A Tech Innovation in Detroit: Connect People, Not Computers

A technology project in Detroit is making in-roads based on an old school philosophy that the Internet can't solve every problem by itself.

By Jamilah King Oct 03, 2012

At first glance, Dolores Leonard’s house looks like all the others on her block in Southwestern Detroit. It’s a modest, one-story brick structure that sits behind a carefully manicured lawn, a place that Leonard and her husband have called home for over 50 years. What stands out is what’s on the chimney: a slim, silver pole that’s shaped almost like a spear. It stands at about 3-feet tall, sticks directly up into the air and, if all goes according to plan, will become an instrumental part of one community’s effort to build its own people-powered wireless Internet.

The device is a router, and it’s not too different than the one you’re likely using to read this story online. Once it’s up and running, the idea is that the router atop Leonard’s roof will work as a hub in what’s called a "mesh network," to open up Internet access throughout Leonard’s working class black neighborhood.

Leonard isn’t your typical tech guru. Well into her 70s, she’s a retired adult education teacher who spends her days absorbed in her community’s issues. But the router on her roof is one sign of how important she is to the city’s emerging technological infrastructure. It’s part of an effort to build a community-owned wireless network in a neighborhood known by its zip code, 48217, one of the Detroit’s most economically impoverished areas. 

The goal isn’t only to give residents a low-cost Internet option–although that’s an enticing selling point for many. It’s to give residents who are often overlooked and underserved an easy tool for gathering and spreading the information that’s important to them. "It’s important that you not be left out of the loop," Leonard sums up.

Detroit, which is famously associated with the collapse of U.S. manufacturing, may seem like an unlikely home for a tech revolution. But it’s happening, thanks in large part to millions of dollars in federal stimulus money that’s helping make the city a hub for innovation. Both corporations and community-driven efforts are angling for space in the quickly evolving landscape. 

Last April social media giant Twitter opened up offices in the city’s downtown, with one official from the San Francisco-based company telling the Huffington Post that "Detroit’s emerging mix of automotive and digital cultures made it a natural location for Twitter’s newest offices." The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also opened up a new space in the city, creating an important regional pathway for would-be entrepreneurs. And Black Enterprise described the flurry of activity as a "digital renaissance."

As the city charts its future through in this new tech economy, communities are also finding ways to incorporate technology into their old school political organizing, through efforts like the router atop Leonard’s home. The mesh network development in 48217 offers a useful case study of the powerful reach that organizing around the Internet can have–both on and offline.

What’s a Mesh Network?

Put simply, mesh wireless networks are sophisticated ways of sharing one central Internet connection. The sophisticated aspect of it is the software, often a custom-built program that plugs into consumer wireless routers. Normal wireless routers in most homes plug into a modem (or DSL cable) to connect users to the Internet, and you can only share your Internet as far as that router will reach.

Once a network is equipped with mesh wireless software, it allows routers to talk directly to one another. Think of it as a game of telephone, one technologist tells me. First a major meeting place in the community has a connection, which can then tap into a neighboring house, and then another house. When someone sends an email on the network, that message goes to the first house, and then another, until it reaches its destination. Users are, in effect, creating smaller "local networks" in a community that’s hooked up to the needed software.

Ideally, the mesh wireless networks would be a low-cost way for several people to access Internet service. And because the networks are built from house to house, they also allow users to easily share information resources with neighbors–a community bulletin board, calendar, or file-sharing program, for instance. That data, meanwhile, is locally owned, not housed with an ISP or on a Google server.

You still need at least one subscription to a traditional Internet service provider, but instead of each home or businesses needing to buy its own subscription, the neighborhood need only to rely on one.

It’s important to note that Detroit’s mesh wireless networks are still a work-in-progress. A similar effort is underway in Brooklyn, where residents are working to build a mesh network in the Red Hook housing projects. Anthony Schloss is the media programs coordinator at Red Hook Initiative, a non-profit that’s working to develop the technology for the neighborhood. When I visited him at his office this past summer, he acknowledged that mesh technology is in its infancy. "Sharing vibrant neighborhood information is valuable," Schloss says, but it can only work with adequate collaboration between technologists and communities themselves.

"The innovation we’re doing here is not the technology," says Josh Breitbart, director of field operations at the Open Technology Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that’s helping to develop software for Detroit’s mesh wireless network. "It’s the social networks."

That’s where residents like Leonard come in, as a hub for the social networks that the mesh networks need in order to work. When she’s not busy with duties as vice president of her neighborhood block club, she’s over at the nearby Kemeny Recreation Center, where she runs a makeshift library and computer center called The Reading Room.

"What we’ve learned is that you can’t make the technology work and then add the organizing," says Jeanette Lee, who’s co-director of Allied Media Projects, a non-profit made up of media strategists who have long been tinkering at the intersections of DIY-innovation and social change in Detroit. "They actually have to happen together."

Stimulating Detroit’s ‘Digital Ecology’

The downfall of Detroit’s economy is legendary. Once a thriving hub for automotive manufacturing through the mid-1960’s, the city’s fortunes plummeted as America’s manufacturing-based economy became a thing of the past. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population fell by 25 percent, which was the largest drop of any city with over 100,000 resident and one that was unmatched even by New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the height of the economic crisis, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 22 percent, which was triple the national average.

"It’s an exciting time to be here in Detroit," says Jason Lee (no relation to Jeanette Lee), the executive director of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program. "We can’t go anywhere else but up."

So in 2010, Detroit was one of several cities to benefit from federal stimulus money meant specifically to expand broadband access. The effort was called the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP, and it was one smaller part of President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. Just over $7 billion was set aside to expand broadband services in the U.S, and slightly more than $4 billion of that money was made available to municipalities, universities, companies and community groups with innovative ideas of how to put it to good use.

Detroit wound up with a sizeable share of the national pie for innovation: $1.8 million, which was largely split between community groups and Michigan State University. One of those community groups was Lee’s Allied Media Projects. The group became one of several that came together to form the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which held a series of meetings and community surveys to establish a set of guiding principles for their work–with or without the federal funding.

Their goal was to do more than just get people online. It was to use digital technologies in addition to–and not in place of–the city’s already strong offline social networks.

That meant identifying people in neighborhoods who are like Dolores Leonard.

"What we wanted to be using the money for was to bring digital media infrastructure into our existing community organizing networks," explains Lee.

When I visited Lee at the Allied Media Projects office, not far from the campus of Wayne State University, she took me through the groups’ framework of working toward what she calls a "healthy digital ecology." That may sound like activist jargon, but to her and other members of the coalition, the intention was clear: communication is a fundamental human right, and whether people do it online or offline, they should at least be able to do it in ways that make their lives meaningful.

The coalition used the stimulus funds to establish 13 public computer centers within its network. One of those was Leonard’s Reading Corner at the Kemeny Recreation Center in Southwest Detroit, one of the few places that the community’s residents can get free books (the nearest library is three bus rides away). The creation of the computer centers was one way to address the problem of Internet access in some of the city’s most vulnerable communities. But separately, organizers dreamt up an ambitious plan to reimagine how those communities could use and share their information once online. That’s where mesh networking came into play.

"Learning digital media skills is just one piece of that process," says Lee. "It’s the vehicle that we’re choosing to use, but it’s a much larger process. What helps about the digital media tool with which we’re entering schools is that everyone’s really hot for technology."

Making It Work

The potential upsides of mesh wireless are promising, but both the technology and the process of adopting it have been far from perfect. The software is still being developed to make the networks work efficiently. And since the mesh networks are only as strong as the social networks that use them, they still struggle with the basic question of how much bandwidth users can afford–meaning that page loads, downloads, and videos can be slower.

And then there’s another basic question: Are they legal?

The telecommunications market is notoriously uncompetitive, with only a handful of companies providing wireline and wireless service to millions of American subscribers. Mesh networks themselves are legal, but contractually frowned upon. That means if you’re caught hosting or using one, you won’t be charged with a crime. But you do risk a stern warning from your Internet service provider, or your service being cut off.

But perhaps the most crucial challenges relate to the social networks themselves. One enduring lesson in Detroit is that technology, no matter how ambitious, can often make visible the race and class divisions that map our lives. For Leonard and for the organizers in Detroit, this is what’s missing in most discussions about the digital divide. No technology exists in a vacuum.

"My community has to be able to access data and information, and they have to be willing to accept help," said Leonard. "But the persons who give help have to understand that you cannot just come in and ramrod my community and think that because people don’t have, you assume they are illiterate."

"I can’t say that [Detroit Digital Justice Coalition] enhanced [us]," she added. "We were already where we are. It was just a matter of their accommodating us with what we did not have through the BTOP. They had connections."

And it’s those connections–literal and metaphorical–that both residents and organizers are grappling to understand. The innovation of their mesh networking project is, in many ways, an old fashioned willingness to admit to the limits of technology.

"It wasn’t enough to just know that some techie or engineer could sprinkle some magic router dust around the neighborhood and they would be sharing Internet access," says Breitbart of the Open Technology Institute. "That infrastructure needed to be made visible to people."