Communication is a fundamental human right. The Digital Stewards Program is an effort to actualize that right at the neighborhood-level in Detroit. This 10-week training, already underway, prepares teams of community organizers, people with construction skills and techies to design and deploy communications infrastructure with a commitment to the Detroit Digital Justice Principles.
The Digital Stewards are learning about mesh wireless technology, which allows neighbors to form their own local network and share an Internet connection. The Open Technology Institute, which is developing a highly-flexible mesh software called Commotion, is a global leader in using wireless technology for human rights. AMP, drawing on Detroit’s visionary grassroots history, our experience with Detroit Future Media, and lessons from the AMC network, is helping OTI figure out how to teach these skills.
In the first session, a tin can telephone activity helped us visualize the rich social network that exists between communities in Detroit and think about how technical connectivity could provide a layer of infrastructure on top of our existing social relationships.
Digital Stewards build upon already-existing digital and social resources within Detroit communities, such as public computer centers, block clubs, and community organizing initiatives. They learn how to cultivate this ecosystem, adding in their new capacity and technical skill to grow and sustain a community wireless network.
We have drawn participants primarily from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition public computer centers to take part in the program. The inaugural class of Digital Stewards comes from an array of grassroots community organizations, including: Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, 48217 Health and Community Organization, The Reading Corner of Kemeny Rec Center, Fender Bender (which is housed at The Commons), Mt. Elliott Makerspace, and 5E Gallery.
Now in it's 6th week, the Digital Stewards Program has covered the basics: Internet infrastructure, a mesh wireless overview, community outreach, collaborative network-design and neighborhood mapping.
This week begins the section of the program where participants will learn how to conduct a site survey and configure the mesh software. Some will even get up on roofs and install the routers there, where their reach can extend from a few hundred feet to a few miles, depending on the type of router and whether any taller buildings are in the way.
The final phase of the program will ask, "Now that you have a network, what can you do with it?," facilitating participants through a process of envisioning all of the ways we can use a community network to strengthen neighborhoods and solve local problems, beyond simply gaining access to the global Internet.
"The Digital Stewards is a chance to rethink the shape of the Internet, much like Detroit Future Media has been an opportunity to create the online content our city needs." -Diana J Nucera
This initial Digital Stewards course is a warm-up. Based on this first run, we will be expanding it to 22 weeks and integrating it into Detroit Future Media beginning in February. With OTI, we are seeking partners in other cities and around the world who want to learn how to build their own mesh wireless networks.