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Circuit Ride Revelations

WHAT I DID / WHAT I DO / HAVE A GOOD TIME

In September, I participated in different kinds of meetings with five Brigades on a two-week circuit ride. I joined for a full hack night where I could, in Birmingham and Atlanta. When I couldn’t visit a hack night, I sat with the core leadership team of each Brigade to chat in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Detroit. Code for America picked up the drinks and dinners. That’s our job – we are an aggregation of resources and we get people together to use them. A glamorous – vainglorious – description of my job would involve “convening” for “outcomes.” I think it really comes down to sharing our resources to help people have a productive time, a good time, or ideally both. All of these folks more than earned the good time we had. They’ve earned many more good times too.

Code for America’s Communities team has spent a lot of time pushing, cajoling, goading, urging Brigades to make a plan and share it with us. We’ve taken on roles as preachers in the civic hacking movement, spreading the word. But Brigades don’t need the open data, open government, open anything gospel. They have legitimate things to ask of us, from help with basic weekly organizing to multi-year strategy. We fall into the trap of viewing direction as coming straight from us, when really it comes from them. They are a multitude of vectors of ideas and action. When we don’t act accordingly, we fail to help the movement reach its potential.

It’s hard for our distant team to communicate with Brigades in a coherent way. Their signals are a flood and we have to be great switchboard operators before we even have time to offer sound guidance. People in the civic hacking movement should communicate clearly about what we want and need, and what we feel. Like this:

POOL CUE ORGANIZING / DANCE ORGANIZING

A lot of organizing tries to put people in certain places, for some outcome. But people aren’t billiard balls to knock into the “right” holes. I think the whole point of organizing is to roll together, holding hands. I don’t want to strike people and conditions like a pool cue. Proselytizing like a preacher of “civic hacking” feels like being a pool cue. You knock something to knock others in a direction towards the holes you chose.

How do we make working in this movement more like dancing? When we dance, we have a shared direction. We face towards each other and what’s between us, not some arbitrary distance. I want to reach out and guide, and be guided, with my hands and feet and eyes. Sometimes I will teach, and sometimes I will learn. Unlike the static billiards table, the dance floor is endless geometry, and the only features are people and our movements. We’ll build our practice in a human-centric context.

DISTANCE OF CFA / LISTENING

We, “Code for America,” are a distant thing to most people in Brigades. They are excited about being part of something big, but they really _don’t know what that is_ unless we show it to them, usually, _in person_. We can work with Brigade Captains and core team members to be leaders that share a vision, but we can’t expect it. At least not in the way we treat visioning and direction now. We have to deeply appreciate the difference between Code for America HQ’s lived day-to-day experience and others’ lived day-to-day experience. We only get to that understanding _by listening first_.

You don’t listen just once. Maybe fifty percent of any interaction is, after negotiated first contact and pleasantry, Just Listening. Ask the occasional question when it’s warranted, but people say and do things for a reason. We will only do right to act as if we have something new to discover every day by listening.

DISCOVERY

My friends just had a beautiful baby five months ago. They told me “he’s a new person every day.” Every day! What must that be like? They wake up and find the human they made to be a different expression, without cessation. Brigades are organizational babies right now, stumbling and learning and amazing and sponge-like. Every day they have to stay alive, and feed, and breathe, and have their mess cleaned up. That is okay! We are barely older than babies ourselves as Code for America! We should celebrate how great Brigades are as babies and bring them up to be weird and awesome.

WHAT BRIGADES NEED TO PRACTICE

Brigades are learning how to be their best selves. Based on the circuit ride discussions with Brigade Captains and members, here are the five goals Brigades feel they should focus on:

  • attract “everyone, not anyone,” to hack nights
  • keep people engaged in projects such that projects move forward
  • turn new people into steady veterans
  • build an effective and representative core team, in skills and lived experience
  • find partner organizations that have deep roots in their communities

These are the issues the Code for America Communities team should spend time listening to plainly. The structure of reaching those goals has little to do with technology or philosophy. It has to do with organizing. In that regard we almost do ourselves a disservice to talk about “what is civic tech” or “what is a Brigade.” Open Nebraska Brigade Captain Rebecca Stavick put it best when she said Open Nebraska is a community group:

I describe Open Nebraska as both a tech group and a community group. Getting community members involved starts with not calling them non-coders… call them researchers, community organizers, open data advocates, whatever. In the end we’re all civic hackers working towards the same goal, and as many of us know, some projects practically require more research and advocacy than actual programming. So when I hear someone apologizing for not being “techie” enough, or not knowing how to code, I shut that down immediately. What that person is really communicating is anxiety about being judged or fear that they don’t have the knowledge to get involved… but the reality is that all of us have a strength to bring to the table, and we will not succeed without a diverse group of folks with a variety of talents.

Why don’t we call ourselves that? Why do we have to dress it up in some new word? The gloss goes from exciting buzz to meaningless ornamentation to tawdry and cheap when I sit in these meetings and think about where people’s feet are in the soil. Nearly every need I heard Brigade members express to me was about the basics of community organizing and partnerships – not about apps or technology.

BUILD WHAT PEOPLE NEED WITH THEM

Practice organizing, practice democracy, practice speaking. What’s new is civic organizing using technology skills, not civic technology itself. Build a temple with people doing tech for public good, and the act of collaborative construction and the temple are radical. The tech is there either way.

Our experiences are about what is immediate and before us. We ask: Am I welcomed? Do I feel comfortable? Stimulus response. How good does it look? How does it feel? Can I see at least a little immediate gratification? How many buttons do I have to click, seconds do I have to wait, people do I have to talk to, before I see a green button flash, read my words appear, watch my policy become law? The way we interact with each other over projects at hack nights overwhelmingly determines how people feel about coming to Brigade meetings. When people feel validated and valued, they will value spending time with the Brigade. I noticed significant difference in how people engaged at hack nights when they were personally welcomed and greeted at the door versus when they just wandered in without direction.

People need quick wins to stay motivated. If the Communities team and the Brigade leadership teams listen and affect those five goals, I am confident people will see quick rewards. “This thing is working!” they’ll say. When they believe their efforts work with the quick wins, the harder stuff will work too.

GREAT AT BEING

Brigades—these community groups, these gatherings, these circles of people who are standing up for their cities—can elevate their work by focusing on those five goals. That is where we should elevate the practice of being a Brigade right now. Focus on the fundamentals of just being a successful community group, and become a stronger, more capable body. Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.

Everything comes in threes. Getting great at being a Brigade as an organization is just one leg of the stool! It’s the body in body, mind, and soul!

What are the other two elevations? They have to do with who we are and how we work, and what we work for, together.

CIVIC HACK FOR WHAT??

How we share our practice represents the “mind” part of our way of being. Sharing practice is how Brigades and Brigade members learn and expand their “minds.” The Communities team should connect and research these practices. Code for America staff can’t tell people what to think to elevate practice. We must help folks share how they think together. It’s like making a great friend who shares a few books or an album or a film that changes your worldview. Then you explore those new thoughtscapes with abandon. You wind up blissed out and deeply exhausted and can’t find your way back to the way you were before. Which is how we change.

That’s not the role of a preacher. It’s the role of a few wild friends and partners. Code for America HQ is just one partner. Other Brigades, and other community groups, are the more likely partners. They’re the people you want to join for a big camping trip or ask to the high school dance. Or ask to sneak out with you to the concert. Brigades are relatable peers to each other. They have new ideas to share or new skills to learn.

What we work for is the “soul” part. These are the principles. They are what we believe in and why we sing. People, and people together as Brigades, get great at being Brigades in a shared learning context based around the principles. You can just run or swim for a while as long as you want, but you’ll train hard by a dedicated plan if you need to win the Ironman contest. People, and Brigades, should to come to understand these principles on their own, after we’ve shared them. Brigades need their own challenging “spiritual” experiences together to emerge with their own new perspective on what the principles are all about. Brigades make the principles their own when they try something challenging and new in their cities that is based on their reading of the principles.

People don’t need to hear the gospel. They need to learn to sing, with their own voice, the song the gospel represents. Hearing it without singing it is passivity. We all have to _learn_ how to sing it _together_.

The Communities team’s task is to understand _what Code for America needs to make possible_ for the Brigades to have an experience in which they see their perspective of the truth. All great organizations go through something like this and emerge changed. The bonds are stronger among members, the vision is clearer, and people believe with a new understanding what their role is in the movement.

Mind, Body, and Soul.

Learn how to Think Together, Get Great at Being a Brigade, Sing the Song Your Way.

Get great at Being by practicing _together_.
Learn how to think so you can be as great a teacher as you are a learner from each other.
Sing the Song Your Way so we’ll build a cultural ecosystem that bends towards a common goal but will be ever relevant and ready for shifting needs in our cities and the world.

A hundred different styles on a common theme will make for much better remixes for our children and grandchildren.

It is critical that these three ways of life work together and not individually. This way of life must be a holistic practice. It fundamentally affects how the movement grows and what the movement is at any moment. What we are at this moment is critical to what we are the next moment.

MOTIVATIONS AND APPETITES

No one will do any of this work – “civic hacking” – for its own sake. These are made-up concepts. We condensed them from vapor as a culture. Culture is impermanent. Humans did not write until six thousand years ago. Our appetites and motivations are deeper, baser, simpler, stronger than what we say on stage. That is okay. It’s beautiful. It’s human. The way we Do Our Thing ought to celebrate those motivations and appetites, _and make the rest of it possible_. Guide the people of the movement in a ritual and exercise and practice and race and academy and church and pilgrimage and festival for their Mind, Body, and Soul, just to _make it all possible_. They will carry the practice forward.

Code for America just has to be brave enough to let them go like butterflies. I’ll bet most of them stick around, when it’s important.

Laura from Code for Atlanta wrote after I spoke about civic hacking at their hack night. She said the key capabilities “spoke to me,” and:

An over-arching point he made is that civic hacking is far from being only about writing code. It’s about collaborating as a community, about bringing together skills to solve problems, about changing the way we approach governance.

As it stated on another slide, “We make the road by walking.”

I was all fired up after he spoke, and next month I think I might dive in. I totally don’t feel like I have time to work on yet another project, but who really does?! If I have the opportunity to hack away at a compelling solution to a problem in my city, who am I to turn it down?

I think Brigades have more to teach Code for America than we have to teach them. This is the BEST POSSIBLE THING. We’re five years old. We have not been over the mountain, a challenge to ourselves and to society. We may just be beginning to see the mountain – and it’s only one mountain. It’s time to roll towards it.

Our job isn’t to guide people to open data. Open data is just one big spring storm. This spring’s storm won’t make flowers bloom next year.

How do we get through the summer, if there’s drought or abundance?

So I recommend that Code for America treat the Brigades as a field of potential that _we can learn from_, and recognize our equal role as teachers and as learners. They are all teachers and learners too. The more we listen and learn from them, the more they can learn from us.

To do this, we have to reimagine and reaffirm our relationship with Brigades specifically and the civic hacking movement in general. Right now, we’re the program that props up and sustains Brigades. I think we should start by shifting our worldview. The Brigades are an emergent phenomenon, bringing technologists into participatory democracy and organizing for social justice in collaboration with their civic institutions. The Communities team should collaborate with Brigades to develop and adopt a community-based research framework that will study this phenomenon. We’ll do it in a way that supports the legitimacy and primacy of the Brigades, and that improves our skills and knowledge as it improves theirs.

A research framework can make our work always build capacity. It will focus the purpose of our work. It will keep us accountable as a peer society to collaborate instead of direct. With practice and intention, it will also help us gather quality research data that we can use to to make deeper insights into the movement. This research – done collaboratively and focused on the goals Brigades set for themselves – is the best way for us to use our position of privilege to elevate the impact of Brigades into a new level of community-based power. When we go beyond blog posts and webinars and into citable research, we will open the door to an order of magnitude improvement on our work’s longevity and impact. Together with the Brigades, we will practice our principles by using data to make and improve decisions, starting with people’s needs in the Brigades, and building multi-disciplinary teams in San Francisco and across the movement.

The @codeforatlanta core team! #cfabrigade #CFATL

That’s why I provided the Brigades with recommendations to elevate their practice to reach those five goals. The recommendations, based on listening at hack nights:

  • Focus on a racial / gender / ability / age / community diverse core team
  • Practice leadership on all levels with metrics. Learn how to lead by saying where are we, where have we been, and where are we going.
  • Develop a standard and clear delivery process for beginning with:
    • a delivery lead per project
    • put each project on GitHub
    • share a slide per project for “here’s what this is, here’s what we did last week, here’s what we need this week” (maybe once a month)
    • deliver a report-back at the end of the night
  • Find an easy and natural way to tell your story. Start by reporting on your hack nights!
  • Always orient new people after the general opening of the hack night. Circle format, introduce each other, talk about what the Brigade is for and why they are here. LISTEN.

Again, the Communities team doesn’t make these things happen. We just make these things possible. Playing pool isn’t nearly as fun as dancing.

Notes from Broadband Bridge Community Wireless Meeting, Sept. 25 2012

There were twelve people at a Broadband Bridge meeting in Mount Pleasant to discuss the importance of community-controlled infrastructure for internet access.

First we read this news piece, “More sad news on why Americans pay so much for crappy Internet and phone service.”

People gave their reactions:

  • We should nationalize our telecommunications infrastructure
  • Other countries have free WiFi, why not us?
  • America has fallen behind over the last decade
  • We need uniform access, not just “available access”
  • It’s not an issue of cost – companies make record profits

Taking the notion of uniform access and nationalization, we shaped this into the idea of the internet as a commons. Points from this conversation:

  • Community access: concern for security
  • If I share, what if someone else uses it in a way I don’t like?
  • Liability is a tool that the ISPs use to force people to buy their own connection
  • Fear of liability comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding
  • How is that different? People don’t know the difference
  • Within the industry, the term “cloud” came from “not my problem”
  • Few people know that the cloud is all made of specific and fallible hardware
  • We could use the metric of “the weight of the internet” in electrons to ask, “how much does my part weigh?”

What are the problems with the internet and access in DC?

  • HacDC can’t get sufficient broadband for its projects, nor can other nonprofits in the St. Stephens space – this holds back the potential of the nonprofits
  • There is a chilling effect from the lack of trust of operators
  • A lack of alternative options prevents meaningful participation
  • With community wireless, you will likely be in contact with people who share their broadband, which provides real accountability
  • ISPs spend money on lobbying, not customer or community engagement
  • With the derecho – lost power, no internet even after the power came back, but community network had broadband bc the line for its gateway is buried
  • People want to work from home, but whether or not they have access to the internet makes their work from home a variable quality compared to working in an office
  • Are there places that have done community wireless before? (yes!)
  • We heard some negatives about mesh wireless, from this article.
  • Suggestion for organizing other networks: visit the ANCs
  • We are lost when we don’t think big enough
  • What has to occur, we have to say, we want an alternative instruction
  • We assume that we will fail when we don’t take control of our problems
  • Start by thinking big
  • Make the government work for us
  • We settle for less, then we don’t even get that
  • Pepco & Verizon aren’t supposed to determine our destinies
  • Classic situation: think both small and big at the same time

Then we discussed visioning: What is the best we could want for internet infrastructure and access in DC?

  • We want municipal pipelines and WiFi
  • Tech is isolative. People should understand the technology. The need for a large amount of education and practice means we should create learning beds, so people can increase their understanding.
  • We need something tangible here. We should generate a larger and a smaller vision, like let’s have access in parks and homes.
  • Every child will have access and hardware
  • Cheap municipal option for access that’s great, and then community mesh networks. OCTO needs to allow the community to connect, then we can have fast local access and a sense of community.
  • Reasonable municipal control of fiber in the ground, and totally free of censorship, surveillance, and self-identity is a choice.
  • We have total access available, but we need to work on the government to maintain good service for all – freedom to share resources
  • All communications services would be a utility, owned by the people, and government would provide physical infrastructure, system would be totally neutral – content ownership by originators, and abolish copyright & no software or business patents
  • Establish right for freedom to communicate, and let people know “you own this.” people don’t yet feel ownership. Also, moving into new centers of commons: change post offices into community centers before private developers scoop them up
  • DC-NET / DC-CAN is useful and shared to all, shared through community-controlled wireless mesh networks. Try to bridge a gap – have a huge mesh and good fiber. We must build mesh networks that make the idiotic dichotomy of access and the digital divide obvious.

Derecho Community Wireless

I came home from the Allied Media Conference to a DC melting in 100+ degree heat and a home without Internet access, courtesy of the now-infamous east coast derecho. Verizon provides our home Internet service, but they did not restore it until this past Thursday – five days after the storm. Happily we still had access thanks to the community wireless network, since the gateway in our part of the network uses Comcast. Comcast could have easily come down during the storm as well, but because the lines were separate, and on opposite sides of the street, people had a recourse. I noticed that the network had much less bandwidth available during Verizon’s outage. We never lost power either, thanks to the power lines being buried under the street.

Despite 70 mph winds and downed trees and limbs, that community-controlled infrastructure never went down. If MtPCWN already had direct chat running on the network, people could have easily logged on and started checking if everyone was ok – even if Comcast and Verizon were both down. As long as folks have Wi-Fi devices with batteries and the routers have power, we can communicate easily during a disaster.

At HacDC the other day, someone suggested that we could fortify some of the routers with backup battery supplies, specifically for use in disaster scenarios. This would be a good idea for a retrofit for a few key MtPCWN routers. When neighborhoods plan out community infrastructure, they could designate a certain number of routers – maybe 40% – as “critical infrastructure,” with the implication that they should be able to run for up to x hours, and connect to other critical infrastructure, in case of a power outage.

Treat It Like Infrastructure!

I had the great pleasure to speak to Nick Feamster‘s NOISELab group about Commotion and the Mount Pleasant Community Wireless Network while I was at Georgia Tech for ICTD 2012 last week. One of the Commotion slides shows a graphic of MIT’s RoofNet mesh network. When Nick saw this, he laughed – “I was a RoofNet node!” he exclaimed. “But people would just shove them next to their windows, or even dangle them out of windows so the routers hung only by the Ethernet cable.” Sometimes the network would go down for a week or more until the admins discovered that someone had a party over the weekend and a reveler knocked out a router’s cord from the power outlet.

Compare this to MtPCWN. In MtPCWN, all of the routers are mounted externally on the roof as high as possible, and we ensure that the power / Ethernet cord enters the building as securely as can be done with our resources. We even make sure that the PoE injector plugs into the wall close to the occupant’s existing Internet router, so if they ever choose to become a gateway, it won’t be a headache to connect their bandwidth to the public network. The hardware is all Ubiquiti and high-quality, and the silicone-filled Ethernet cable is designed for outdoor deployment. Meanwhile, the Broadband Bridge’s Bloomingdale network comprises almost no rooftop nodes, uses cheaper and weaker OM1Ps, and lacks any gateways right now – out of 26 routers in the network.

Preston Preparing the Ethernet Cable

I discussed these thoughts with Brian, who responded thusly: “If you want community-controlled infrastructure, you have to treat it like infrastructure.” That’s right. Our infrastructure must be appropriately priced, but if we use “cheap,” we’ll get “cheap” in return. If we think of community wireless as a community “hobby” or equate it with other “volunteer” efforts like cleaning up a park, then our expectations are the same as they are for other hobbies or half-day outings with pizza at the end. There’s plenty right with pizza at the end, but we should look to the Verizons and the FM radio stations of the world to understand how they manage their physical infrastructure. Towers are designed to stand for decades. Access to antennae is heavily restricted. Providers take great pains to place repeaters and broadcast towers atop of the highest ridges and the tallest buildings. Compare this with one of the Broadband Bridge network’s erstwhile gateways, a cafe. Their gateway Bridge router is placed haphazardly on the server side of their bar, an area that is not only high traffic, but experiences high and random throughput of dishes, liquids, mugs and plates. If we could take one hour to put it somewhere more out of reach and use cable staples to keep the cable out of line, most of the problem is solved.

Much of this is about control on the telco’s part, the problem we are trying to solve with community wireless networks. But we can’t associate everything about their infrastructure with their control. I think that one of the unexpected successes of MtPCWN so far is that because we treat it like infrastructure, it’s not in the way of people’s daily lives at the host locations. When the router is securely mounted on the roof and the cable doesn’t intrude on a resident’s regular passage, they can ignore it 99% of the time. That’s a good thing, because humans are humans, and we make mistakes. Keeping the devices out of sight and out of mind in this case is part of what makes community infrastructure human-focused. It’s accessible when we need it, but respects our ability to make a mess of things.

Open Market Transparency and Online Dating

What do sound, monopoly-free open markets have to do with online dating?

I recently read my NAF colleague Barry Lynn‘s new piece in Harper’s, “Killing the Competition.” It was fascinating and depressing reading. The concept of “open markets” helped me better understand the role of good transparency in markets, and of markets in the economy. This role goes unfilled by the massive monopolies Barry studied, and the political rhetoric costuming them ruins our understanding of competition. He hinges on true transparency as a necessary feature for open markets to serve their regulatory purpose. If I can discern the true cost of a good or service, and the vendor reflects this price openly, the transaction is most likely to satisfy us both and promote a collective good value for the whole market and its participants. When the true cost of goods is hidden or not met, as by price fixing or investor overconfidence, then things won’t work out well – dotcom crash, housing crash, environmental ruin. Barry writes about open markets like environmentalists write about the wetlands – they represent immense value beyond dollars.

Right now we should all appreciate the problems with a lack of transparency in the financial and housing markets. “Free markets” don’t promote transparency; usually it is a cover term for monopolies that have already abused, and then suffocated, transparency in their own markets. I remember from high school the lesson of Standard Oil, which viciously undercut the price of oil and took a loss to starve their smaller opponents out of the market. A businessman sees a strategy lesson in this, but on a dull mathematical level, Standard Oil’s value imbalance produced an unsustainable market. The market ceased to be an effective regulatory feature on the retail level, so Standard grew into a monopoly and ceased involvement in a market at all. This is the stuff that fuels wealth inequality and an imbalance in the means of production – the math’s numerical results created painful consequences. If we can easily audit and verify both sides of all value equations, we have price transparency.

I thought about this in the context of relationships and dating. The internet, social media, and all of those algorithms and processing power and networks are a platform for a great broadening of information transparency to the online community. Dating site OK Cupid holds fame from crunching its users’ data and blogging about the statistical results. We used to rely on interpreting the nuance of social interaction, choosing what to show and what to hide, to gauge potential partners and present ourselves. Now, you can see how many times someone views your profile, as just one example. Applying information transparency principles suggests that your per-person profile view count is useful data that can help you make a better decision about pursuing, or avoiding, a person on the site. Yet the folks I know who use OK Cupid entreat me not to click “view profile” when they show me someone’s picture who viewed or messaged them on the service. They don’t want to appear as online stalkers or give away their interest, like shy wallflowers at a high school dance. Despite that data’s availability, they play the game as though it were still solely offline and lacked the datasets of the social media sphere.

This increased transparency will bear consequences, similar to the outcomes of the mathematics and environment of a healthy open market. To avoid clicking someone’s profile, even when you really want to, is like obscuring what you would truly pay for a service in an open market. A “price imbalance” grows more likely, and you both risk less satisfaction with the outcome of your “shopping.” If more people embrace transparency in online dating sites, then the matches will be better for more people – better relationships, perhaps even better than the average relationship of the past, will follow. They’ll teach their kids that transparency was key to how they met each other. Instilling a value of transparency in kids can solve some problems in the future. So, view profiles liberally.

My Personal Values from the OTI Field Team Retreat

The Open Technology Initiative’s field team, whose colors I fly, took a day-long retreat at Bloombars in Columbia Heights a couple weeks ago. We discussed our shared values as a team, building towards a values and mission statement for our work at OTI. We’ll bring this statement into the full OTI retreat in February, as will the policy and tech teams. Our goal there is to construct a vision, mission and values statement for OTI from each team’s own work.

One exercise had us jot down our personal values that we bring to our work. I haven’t done this since my AIESEC days, so it was great to take stock of my values at this point in my life. The values I wrote down are as follows:

What I believe about my work:
– Collaboration is better than competition.
– Competition is better than conflict.
– All relationships are based on trust and communication.
– I am working on transforming human communication.
– I like working with cutting edge open source technology developed with values.
– I have things to teach and I have a lot to learn.
– I want to be a force that changes trajectories.
– I like minimal, but clear, definitions.
– My true joy is expressing myself and sharing in others’ expressions of themselves in their way.
– I believe in platforms, not processes.
– Changes aren’t permanent, but change is.

The Risk of Information Catastrophe

The other evening I watched Apocalypto for the first time. Great movie!

Mel Gibson wanted his film to depict “civilizations and what undermines them.” Apocalypto shows the stresses on the Mayan civilization’s means of production – maize failure, lack of rain, plague, and socio-political turmoil, only soon to be followed by Spaniards and what hell they would bring to Mesoamerica.

Today we live in a so-called knowledge age, in which our civilization-wide and personal access to prosperity – and thus effectively the source of power – is heavily correlated with our access to the means of knowledge production.

Communications is one of those means to knowledge. Our networks can leverage our access to knowledge, and thus prosperity for ourselves and our communities, if we design them appropriately and according to the right values. Notably, if we use a community-centric social process to design the network with values of community prosperity and resilience built-in to the network, then an increase of prosperity through the network would yield more power in the community to affect our world and tell our own stories.

In Apocalypto, the source of the Mayan crisis in the early 1500s is drought. Drought brings maize failure and community turmoil, which leads to starvation, the destruction of villages and human sacrifice by the religious-state complex. These events and conditions leave the Maya people already reeling before the Spaniards arrive on their shores to eventually destroy their society.

That’s a dramatic example, but our communities are no less bound by the need for resilience today than communities in Mesoamerica were at that time. In the recent recession, the financial services industry dipped sharply from contributing 8.3% of US GDP in 2006, to less than 6% in 2009. A ~2..5% drop in an industry with a significant chunk of the wealth generation of the country is bound to create reverberations for many, and harsh shocks for some. This doesn’t only hold for GDP – any reduction in the capacity of the means of production produces these reverberations and shocks.

Our communications networks are to our economy like what rainfall was to the Mayans. If a drought caused so many bad turns for their society then, what would be the result of an information catastrophe today? Our ability to leverage network effects while maintaining resilience in our communities has eroded in many places, and the integrity of our networks is at constant risk. We outsource our communications to giant corporations, who maintain facilities that run wires or beam signals from far away. It may be economically efficient for them to build their network that way, but this does not serve the needs of the community. As much as we hate telecom in less-catastrophic times, the specter of an abrupt and extended communications drought should make us think about the consequences when we lack those resources and skills in our communities.

The Role of Safety in Community Wireless Networks

I have chatted with folks in my neighborhood, Mount Pleasant, for half a year about supporting the community wireless network I’m organizing here. The most common question they ask first is about “security” in an open network. It usually sounds just like this: “But is it secure?” And, painfully, they frequently interchange “open” and “secure” as regular as “work” for “job,” referring to a wireless network without passwords on the access points.

Recently, I thought about the values inherent in Commotion, an open source community wireless firmware project OTI is working on. Commotion will have built-in anonymization and security features. For all the importance of being secure from the start – security having new implications in the digital, networked world – the real potential of the network, the value growth, has to come from an intentional sharing and cooperation. Technical thinking about privacy though has got us in a general mood of securing against others, rather than actively reaching out. I suspect that this is the intent of ISPs, scaring everyone into locking down their wireless APs so no one will share their connection and everyone will have to buy their own Internet access. Plus some leftover hyper-individualistic attitudes from the Cold War.

This brings a new face to a problem of balance. I think that one part of the balance we seek when communicating – and one of the values that Commotion should stand for – is “safety.” Safety is a human term that’s understandable in its way to everyone, and yet we are likely to define it in different ways. For the whole communications network – infrastructure, software, the people involved – I think that “safety” is at the nexus of privacy, security, and awareness.

“Privacy” is keeping what you want to yourself – “to reveal yourself selectively,” to crib from Wikipedia. You have the right to “not be surprised” as Ashkan puts it. Your sense of others’ knowledge about your assets, information or affairs matters to your decisions and your well-being. Someone could sneak up to your window, or read information you send over a network, without you ever knowing – and without affecting the integrity of the information or your behavior.

“Security” is preventing your information, assets or affairs from being compromised or damaged. Unauthorized viewing of your data on a network is one thing, and having it scrambled, deleted, or secretly replaced is something else. Operation AntiSec, fueled by LulzSec and Anonymous hacktivists, brought this into the forefront of modern technology news. You have the right to not have your property damaged, of course, but the by-product of these attacks – whether by governments, corporations, or hacktivists of any stripe – is to make the digitally less-literate fearful of connecting and sharing. This is one of the things Commotion is meant to solve, with strong and reasonably sure encryption and anonymization by default. Which leads us to…

“Awareness,” the state of knowing what is going on in your environment and being reasonably confident of the consequences of your actions. Most people walk down the street reasonably confident they won’t be robbed, molested or attacked. If the odds were high enough you would be hurt, far fewer people would leave their houses and our society would suffer from the lack of voluntary connections. Security and privacy are great, but if people don’t understand what they mean, what is and is not protected, and what the likely consequences of their actions are on a network, then they are not going to be gregarious online. They will be recluses – society suffers again.

Bring these together and you have “safety,” something which I think all people can understand as a human right. Maslow’s hierarchy has it, we understand it to be a key human need on many levels, from freedom from violence to food security to knowing where tomorrow’s paycheck will come from. Technology needs to be built upon human needs, and so resolving those tensions – privacy versus sharing, security versus ease of use, awareness versus the vastness and complexity of networked communications technology – is paramount to developing a just, effective and enjoyable communications infrastructure.

Start with the People: Building a Community Wireless Network in Mount Pleasant

This was originally posted at the Open Technology Initiative website.

If you are not yet familiar with Mount Pleasant, here’s a chance to learn about one of DC’s most vibrant neighborhoods. It’s a diverse area not far from downtown DC, featuring a main street lined with locally-owned businesses. Many of these shops and restaurants are owned and run by the area’s large Latino community, which has long been central to shaping the neighborhood’s character. However, over the past decade rising housing prices have pushed many in the Latino community east towards Georgia Avenue.

In May, I moved to Mount Pleasant and started to learn about the area. In order to encourage community-building and local empowerment and to increase local information-sharing and opportunities for civic engagement, I decided to use skills and ideas garnered from my work at the Open Technology Initiative to organize a community wireless network. Despite my excitement to get started, I didn’t want to rush in without first connecting with the people, the histories, networks, skill sets, and local knowledge already present in the community.

My first step was technical: with the help of my OTI colleagues, I specified the hardware for the network and prepared the technology for installation. The first-stage plan was to install a few “nodes” (wireless access points) in order to establish the form and structure of the mesh network – open, interoperable, unfiltered, and decentralized. Then, at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, I handed out fliers directing people to an online survey gauging their interest in organizing a community wireless network in the neighborhood. I also posted a few of the fliers in local businesses on Mount Pleasant Street. But I needed to go deeper in order to really connect with the existing social networks of people and projects.

Several of my neighbors suggested that I meet Anya Schoolman, a community leader who organized the Mount Pleasant Solar Co-Op. Anya and her son Walter have worked on the co-op for several years, and through this process they have helped residents install solar panels on the roofs of over 100 homes in the neighborhood, which enables them to share solar-generated electricity with the rest of the community. Anya generously offered to host a gathering at her house in July, which we promoted through the listservs she created for the co-op. Thanks to her work in the community, Anya and her home enjoy “community anchor institution” status as a hub of activity in Mount Pleasant. Neighbors know and trust her, and since she provided an introduction to my invitation email on neighborhood listservs, recipients understood the context of participatory community building and neighborhood improvement.

About ten people came to the house gathering. We discussed the potential of the network and how to get it running, and five people (myself included) committed to becoming neighbor-links by installing a mesh router on top of our roofs – a process people were already familiar with due to their association with the solar co-op. Thus far we’ve installed two nodes and are planning to install at least three more in the coming months – and new folks have come forward who want to add to the network as well.

Bill Sets the Mounting Brackets

As we move forward, our plan is to focus on working with underserved groups in Mount Pleasant — people who may not be able to afford monthly contracts, or who are looking for tools to organize to address the effects of displacement of longtime residents due to rising housing costs. We hope to provide a framework that allows the diverse neighborhood to organize together in order to address the trends that affect everyone’s quality of life.

Stay tuned.

Repost: “Full Circle”

A few nights ago I was staying up way too late stumbling down the rabbit hole that is the Internet. On a whim I searched for a post I’d written at the beginning of 2009, just after AIESEC United States’ Winter National Conference 08-09, where my term as Local Committee President of AIESEC at Georgia Tech ended. Unfortunately the old AIESEC GT blog, where I’d written the post, was lost in Google’s scorching of all FTP blogs on Blogger. However, that particular post had been copied in full and re-posted on a range voting Yahoo! Group. Since I have just become online services director of AIESEC Life, the AIESEC US alumni association, I have decided to re-post that old bit of euphoric writing in full, for posterity. And maybe for the lulz too.

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On the night of December 29, 2008, I was in a Zen state.

My former teammate and one of the greatest people I have been blessed to know, Tiffany Curtiss, was elected Member Committee President of AIESEC United States in the first free and fair MCP elections in twelve years.

I haven’t cried in a long time, but I came pretty damn close as Missy poured the water on her head and everyone cheered for Tiffany. What was clear to me, though, is that as much as we were cheering for her, we were cheering for the process, for student ownership, for having a voice. For having come so far just shy of six months after the July 4 letter.

The only thought that had space in my head after the bucket fell was back to the weekend of May 12-14, 2006, when I was told “you have no future in AIESEC US” by the top leadership after trying to bring people together and think for themselves. Instead of doing whatever college students do on the weekend, Tiffany and my AIESEC mentor and former LCP of AIESEC LC Cornell, Arthur Maas, spent the entire weekend on the phone with the key players in New York, and when they were talking about “next steps,” Tiffany was talking about right and wrong. Tiffany, of course, was right, and despite being right, her hours and hours on the phone that weekend got me back into AIESEC US. How incredibly appropriate, how it fits in with the music of the Universe. How justice was served and how progress was lifted up!

I turned off my video camera and I walked up to my room, alone. I could barely even shut the door before the immensity of what had just happened washed over me like a tidal wave. I gripped the table and I put my head against the wall. I closed my eyes and let the reality of it flow through every bit of my being. How years and even months ago, this moment was an unthinkable fairy tale – regardless of the winner of the election. I felt like I have not felt in an incredibly long time, and to the powers that put the breath in my lungs, I let forth in an exhale, “thank you.”

Words cannot express the pride I feel that Tiffany was elected MCP.

And finally, mere hours before my term as LCP ended, I was able to participate as a proxy for Milwaukee (Amira taking the seat for GT) in our legislation, where we established our first compendium in twelve years – and I am proud that I was a key part of writing it. I skipped sessions and I stayed up late to work on the constitution and accountability with Jason, and I personally spent the entire day after the election tweaking and perfecting the range voting process, which was one of the final motions we passed – by acclamation. Though it was hard work and it kept me from hanging out nearly as much as I wanted to with the people who matter to me and friends I haven’t met yet, I realized at the end of the conference how much more valuable it was that we spent our time on things that mattered. We did work together, we built the foundations of a new AIESEC US together. That was far better than anything else I’ve experienced at a US conference before, and I hope for the future members that it only grows and does not stop.

While banging the table to close legislation, we heard loud sounds from above – and through the skylights we saw the fireworks heralding a new year. We did it! And the fireworks let everyone know it.

Poetry upon poetry, the formal New Years Eve dinner that night took place in the exact same room as the plenary of the last Winter Conference in St. Louis. My LCP term ended in the exact same room in which it began. A year ago in that room, as we finished singing “Auld Lang Syne,” I thought to myself: “This is either the year AIESEC US will save itself, or the year in which it will be lost forever.”

I could never have pictured us in that same room one year later, triumphant. The truth is stranger than fiction.

A sincere thanks to all of the people who are a part of the fabric that has been my AIESEC Experience thus far. There are many of you to name, and rest assured you will hear it from me soon. But other than Tiffany, the person I must thank most of all is Missy Shields, outgoing MCP and former LCP of AIESEC at Georgia Tech. Without her AIESEC US would not be here today, and I would not be the person I am, plain and simple. She deserves adulation for years and years, and she will be a golden legend for as long as the word “AIESEC” spurs the heartbeats of people looking for a better future.

To you both: because you have changed me, you have changed the world. Hold me to that.

— http://atlanta.nomadlife.org/2009/01/full-circle.aspx