A Berkman-Klein Center Tale: From Fellows Hour to Funding!

This week, Mozilla and NSF announced the winners of their Wireless Innovation for a Network Society (WINS) challenge. After designing and prototyping for many months, my team at Guardian Project won the fourth grand prize for our work on “Wind” off-grid communication networks. This being a challenge mostly focused on deployment of post-disaster communications infrastructure, we are very satisfied that our privacy-centric, human rights-oriented infrastructure-less approach was positively recognized and rewarded.
 
What I want to share, for the benefit of new Fellows, and the larger community, was a brief timeline of how “Wind” began as an idea at 23 Everett Street (BKC’s HQ!) in 2014, and ended up where it is today. Beginning with the formation of a new idea, moving to introspection and tinkering, and then opening to collaboration and feedback, felt like one ideal story arc for the first year at the Berkman-Klein Center.
 
Fall 2014: Occupy!
 
Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement was heating up in the streets, and along with it fears of mobile network shutdowns. Fellow Ellery Biddle from Global Voices hoped to respond to use of the insecure FireChat app by protestors, and so we collaborated on an article. We then presented some of our thoughts on the situation at a Fellows hour, our weekly community gathering. Later that week, as I sat around drinking too much delicious free coffee in the Fellows room, I thought to myself, “hey, there really isn’t a good, free, open-source private-by-design off grid communications system! I SHOULD BUILD ONE!”. Sometime in the next 24 hours, I had a 28kb app called Gilgamesh that did some interesting things.
 
I posted my progress to the “Berkmaniacs” community mailing list. Charlie Nesson came by to see if I was for real. Jonathan Zittrain pulled me into some meetings related to emergency mesh networks he had been envisioning with a former FCC chairman in the aftermath of the Marathon bombing. Four days later, I was claiming to have created Twitter over Bluetooth, but I think again, I was in a free espresso-fueled state.
 
The outcome of this flurry of activity was a new idea called StatusCasting that I hoped would be the RSS of off-grid, nearby communication, and the app Gilgamesh that continued to evolve. I know we all aspire to come to BKC to make impact through research, publishing, or participation in the creation of something like RSS, Creative Commons, or Chilling Effects (Lumin!). This was my shot. I am not ashamed to admit that. Fortunately, I moved from wide eyed excitement to quiet tinkering, as I fully grasped the scale and scope of the problem I was attempting to tackle. I laid off the coffee for awhile, in lieu of slowly brewed tea.
 
Winter 2015: A Mighty Wind!
 
As things happen at BKC, I became busy and fascinated by all the brilliant people around me, the books to read, and the talks to attend. I also realized that for my work on these new kind of networks to go forward, that I needed to have a much more fully formed concept. My goal was not to build yet another app, but to advanced thinking about the possibilities of digital communication without the internet. Fortunately, I had committed time during my fellowship for introspection, research, writing and hacking, on this very subject. I came up with a new grand name for this work, Wind, as a counterpart to the Web. Instead of hyperlinks and web servers, Wind has Chime beacons and humans with smartphones moving through time and space. I wanted to move the discussion beyond “mesh networks” to something bigger… It may have been the free coffee, plus now, the peanut butter filled pretzels (new snack!), that fueled my ambition, but hey, that’s what they are for, right?
 
I ended up producing a set of rough work on specifications, more prototypes, and the beginnings of a lightning talk style presentation, Beyond Static Networks to Consider Space and Time. Not a bad place to be six months into my fellowship.
 
Spring 2015: Spinning up the Wind Farm!
 
As my first year as Fellow begin coming to an end (oh boy does it happen fast!), I started to think about ways I could share my progress, and decided to hold a two day workshop. After all, hosting and inviting people to come to Berkman has a great deal of gravitas. You are likely to get people generally above your pay grade to show up. With the great help of Carrie, Becca and the BKC staff, I planned and organized a two day event called WindFarm0.
 
The first day was an invite only workshop of advocates, designers and developers, already invested in implementation Wind-like systems. I got a small amount of grant funding to cover travel, breakfast, burritos and beer. We had a great turnout, including other BKC folk, security and privacy experts, researchers from Microsoft working on industrial IoT and a team building small, portable medical devices for monitoring ebola patients. We took over the conference room, beamed in remote experts, and had a very productive day, working to connect my catalytic ideas on Wind, with the rest of the body of work out there. There were many pictures of whiteboards taken and future plans laid.
 
The second day was a public hands on day, to play, learn and break, all of our prototypes and apps. We had over 100 people register, and about 50 showed up. It ended with an off-grid digital relay release from BKC to Harvard Square, utilizing competing technology stacks. It was great fun, and thanks to the Berkmanfriends list, even got covered by CBC Radio.
 
Since then….
 
As I continued my fellowship and affiliation with Berkman in 2015 and beyond, the work on Wind continued. I presented my one year in with Wind update at another fall Fellows Hour in 2015, and had some amazing collaboration with Jack and SJ, who built a “Wind network simulator” javascript tool. This work is still featured as part of our project site today. Based on experiences from Hurricane Sandy and elsewhere, Willow Brugh invited me to talk about Wind at an amazing workshop of her own at Berkman (also check out Willow’s recently published Guide for Journalists in Post-Disaster Zones for Getting Online). I also met Jason Griffey of LibraryBox, when he began his Fellowship in 2015. We spent many hours talking and dreaming of the broad benefits of non-internet communication. Since then, we have found a number of ways to include the use of LibraryBoxes and pirateboxes, as part of our Wind network suite. We even had one running in our final presentation at the Mozilla NSF event!
 
Since 2015, code and concepts related to Wind have been built into a number of apps, and used by real people around the world, to share and communicate, when the internet isn’t the best option. We don’t have one Wind “app”, but many variations of the work in projects like F-Droid.org, a decentralized app store that is used in Cuba. We spent this last year working on Viento, a Wind-inspired effort to improve the use of human rights and humanitarian apps for limited connectivity areas in Latin America. When Mozilla and NSF announced the WINS challenge, we decided to start exploring how this work could benefit people better in post-disaster and humanitarian situations. I think this YouTube video does the best job of communicating where we are today, and of course, our announcement blog post as well.

 
Bringing it Back to Berkman
 
Beginning with the formation of a new idea, moving to introspection and tinkering, and then opening to collaboration and feedback, felt like my ideal story arc for the first year at BKC. Everyone will have their own path, to be sure, but don’t be afraid to embrace a new one, and consider where you might end up on it after 9 months, or even 3 years and beyond.
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That’s my story now. I hope it was helpful. Now go check out the application and apply for the 2019-2020 Berkman-Klein Center Fellowship today!


Also published on Medium.