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In Red Hook, Mesh Network Connects Sandy Survivors Still Without Power

BY Becky Kazansky | Monday, November 12 2012

A Red Hook Houses resident accesses mesh network-provided wifi using a smartphone. Photo: Becky Kazansky / techPresident

Wondering what kind of articles we feature on Personal Democracy Plus, our subscription offering? Subscribers support this kind of original in-depth reporting — but because this piece is focused on Hurricane Sandy relief so soon after the storm, and to offer non-subscribers a look, we're offering it to everyone. Red Hook Initiative is still accepting offers of donations and volunteers.

When the New York City Housing Authority turned off power, water, and heat to residents of the Red Hook Houses shortly before Hurricane Sandy arrived, residents said, most of the more than 5,000 residents who live in the complex chose not to leave. With the electricity went the means residents of the Houses, the largest residential complex in Brooklyn, used to communicate with the outside world. As the days dragged on and outrage spread over living conditions, camera crews made their way in to catch a glimpse of people suffering in the dark. Resident Khadijah Jones, speaking to the Village Voice, described her situation as "our Katrina."

As of Sunday, some people had power back, but no heat. Others have no power or heat. No one has Internet to their homes, and cell service is still spotty too. But thanks to an experimental wireless network launched in the neighborhood last year, some of them were able to gain Internet access back this weekend — even if they did not have power yet in their building. Through a mesh network first launched in November 2011 through a local nonprofit, residents after the storm were able to alert people to their needs over social media and check up on relatives. Access is limited and the network could, at the time, support only about 100-150 connections simultaneously. But in the wake of a disaster that created a new camaraderie in Manhattan around cellphone charging stations and free wifi, New Yorkers can appreciate that when the neighborhood goes dark, even a scrap of a link to the outside world is better than nothing.

Jones and I had kept in touch since I'd first interviewed her several months ago about her work doing community outreach for the Red Hook Initiative, a local nonprofit that focuses on training programs for kids and adults, community outreach, and working with media. The first time Jones and I spoke after the storm, she was camping out in Flatbush, Brooklyn, busy applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance on her friend's computer. She'd fled the Red Hook Houses after enduring several days without heat, light, or water, but came home two days later to check in on neighbors and help friends and community members apply for FEMA assistance on available computers at the Red Hook Initiative's offices on Hicks Street.

As the Red Hook Initiative became a de facto hub for Occupy Sandy volunteer coordination, donation collections, and food distribution, it also became a beacon of connectivity for volunteers and neighborhood residents without power in their homes. Sandy's devastating flooding had rendered much local telecommunication infrastructure useless, but perhaps because of RHI's relative distance from the worst flooding at the piers lining the bay — or just plain luck — the power was back up and running at RHI the morning after the storm. Back in November, RHI placed two wifi "mesh nodes" on its roof, the product of joint efforts of activist Alyx Baldwin and RHI's media programs coordinator, Tony Schloss. The nodes blanketed the surrounding block with wifi connected to the global Internet through a Verizon FiOS connection. When people came in to RHI to get warm, they also charged their phones, called worried relatives, and checked their email.

Mesh networks are often used for "last mile" rural Internet access because they enable wifi coverage to spread over a larger area than it would through traditional, centralized, "hub-and-spoke" model networks. When a hub-and-spoke network's hub goes down, the spokes all lose connectivity. Mesh networks are all spokes. If one fails, traffic can find another route through other nodes to get to the Internet — so long as the point or points in the mesh that are also connecting to the Internet still have their connection — or to continue communicating with one another. These networks come in different configurations. Some are meticulously planned by communities and span cities like Vienna, Athens and rural Catalonia in Europe, offering alternatives to established Internet service providers. Others are set up in the wake of disasters to provide temporary connections, as seen in post-tsunami Indonesia. The newest crop of technical projects in the mesh community aim to make setting up spontaneous networks easier. One such project is the Open Technology Institute's Commotion software project, which Baldwin currently uses to run the nodes at RHI.

On Friday night, Baldwin, who had by then taken a field analyst position at the Open Technology Institute, called me with exciting news. Apparently a FEMA guy named Frank was interested in expanding those mesh nodes into a full-fledged network to bring Internet back to the community. He'd recruited a team of hackers from D.C. to come up and work with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, a disaster communications nonprofit, and figure out how to feed into existing community efforts. For nine months, I'd been documenting the evolution of Baldwin's own efforts to build a community wifi network in Red Hook. This was an unexpected development.

Frank Sanborn is a newly minted innovation fellow at FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services, part of a cohort of people brought in from outside government for intense short-term work in one of several areas. He flew into New York on a red eye on Monday to help the agency's local operations set up connectivity in disaster shelters around the boroughs. FEMA has 175 iPads it provides to assist with sign language interpretation and other special needs of those who want to apply for assistance from the agency. FEMA coordinated with an independent nonprofit from Texas to set up satellite communications that provide the connectivity for the iPads, which travel with teams at local relief centers around hard-hit areas like the Rockaways. This past weekend, the ITDRC's Mobile Recovery Technology center — housed on a decked-out white school bus — sat parked in the IKEA lot as the nonprofit's staffers busied themselves helping FEMA set up Internet inside of the Red Hook IKEA store, which had invited FEMA to set up a local headquarters in its cafe.

Sanborn wanted more of the kind of bandwidth allotted for these iPads to provide Internet access for the community. He told me that usually when FEMA comes in, they focus on taking care of bandwidth for their own needs rather than the public's need for Internet access. But he wanted Red Hook to be different.

"Community wifi seemed like a natural solution," he told me at the cafe early Saturday morning, as he sat emailing the mayor's office and other organizations working on disaster relief.

A member of Sanborn's FEMA innovations team had introduced him to hackers in D.C working on ad-hoc networks, and New York-based technologist Sean McIntyre, who'd been volunteering on the ITDRC bus, clued him in to pre-existing community efforts to spread wifi connectivity in the Red Hook community. ITDRC was ready to donate a satellite uplink from ViaSat for the wifi network over at RHI. The makings of an unlikely coalition were born.

Over the weekend, this scrappy team of hackers, government officials, and do-gooder nonprofit workers set to work augmenting the pre-existing network in Red Hook. The D.C team usually works on mesh software tools they call "Project Byzantium."

But the pre-existing RHI nodes run on different software called Commotion, often referred to in the media by its alternate moniker, "Internet in a Suitcase." The primary difference between the two is the mechanism through which data in the network gets passed around, called a "routing protocol." These routing protocols are at the heart of what makes pop-up networks possible. Up until Tuesday, Byzantium ran on a routing algorithm called Babel, while Commotion utilizes OLSR. The team sprinted over the course of a few days to make their software compatible with Commotion.

On Sunday morning, two ITDRC volunteers brought a satellite dish and installed it on the roof of RHI. The Byzantium team, with Baldwin, configured a set of routers to run Commotion software. With backing from FEMA and a new community imperative to do good in the post-Sandy world, a neighbor who'd been reticent about offering roof access to serve as host for a node gladly opened his doors. With two days of work, the network's coverage area doubled, providing enough capacity for hundreds of residents to connect at any given time. Where the network was previously only really good within a few hundred meters of RHI, it now spread to Red Hook Houses' central courtyard and several of its buildings.

"I've been trying to expand the network for the better part of the year, and now all this happens in two days," Baldwin happily reflected Sunday as work wrapped up for the night. Team Byzantium exchanged high fives and headed headed back to D.C with new field experience under their belts.

Now the hard work begins: turning these temporary efforts into sustainable, longer-term infrastructure. With four rooftop nodes as of Monday morning, the mesh network is still nascent. Each large node supports about 50-150 users at a time, and a fifth smaller one -- placed indoors at RHI — is the type of router you see in homes. It powers about 25 connections at a time. Baldwin says they were maxed out for most of the week as residents accessed the network, largely through their mobile phones. When it went down briefly on Sunday, as they transferred from FiOS to the satellite link, a handful of people came over within an hour to ask what had happened.

Sanborn told me multiple times over the course of the weekend that the key goal of these FEMA efforts is sustainability — that his job is to facilitate grass-roots community efforts, not come in with a heavy hand and start from scratch.

"Feeding into pre-existing efforts in communities is key: it's clear that that's the vision going forward," he said. "It wasn't clear a week ago. Now it is."

I introduced Sanborn to Jones, of Red Hook Initiative, late Sunday night at the RHI building, where the mesh team is huddled in the back to figure out next steps for outreach and deployment. Khadijah told Frank about all of the residents who've been applying for FEMA aid through the efforts of the Red Hook Initiative over the last week, and who had relied on this community organization as a lifeline. Frank was somber.

"I'm so honored to be able to do this," he said. "I shut down my company to come out and do it. It's a humbling thing."

Becky Kazansky is a techPresident contributing writer and former techPresident research assistant.

This post has been updated. Frank Sanborn is an innovation fellow working with both FEMA and HHS.
This post has been updated. After beginning to work with mesh networks in Brooklyn, Alyx Baldwin joined the Open Technology Institute as a field analyst.