The Open Technology Initiative's Dispatches from the Digital Frontier blog originally published this story by Preston Rhea about his experience working with some neighbors to build their own wireless network in Mount Pleasant in Washington, DC. We hope it inspires others.
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.
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.