Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Community Mesh Networks & Civic Hacking

Over the past couple days, some people I know have been talking about coalescing a team of civic hackers to build a community mesh network. Read on if you want to know what a community mesh network is, or if you might like to join that team. (If interested, contact me at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com, or initiate a conversation on the NE Wisconsin Slack channel or the DHMN mailing list.)

The people who've expressed interest in this project haven't yet defined what 'civic hacking' aspect of a community mesh network would be the primary goal of the project. As you'll read below, there are multiple ways in which a mesh network could benefit a city and its residents. The mission of the project will be determined when the team first starts meeting and discussing system design.

The introduction in the post, “12 communities experimenting with mesh networks” highlights a dozen wireless community mesh networks.
Mesh networks help people stay connected while avoiding traditional internet providers. Motivation around the country for creating community mesh networks ranges from a desire for social justice, improved information access during natural disasters or just the need to experiment. 
A mesh network creates reliable and redundant wireless internet access. Instead of relying on a wired access point to the internet like a traditional network, a mesh network uses wireless radio nodes that speak to each other, thus creating decentralized wireless access points. Because a mesh network does not have to communicate through a central organization (like an ISP), if one node goes down the network will self heal — allowing service to continue without interruption. 
You are probably wondering, how is this different than your WiFi at home? For one, mesh networks are actually wireless. If you think of your at-home wireless router, it is wired directly to the internet. Within a mesh network, only one node needs to be hardwired. All the other nodes, of which there could be hundreds, do not require direct access to the internet, just access to the mesh network itself. This allows a mesh network to operate without laying new cable, or as a local network during a service outage.”
If you’re considering working on the NE Wisconsin community mesh network civic hack team, read the above post about networks in different cities, and click through to some of the websites mentioned to see exactly what they’re doing. The post also has a recommendation for those considering building a community mesh network: “For Diana Nucera, program director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, it is all about access, no matter where you get it. Nucera points potential mesh network advocates to Commotion’s setup wizard.” [Commotion is open source. The OpenMeshProject is another of the many resources to look at for project design.]

In the Wired Magazine article “It’s Time To Take Mesh Networks Seriously,” the author paints an interesting picture of how community mesh networks can work and a variety of reason why people might want to build and use them. This is definitely civic hacking…
“...mesh networks have many benefits, from architectural to political. Yet they haven’t really taken off, even though they have been around for some time. I believe it’s time to reconsider their potential, and make mesh networking a reality. Not just because of its obvious benefits, but also because it provides an internet-native model for building community and governance. 
But first, the basics: An ad hoc network infrastructure that can be set up by anyone, mesh networks wirelessly connect computers and devices directly to each other without passing through any central authority or centralized organization (like a phone company or an ISP). They can automatically reconfigure themselves according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth, storage, and so on; this is what makes them resistant to disaster and other interference. Dynamic connections between nodes enable packets to use multiple routes to travel through the network, which makes these networks more robust. Compared to more centralized network architectures, the only way to shut down a mesh network is to shut down every single node in the network. 
That’s the vital feature, and what makes it stronger in some ways than the regular internet. 
But mesh networks aren’t just for political upheavals or natural disasters. Many have been installed as part of humanitarian programs, aimed at helping poor neighborhoods and underserved areas. For people who can’t afford to pay for an internet connection, or don’t have access to a proper communications infrastructure, mesh networks provide the basic infrastructure for connectivity. Not only do mesh networks represent a cheap and efficient means for people to connect and communicate to a broader community, but they provide us with a choice for what kind of internet we want to have. 
For these concerned about the erosion of online privacy and anonymity, mesh networking represents a way to preserve the confidentiality of online communications. Given the lack of a central regulating authority, it’s extremely difficult for anyone to
assess the real identity of users connected to these networks. And because mesh networks are generally invisible to the internet, the only way to monitor mesh traffic is to be locally and directly connected to them...”
Based on my minimal knowledge about mesh networks, it seems like it should be approached not primarily as a low-cost way to provide Internet to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. If a city wants to provide a minimum level of service for all of its residents, there are more robust ways to do that than by using a civic hack mesh network. Internet for underserved populations might end up being one of many uses for these networks, but there should be a larger focus on providing (1) a method of connecting to the Internet that is an alternative to traditional ISPs, (2) an interesting ‘maker’ project for those who enjoy radio and electronics and (3) an opportunity for young people who may enjoy learning about this field of technology by hands-on building and maintaining, rather than just by reading about it or building small projects in a lab. In some areas, creating a resilient communications network for use after natural disasters is an appropriate application for community mesh networks. But NE Wisconsin has an extremely low likelihood of needing that compared to areas that get hit by hurricanes, frequent earthquakes, flooding or landslides.

So mesh networks sound pretty cool and useful, and the technology has been around for a while. Why aren't there more mesh networks around the US and the world? Why don't you hear more about them in the media? Here's an edited version of why the Wired article author thinks mesh networks are less common than it seems like they should be:
"The complexity to set up, manage, and maintain a mesh network is one obstacle to their widespread deployment. 
Another barrier is perception (and marketing). Mesh networks are generally seen as an emergency tool rather than a regular means for communication 
Political and power struggles. Even though mesh networking could theoretically support the government in providing internet connectivity to poor neighborhoods or undeserved areas, mesh networks cannot be easily monitored, nor properly regulated by third parties. 
We are focusing too much on the technical and legal challenges of mesh networking as opposed to the social benefits it might bring in terms of user autonomy and community-building. As has been done with Freifunk in Germany and in Spain, more mesh networks need to be deployed on an arbitrary basis. Beyond the internet, the governance model of many community wireless networks could potentially translate into other parts of our life. By promoting a DIY approach to network communications, mesh networking represents an opportunity to realize that it can sometimes be more beneficial for us, as a community, to rely on our own resources and those of our peers than that of centralized authorities."
The Internet is overflowing with technical and social information about community mesh networks. If you know pretty much nothing about these networks and want to learn more, start by reading the and Wired articles linked above, then read and understand the Wikipedia entries about wireless community networks and mesh networking. That will give you a good start on visualizing what this civic hacking project might involve. Wikipedia also has a list of wireless community networks. As mentioned above, the Commotion open source system is recommended by a person involved with a mesh network in Detroit, so either that or the OpenMeshProject would probably be a good starting point for designing the NE Wisconsin mesh network. Googling for this topic will present you with way more info than you’ll ever find time to read.

If this project hits critical mass and acquires a project lead, I’ll write posts to provide info on tech and design details of the proposed community mesh network as the work progresses. As mentioned above, contact us if you want to get involved with this project!


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