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Communities growing Detroit's digital capacity one house at a time

Mar 3, 2016

The Next Idea

Take a moment to think about how much you rely on the Internet.

It’s pretty safe to say many of us find it hard to imagine not being able to get online to communicate, access information, or explore.

Credit Courtesy of Diana Nucera

Diana Nucera and Cliff Samuels want to bring Detroit neighborhoods into the digital world by building Internet access and digital literacy one house at a time. They’re doing it through the Detroit Community Technology Project and its Digital Stewards program.

Nucera is with Allied Media Projects and directs the Detroit Digital Stewards program. Samuels is one of those digital stewards.

In order to address Detroit’s needs in the digital age, Nucera tells us it’s important to understand the digital ecosystem that exists in the city. As it stands, she says 60% of households in Detroit do not have a broadband Internet connection; 40% of those have no connection to the Internet at all, either mobile or fixed; 30% of Detroit residents are living below the federal poverty level, and as many as 70% of school-age children do not have access to Internet at home.

In its National Broadband Plan, the FCC points to lack of relevance as one of the most significant barriers to broadband adoption, and that’s a problem Nucera wants to tackle.

“How do we make the Internet relevant to people?” Nucera asks. “More than just consuming media, how do they then become producers of their own media, producers of their own infrastructure and start building the Internet in a way that makes sense to their neighborhoods?”

"We share a cup of sugar, why not share a few megabytes of bandwidth as well?"

Many neighborhoods in Detroit are offline, Nucera tells us, due to widespread credit problems or foreclosure. The Digital Stewards program is part of DCTP’s effort to put digital infrastructure back in the hands of those communities.

The program “shares both digital literacy skills from how to build computers from recycled parts to IT troubleshooting, and then eventually teaching people basic wireless engineering skills so then they can build a wireless network through community organizing in their neighborhood,” she says.

She tells us they’ve trained about 60 folks so far and helped get six of these networks up and running in Detroit. DCTP has also helped set up similar networks in New York and around the world.

Community involvement is a huge part of the project at every step along the way. That’s where the digital stewards come in.

“As a digital steward, we go out into the community and ask them their technology needs,” Samuels says. “Unlike models in the past in which groups go into the community and just slap technology on them and leave, digital stewards, we go out there, find out their needs and concerns, help them construct the systems that will help solve their problems, and then also at the same time train them on maintaining the systems.”

Even beyond helping people figure out what type of system they need, setting it up, testing it and training them to perform basic troubleshooting and maintenance, Samuels tells us that digital stewards remain available to jump in and help with any future problems that could occur.

At the heart of the whole project is what Nucera calls “community wireless networks,” essentially a mesh of interconnected wireless connections. She explains that the stewards work with special firmware that changes the way an Internet router operates. A router’s job is usually to take a signal and just send it out to connected devices, but this new firmware enables them to both send to and receive information from other routers, to “speak and listen,” she says.

"There's always been a belief that people of color really don't understand or use or develop technology … We're into tech, it's just that the current paradigm really doesn't show us as a major contributor."

Routers with this firmware are then placed on the rooftops of households willing to share their Internet connection, where they will communicate with other such routers via line of sight.

“As long as these routers are looking at each other and can see each other, then they can talk to each other,” Nucera says. "And what that does is it creates like a blanket, or a mesh, over a neighborhood.”

Residents can then install a router in their home that will grant them access to this network hanging over their heads.

“Imagine having this blanket, and then you’re kind of pulling a string down into the home, so then the signal can go into the home,” she says.

The attractive thing about this mesh-style wireless network, according to Nucera, is that a single Internet connection can serve several households. It’s also the thing that makes many people wary of the project.

“Most of us are used to having a single connection, so what’s tricky is actually convincing people that it’s OK to share an Internet connection,” she says. They’ve taken to calling it “digital philanthropy,” encouraging people to think about it as “a way for neighbors to connect with each other and get to know each other. It’s like, we share a cup of sugar, why not share a few megabytes of bandwidth as well?”

Nucera tells us these mesh-style networks also function as an intranet, “so not only can neighbors share Internet connections, but the network will work without the Internet,” which she explains is a huge advantage in situations that would otherwise shut down local communication.

“We found that this worked really well during Hurricane Sandy in the network that we supported in Red Hook, New York,” she says. “So when all of the communications were down, FEMA actually used their wireless mesh network to be able to communicate with neighbors.”

Samuels and Nucera both have high hopes that this program will help level the technological playing field for everyone.

“There’s always been a belief that people of color really don’t understand or use or develop technology,” Samuels says. “My goal … through the digital stewards is to show that this is a false belief, that yes, people of color, black people, women, Latinos, we understand technology. … We’re into tech, it’s just that the current paradigm really doesn’t show us as a major contributor.”

“It’s just amazing what is coming out of Detroit and how relevant and important that is to other places that are finding similar issues,” Nucera says. “So I would like to see this model scale, and community organizations and block clubs running their own versions of Digital Stewards programs, because I believe it’s important to build the digital capacity of Detroit as the city is being developed.”

“The more people know about technology around them, the more residents will be able to participate in shaping their environment and participate in developing their own city,” she says.

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