Communicating and coordinating without the internet at HumTechFest

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We are preparing for the Humanitarian Technology Festival on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass. During our initial discussions, we connected with Heather (Text on Techs), Nathan (Guardian and Wind Farm), Jamila (Palante Technology Cooperative and SciFi Action & Apocalypse Preparedness Queer Club), Damien (FemmeTech and the same SciFi Action Club), and Mikel (MapBox). Our hope is to discover and bring together those working on the core challenges of digital humanitarian response in effective, interesting, and playful ways.

During humanitarian and disaster response, taking care with people while in the midst of chaos is the name of the game. Core challenges to delivering goods and services are coordination and communication. Instead of market-created scarcity, people have to decide how to send what limited materials have been delivered on a narrow runway out over damaged roads and with limited gas. It’s also about knowing where those limited goods should be going. Many might theorize about how to get what is called “situational awareness” (knowing who needs what and where in a chaotic situation) in order to deliver resources accurately, but being in the chaos is different. Because (thankfully) only a few of us have experienced that chaos and need ourselves, it can be difficult to build appropriate tools and workflows for response. But if we’re going to work on just that while at the Humanitarian Technology Festival, we need to be sure we’re grounded in at least a proximity of reality. A big chunk of our first day will be comprised of playful workshops.

Who needs what, where… and getting it to them

First, let’s talk about coordination. Affected populations and responders have to deal with scarcity. Rather than having the option of picking up what someone needs from a store or website, we must instead find those materials on site from people we already know (or are willing to get to know). It’s fun to think about this like a recipe: finding individual components and interacting with others to combine those components into what you all need to survive. Maybe one person has a generator, and another person has gallons of water, and a third has a backyard farm. People in crisis don’t all actually go rogue (sorry, Mad Max), but tend to join together to help one another out, those in our example would make soup together. Pre-existing networks of trust make this easier, but issues of scarcity and access still arise which require people-interfacing and problem-solving skills. It’s hard to know what these circumstances are like until you’re in them. Or until you pretend you’re in them.

The SciFi Action & Apocalypse Preparedness Queer Club has devised a live-action role playing game for just that – problem solving through the self-imposed limitations of games. They ran one of these games one day in NYC this past year, and we’re thrilled to be working with them on this project and to have access to their gaming framework to help HumTechFest attendees have a safe but proximal experience to a response situation. 

Hello? Is anyone there?

Secondly, let’s talk about connectivity. When we are connected, we can communicate about what we need and what we have, and we can coordinate with each other about matching those haves and needs. When the communications infrastructure (the internet and/or cell phone data) we’ve come to rely on so heavily goes down (or was never there to begin with, as in some austere areas), issues of timing (sometimes called “gaps”) emergeā€”a request for food in one region might be addressed through other means by the time the message reaches its target audience, or perhaps diapers become even more necessary than soup as the soup delivery starts on its path to the point of stated need. If communication infrastructure is up, the delivery person can be called to come back or to reroute to a place that needs their payload more.

If the centralized data pipes go down in these times, what are ways folk work around them?

Some excellent initiatives exist based on addressing the challenge of connectivity without an internet backbone, like Commotion Wireless and Project Byzantium, as well as many proprietary services. But these often rely on either long-term embeddedness with a community (like how the community Commotion Network in Redhook mattered during Superstorm Sandy response [PDF]) or rapid (read: expensive) setup through official channels which is also often proprietary and only for state-sanctioned response groups. We have ongoing political struggles with corporations like Comcast about the ability to set up community mesh networks and local internet service providers, and it’s worth continuing to build better tech and to push on that issue from many angles. (Those include our work on right to access as with our work with the Media Democracy Fund, as a political issue as with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or as an issue of public health and safety in disaster times). However, we arguably have everything we already need right in our pockets.  Wind Farm is incredibly useful for this context. Instead of a network being static (you’re not prone to moving your internet modem around the office), it assumes people have tiny storage and sufficient connectivity options in their pockets via their phones, and will be near each other as well as moving between synchronizing points. Based on this, we should be able to propagate communication and therefore coordinate with each other even when the backbone is down. Hirdonelle’s Listening Centers with Bluetooth file transfer is an example of what these networks might look like in practice. And when it comes to updating and using maps, OpenStreetMap’s new Portable OSM might come in handy.

Join us

We’ll be stitching all this together to create a safe but proximal way for HumTechFest participants to base conversations in a shared experience. We will be doing a workshop at HumTechFest to playfully discover how we would communicate and coordinate while facing scarcity and an internet blackout of sorts.

Register for HumTechFest June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass.

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