(Originally, posted on Medium and Fold, but here since this is my *real* blog after all, and if the Internet went down, I still will have my local blog archive, and can run a teeny tiny WordPress server on my own computer, local network and/or $9 computer).
This last Friday and Saturday, a group of tool developers, designers, user advocates, security experts, tinkerers and curious humans gathered at the Berkman Center on Friday and Saturday for discussions, teachings and hands-on learning about the past, present and future of nearby network communication technology…. and to answer the basic question “If there was suddenly no Internet, what would we do?”.
I call this new communication space between all of our devices “Wind”, as it is a counterpart to the Web, but very different in its shape and basic nature.Wind Farm is an event designed to understand how to better harness the power from the Wind, and shape it to our needs.
We had over 40 participants from Microsoft Research, the Open Technology Institute (part of New America Foundation), F-Droid (Free Software Foundation Europe), Tibet Action Institute, Rights Action Lab, the Briar Project, the Guardian Project, DeNovo (out of UC Berkekey’s TIER group), NYU, USC, members of the local Nepali community, and fellows from Harvard’s Berkman Center and Nieman Foundation. We all realized that there is a shared core problem that needs to be solved, around the basic “dialtone” or “chime” that let’s people near you, and their smart devices, know that you are there, available and interested in communicating about a specific topic, or using a specific set of information.On day two, powered by donuts and coffee, I (Nathan) gathered our experts together with curious participants in our outdoor introductory workshop and simulation event… the event we simulated? An alien invasion where our telecommunication system for the planet was about to be taken out by their mother ship. The participants were taught basic skills like using Bluetooth, NFC, Wifi and other tools to share information directly between their smartphones, instead of using the Internet.
Everyone also learned how to fold an origami pinwheel, and adorn it (or themselves) with a 1KB read/write capable near field communication sticker chip. If you can turn a square piece of paper into a beautiful, functional pinwheel, and make it a portable, power free hard drive by putting a sticker on it, then you can do just about anything!
We taught people how to transfer apps between their Android phones directly, since Google Play and other app stores don’t work when the Internet doesn’t exist. To do so, we used F-Droid and the App Swap feature.
One of the missions to help build a new, nearby community-powered network was to deploy an adhoc wifi mesh system, using Commotion, across the Harvard campus. Using some elevated platforms (aka fire escape), we managed to build a five-hop system that connected 23 Everett Street to Harvard Yard, with nothing but handheld antennas, battery packs, and the creativity of determined humans…
Simultaneously with the Wifi-mesh, we also deployed multiple covert battery and solar-charged PirateBoxes(Boxen?) throughout campus, and used them in a data relay “Pony Express” manner. Two teams with four relay runners each moved photos between each pirate box, to reach their end goal. Every PirateBox also contained a full, offline/nearby copy of the Guardian Project’s F-Droid repo app store, for local app distribution.
To coordinate communications between teams throughout the afternoon, we used the Gilga app (aka Pinwheel) to send messages using only Bluetooth and WifiDirect… it was the first medium scale test of the technology (with 10-20 users communicating together at any given team), and it worked as expected. Each team needed to use the app to send critical messages about media being shared through out the local nearby networks.
If you’d like to learn more about the concept of Wind, and the entire Wind Farm event, you can read on at WindFarm0.link. We will be holding more Wind Farm events in the coming months, so that you, too, can be prepared for a day without the Internet, and app and tool builders can understand the unique challenges this type of situation creates.