Looking for our new site?

How local can you get? Michigan Welfare Rights Organization uses a wireless network to get its message out in downtown Detroit

Published:  December 21, 2011

Using just a few wireless routers and open source software, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition is demonstrating how community organizations can use wireless networks to strengthen neighborhoods.

In “Full Spectrum Community Media,” OTI discussed the importance of making the Internet relevant for local communities by “influencing the architecture of local networks” through participatory design and leadership processes. This enables community media centers to solidify connections to surrounding neighborhoods and to reinforce their role as anchor institutions. OTI is a member of The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC), a group of organizations that has taken up this challenge by running a citywide broadband adoption program which combines peer-to-peer training programs with with mesh wireless technology anchored at community computer centers.

The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), another member of the DDJC, works out of Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit. The Church is a centrally-located, historic building with a wheelchair ramp and an elevator. It also happens to be adjacent to Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ home stadium. On game days, the Church rents its parking lot to baseball fans, making MWRO’s office inaccessible for visitors who arrive in cars. Patrons of the soup kitchen make up a large portion of the church’s visitors, and most of them arrive on foot, so the temporary lack of parking is usually not a problem.

This past November, MWRO was forced to cancel a planned workshop in order to accommodate a game. It was painful timing, as Governor Richard D. Snyder had announced that he was preparing to cut cash assistance to over 40,000 households. The workshop would have been a chance to highlight MRWO's organizing campaign to support those families.

When the DDJC heard that the ballgame was going to displace the workshop, it realized that wireless technology could help get MWRO's message out -- DDJC and MWRO together could reach the 40,000 Tigers fans coming for the Tigers' game against the Yankees in the American League Division Series.

Digital Billboard

Gwendolyn Gaines, a MWRO organizer, Anderson Walworth, the technology coordinator for Allied Media Projects, and Jenny Lee, one of the AMP Co-Directors worked together to set up a Ubiquiti NanoStation M2 as a wireless access point using Commotion firmware. They put information about the Governor's policies on the splash page, so that it would appear whenever a user joined the Commotion network.The message read:

Me Today, You Tomorrow – 40,000 welfare families cut off of cash assistance Oct 1st. Call Michigan Welfare Rights Organization if you or someone you love needs help: 313-964-0618. Join us Thursdays, noon to 1pm to protest attacks against children. – State Building – 3044 W. Grand Blvd at Cass.

At first, the setup did not work well; the ballgame seemed to occasionally disrupt the Wi-Fi signal MWRO uses for a local area network in their office. On October 4, though, the team was able to provide a proof-of-concept, as you can see in this video:

The message was out -- on an intranet, not on the Internet. It was a "digital billboard," according to this Tweet from another member of the DDJC. People with Wi-Fi-enabled devices could see a network signal and connect their device to it, then load the splash page on a browser, but they could not connect outside their local area.

This project is an example of digital innovation in a new, profoundly local context: it used digital tools to draw attention to a local issue instead of taking users out of their communities and to the global marketplace. The DDJC built an infrastructure that connected the Tigers fans to a local issue and a local community organization; this network connected Comerica Park to Central United Methodist and MWRO, central institutions right next door that most people at the ballpark probably ignore, or think of only as a landmark dividing one parking lot from another.

The DDJC and MWRO's action came at a time when the national media was using the success of Detroit's sports teams as evidence of Detroit's rebirth as a city, which ran counter to the reality of a state ready to cut the economic lifeline to tens of thousands of local residents.

It is impossible to know how many people connected to the splash page. The maximum number of simultaneous connections the device can support is roughly 50. As of this writing, only 86 people had viewed the video of the DDJC's wireless action. The burden of distributing the message via wireless, however, is minimal compared to the potential reach. And, now that the infrastructure is in place, it can be re-used indefinitely for different messages and services.

Downtown Connections

In fact, the DDJC had an opportunity to re-purpose the infrastructure weeks later, when a group of protesters launched an encampment under the Occupy Detroit banner in Grand Circus Park, just on the other side of Central United Methodist. Many within the DDJC were interested in connecting the energy from the Occupy encampment to long-standing institutions with shared goals. And, as in many such encampments, the occupiers expressed a desire for sustained Internet access in the public space they were ccupying.

By running an ethernet cable from MWRO’s DSL modem to the router at Central United Methodist, the DDJC was able to turn the digital billboard into an Internet gateway. Then Anderson, AMP's technologist, helped Occupy Detroit participants set up a second router in the park, a Ubiquiti PicoStation M2 powered by a lamp post, in order to repeat and extend the signal using Commotion’s mesh technology. This allowed people in the park to connect to the network with low-power devices like laptops and smartphones, which would not otherwise be able to reach to the router in the MWRO office. MWRO saw this support as part of a larger effort to connect with the encampment; it also invited occupiers to events and hosted general assemblies in case of rain.

Community Mesh Network

A mesh network can use multiple gateways to provide Internet access to a public assembly(Illustration by The Work Department and the Open Technology Initiative.)

There were some immediate limitations on the infrastructure. First, the Commotion software is in the early stages of development and needed a lot of technical support to function adequately. Second, the electricity in the park was from the light poles, which are only on from dusk until dawn, so that was the only time the PicoStation in the park could be on. And MWRO has a low-bandwidth connection, which it felt was not enough to sustain both its own operations and the encampment's use. (OTI set up a comparable trial network for the occupation at McPherson Square, which saw similar limitations, as covered by Wired)

The need for additional bandwidth became an opportunity for occupiers to reach out to local businesses, which in turn helped them explain why they were in Grand Circus Park, and how sharing an Internet connection could help. Before Occupy Detroit began to evolve toward its eventual occupation of an indoor space, protesters had connected with a second business on the circle. This helped to improve the service, since with multiple gateways on the network, Commotion software (like other mesh technology) automatically calculates the optimal path to the Internet.

This wireless network is one of a number that the DDJC has initiated across Detroit, each with its own approach for using the technology to strengthen local relationships. The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization's network is notable for its simplicity and its flexibility, which made it able to accommodate the rapidly changing social conditions in downtown Detroit and offer a prototype for a vital new form of localized digital communications.

Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.

Related Programs