When Hurricane Sandy tore through the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn last year, power was lost and buildings were flooded. But there was at least one thing that managed to withstand the storm: a community-built wireless network.
Red Hook is in a low-laying area crisscrossed by highways and bridges. It’s home to one of the borough’s largest housing projects, an eponymous cluster of six-story buildings that house 6,000 mostly black and Latino residents. In the days immediately following Sandy, Anthony Schloss, director of media for a community group called Red Hook Initiative, was among a handful of residents who tested out the community wireless network that he had begun working on months earlier. He and a team of the group’s members fanned out across parts of Red Hook to put specially equipped routers on project rooftops that would help strengthen local wireless signals. What resulted was a new way for residents to report flooding or their need for food and water.
Since the hurricane, the Red Hook Initiative has begun a yearlong digital stewards training program to teach a half dozen local residents how to install, maintain and troubleshoot emerging technologies. Recently, when Time Warner, New York City’s biggest telecommunications provider, came knocking with a generous grant for laptops, tablets, televisions and software for Red Hook Initiative’s members, the digital stewards took up the task of learning how to install all of the equipment. The stewards also spread the word about the community wireless network throughout the neighborhood.
Red Hook’s digital stewards are unique in New York City’s burgeoning tech scene. While outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg has pushed entrepreneurship as an integral part of the city’s economic growth, much of that innovation has been driven by hedge funds and startups that are overwhelmingly white and male. This lack of diversity isn’t unique to New York City, and the Bloomberg administration has at least paid lip service to the need to make the sector reflective of the city’s diverse population. What the project in Red Hook adds is an understated emphasis on racial equity—having people own the networks that they rely on and use them to solve problems unique to their communities.
Red Hook is one of a handful of neighborhoods that have experimented with community wireless networks. Similar projects have popped up in Southwestern Detroit, and a curriculum is being developed by a group called Allied Media Projects to make the model easily exportable to other areas. Also known as mesh wireless networks, these setups allow dozens of residents to connect to the Internet from one main hub, often atop a church, school or community center. The idea is to use a commercial Internet setup to connect dozens, sometimes hundreds, of local residents across a series of strategically placed routers.
While the concept of mesh wireless networking isn’t new — more than 200 people from 70 countries met in Berlin recently for a conference focused entirely on the topic— the practice of combining a network with a community-based youth development curriculum is unique.
For the Red Hook stewards, who are paid by the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity, the program provides them with transferrable tech skills. Katherine Ortiz, 22, is a lifelong Red Hook resident who’s been a digital steward since January. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a computer engineer before delving into fashion design at the Art Institute of New York. As a participant in the stewards program, she’s learned how to program and install wireless networks and she’s interned at Brooklyn Fiber, a Red Hook-based Internet service provider. She says that she sees the community wireless network as “an opportunity to get up a central hub for people in the community to get what they need.”
On a recent afternoon, Ortiz jokes about starting her own wiring company where technicians are outfitted in fashion-forward clothes and tool belts.
“Whenever you have people come into your house to do installation, you wanna be able to relate to them, to trust them. This way you’ll know what they’re about,” she says with a laugh.
Georgia Bullen is a technologist from the Open Technology Institute, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation that’s supporting projects in Detroit and Brooklyn. She underscores the importance of building a network that’s about more than Internet access. Among the services she hopes the network will be able to provide are ways for residents to quickly look for local job listings that are either physically posted on the network or are made more available through the group’s community partnerships.
“Initially we were very focused on access, now we’re thinking a lot more about how we can provide services; it’s not just the Internet.”