consistently and clearly communicate that to those with the power to change it, there may still be a chance to be safe and healthy and free.

This piece is part of a series of reported articles and op-eds that Next City is publishing related to preparations for the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re covering the critical issues at stake on the road to creating a “New Urban Agenda,” and hosting events at PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July 2016, and in Quito.

Carly Berwick writes about education and culture for Next City, as well as The New York Times, ARTnews, and other publications. She has taught English in public schools in New York and New Jersey and is the parent of two children, who have attended public, charter, and Montessori schools in Jersey City.

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Central Asia. Domestically, Alan has followed the historic trail of the Civil Rights movement, documented the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek, the New York Times and BagNews, an editor and photographer at Newsmotion and a photographer at Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA). Alan’s work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.