Mobile Mesh Networks

Project Name: Mesh-Casting News in the Port Harcourt Waterfronts

About the project:

It is impossible to deny the power of the nexus of mobile telephony and internet-based social media tools like Facebook, Ushahidi, and Twitter on improving the ways people can create, receive and understand news and information, yet there are relatively few available tools that democratize, increase access to, and improve the safety of the networks phones and services need in order to communicate and harness the power of social media. The International Telecommunications Union cites that 40% of the world’s population and 60% of its land mass have no communications coverage at all and only 25% have access to the Internet. And from our experience in Nigeria, many may have handsets and GSM coverage, but they often lack the money to buy airtime to make calls or even send SMS.

The “Mesh-Casting” project is designed to put the mobile phone front and center in information gathering and distribution while providing a less expensive and more-connected communication alternative for any group of people and especially those in developing countries or conflict and disaster areas where infrastructure (electricity, communications) are lacking. The overall aim is to completely democratize the flow of information and move it amongst phones directly, with as few technological barriers between news producer and consumer as possible.

With financial support from Amnesty International and Internews, Rhizomatica has been coordinating this project in conjunction with the Media for Justice Project based at the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) in Nigeria. The project provides communications solutions for a group of activists, citizen journalists and human rights monitors working in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and will focus on a handful of small, proximate “slum” or “shanty” communities in the city of Port Harcourt. In 2008 these neighborhoods were set to be demolished and the tens of thousands of residents displaced to make way for a dubious urban renewal scheme, a process that has been defined and legitimized by a heavy media campaign sponsored by the Rivers State government with the complicity of local news outlets in order to justify their actions by classifying these neighborhoods as “havens for criminality” and therefore necessary to raze. As many of these communities have existed for decades, the residents have been organizing in an attempt to stop the demolitions and disseminate the truth about their communities, the misdeeds of government and their right to remain in their homes.

Mesh-Casting builds on the work of the Serval Project, which has pioneered the development of open source software to create autonomous mesh-based voice and data networks among wifi-enabled mobile phones, creating  “cellular commons” comprised of self-organizing cell phones forming voice and data networks without the support of telephone companies or infrastructure. The mesh is further enhanced by a “Rhizome”, an application that allows news, geographical information, software and other content to be rapidly distributed throughout the cellular commons without cost.

As the phones themselves create an independent network that can blanket a space of over one square kilometer  (and when scaled up, much larger areas), the mobile reporters are able to provide news coverage directly from their phones and digitally “reinforce” their community without having to connect to the internet or GSM carriers. Content produced so far ranges from documentary evidence of human rights abuses to more in-depth coverage (video) of the everyday hopes, struggles and realities of people living in the target neighborhoods.

The ability to use mobile phones to form mesh networks is only a few years old and was originally designed for disaster relief and rural telephony. As there has never been a scale test of a mobile phone-based mesh network, we are learning crucial information about the limitations and potential of the system, through a circular process of training, field-use, feedback and design. The mesh technology, with the help of our partners from Serval, being constantly adapted and fine-tuned to the experiences and needs of the journalists in the field.

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