Published on September 12th, 2019
Written by Aditi Mehta, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Toronto
I am broadly interested in how local community-run wifi networks can affect the culture of a neighborhood, and help build social ties and social cohesion, particularly among diverse residents who do not normally interact. I have explored this question alongside the Red Hook Initiative, a community-based youth development organization in Brooklyn, New York that is well-known for building a local wireless network (Red Hook WIFI) after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Red Hook is located along the New York Bay, and is bordered by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the West. As of 2014, almost 38% of the population lived below the poverty level.1 The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) manages the “Red Hook Houses,” Brooklyn’s largest public housing development with roughly 6,000 residents. More than 50% of these residents do not have Internet access.2 The neighborhood is also susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change as seen after the unprecedented damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Figure 1: The Red Hook Housing Projects. By Timothy Fadek.
While local communication infrastructures such as Red Hook WIFI became an important aspect of disaster recovery and resilience, this was not the neighborhood network’s initial purpose. Tony Schloss, the Director of Technology at the Red Hook Initiative and Alyx Baldwin, a former Parsons graduate student, founded the network in 2011 to host an Internet radio station for young people from the Red Hook Houses to broadcast their own Rap, Hip Hop, and news stories. Beyond the radio station, Schloss was excited about the potential of this digital network to connect residents who did not know one another. Internally, Red Hook is divided between those who live in “the front” (where the Red Hook Houses are located) and those who live in “the back” (where private market housing near the Pier is located).
Figure 2: Front and Back of Red Hook. Photo by Googles Maps & the Author
When Schloss and Baldwin started building the network, it was very difficult for them to obtain permission from neighborhood building owners to install routers on their roofs. This made increasing the geographic range of the network challenging. For best performance, routers should be positioned at the same height or in line of sight, within half a mile of each other. They asked several businesses, both in “the front” and “the back” of the neighborhood, if they would be interested in hosting a router on their building roof, but no one agreed. Some local businesses were already paying for Internet services, and were not interested in joining the community experiment. Others worried that free Internet inside their business would attract loiterers. Small business owners also did not want to take on the liability of people installing hardware on their rooftops. In general, these stakeholders saw participating as a nuisance rather than a benefit.
When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, Red Hook WIFI was only comprised of two routers – one at the Red Hook Initiative Building and one in Coffey Park. And yet, it was one of the only functioning communication infrastructures in the neighborhood. Baldwin and Schloss found that in the days immediately following the storm, more than 300 people per day were accessing the network to communicate with loved ones and seek recovery assistance, whereas pre-Sandy, approximately 30 people had been logging on to the network each day. Baldwin developed RHI Status, an SMS Plugin for the Tidepools software, which provided a means for residents to text their location and needs to a contact number, which automatically mapped the information in Tidepools with threaded discussion so others on the network could respond. The application worked wherever Red Hook WIFI was accessible.
Figure 3: RHI Status. Photo by the Open Technology Institute.
Notably, after the storm, several small businesses were more accommodating and quickly agreed to host a router as they witnessed the network’s success. A Red Hook resident and RHI employee stated:
Right after the hurricane hit, then everyone was willing to come together as a community and we were allowed to put the node on top of the garage of that place that apparently said, ‘No’ before. We were able to basically link together all of those nodes very fast, very quickly. The neighborhood came together and everyone was like, ‘Oh sure, you can put a node on top of this thing.’ There was a feeling of community immediately afterward.
Due the network’s success in the immediacy of Superstorm Sandy, Schloss quickly raised funds to create the Red Hook Digital Stewards program as a way to expand Red Hook WIFI. In the program, Red Hook youth would learn about digital networking and build out Red Hook WIFI while earning an income. The first cohort of Digital Stewards, also known as Generation 1, was a group of six neighborhood residents. (As of 2017, the program had hosted 9 Generations of Digital Stewards). Every day was different for these young adults, who spent most of their time initially scoping out roofs in the area that would be a good place to install a node.
A Generation 1 Steward recalled, “The way that I saw it in the beginning was we’re building a platform so that residents in the community can communicate with each other.” The group wanted to figure out how to add to the strong sense of “community” that emerged post-Sandy through the network. They asked themselves, “How can we make it so it’s not only used for when a disaster happens, but it can be used on a daily basis to bring the community together? How can we “mesh” populations together and get all the businesses in this area to hire people from the actual community and bring them closer so it doesn’t feel so segregated from one another?” My research continues to explore these questions.
1 This data was obtained from the Measure of America Fact Sheet from the Social Science Research Council.
2 American Community Survey, 2013
Bio: Aditi Mehta is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT in 2017. Her thesis, which won the Departmental Outstanding Ph.D. dissertation award, explored: 1) how individuals rebuild community using information communication technologies in the post-disaster context; and 2) how people produce and disseminate knowledge about climate change and natural disasters through new media tools. She partnered with grassroots organizations in both cities to understand how marginalized groups use tech tools to amplify their voice both immediately and years after these disasters.