Open Mesh Networks: Innovative p2p communication projects around the world

A few months ago I met Josh King, who was in town for the Media Reform Conference.  At the time, I recently got an Android phone and thought a lot about why this incredible computer that fits in my pocket could not talk directly to other phones.  Instead it had to go through a tower.  It turns out that such a case is a special instance of a mesh network, which is exactly what Josh was working on.  It was exciting to hear this- because the potential of mesh networks are immense, but I knew no one who was working on them.  He told me about open mesh networks being developed in cities around Europe- and I wondered- why doesn’t it exist here?

A few months earlier the internet was shut down in Egypt.  Who would have guessed it? A week before it would be a work of fiction.  But it happened, and months later the New America Foundation received some press about their internet in a suitcase.

‘Internet in a suitcase’ is the work of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, led by Sascha Meinrath.  He came to the Berkman center a week ago to speak of the work at OTI focusing on the topics of community broadband, M-lab, and open mesh networks.  He spoke of these projects anecdotally, and I recommend watching the webcast.  Its interesting to hear about not only the growth of OTI, but the pressure against their work, and the propaganda spread against their work by telecoms- to an extent it boils down to who has more PR money.

But one thing inspiring about the New America Foundation is that any critiques they have are backed up with solutions that are ready to be implemented.  One of the solutions, along the lines that everyone should have access to the web, is the development of open mesh networks.

I spoke with Sascha after his talk- specifically on spreading info on how to build these mesh networks.  There is so much potential in them, including options for community level wireless, creating a platform for local applications, and the ability to connect if the communication infrastructure goes down (natural disasters, oppressive regimes).   He mentioned a few projects happening, and I did some research afterwards.  NAF is working on some projects in house, but is also trying to make connections between others who are working on mesh networking in some form. And here is what we have:

OpenWrt: Wireless Freedom : “OpenWrt is a highly extensible GNU/Linux distribution for embedded devices. Unlike many other distributions for these routers, OpenWrt is built from the ground up to be a full-featured, easily modifiable operating system for your router.”

The Serval Project: “Communicate anywhere, any time … without infrastructure, without mobile towers, without satellites, without wifi hotspots, and without carriers. Use existing off-the-shelf mobile cell phone handsets. Use your existing mobile phone number wherever you go, and never pay roaming charges again.”

Commotion Wireless: “and organizers here propose to build a new type of tool for democratic organizing: an open source “device-as-infrastructure” distributed communications platform that integrates users’ existing cell phones, WiFi-enabled computers, and other WiFi-capable personal devices to create a metro-scale peer-to-peer (mesh) communications network.” There are tons of resources here, this is one of the OTI projects as well.

Byzantium: “The goal of Project Byzantium is to develop a communication system by which users can connect to each other and share information in the absence of convenient access to the Internet. ”  This is a project by HacDC.

FabFi: “FabFi is an open-source, FabLab-grown system using common building materials and off-the-shelf electronics to transmit wireless ethernet signals across distances of up to several miles. With Fabfi, communities can build their own wireless networks to gain high-speed internet connectivity—thus enabling them to access online educational, medical, and other resources. ” And instructions on how to make it, all emerging form the FabLab project at the Center for Bits and Atoms.

DIY Mesh Guide: “Reliable, affordable and easy access to telecommunication services for all has been identified as key to social and economic development in Africa. Self-provisioning and community ownership of low cost, distributed infrastructure is becoming a viable alternative to increase the penetration of telecommunication services in rural Africa. The recent emergence of wireless mesh network technology (based on IEEE 802.11 a/b/g standards) can help to improve the delivery of telecommunication services in these regions. ”


So those are a few projects that are being carried out right now. I’d say if you’re interested in any of these, get involved. They are all open source projects, and benefit from a community of developers and users providing feedback.  In the end, it will be an immensely useful tool for all.  The people who first get involved will have an idea of the power of the projects, and like any successful platform, this will be a tool that will birth other tools.  For instance, public apps.  This has the potential to provide tons of jobs, not only to build the infrastructure bottom-up, but to also build on top of it, and think of new ways to interface with it.

Investments in public infrastructure have an immense positive impact on the well being of citizens.  Korea and Australia are currently putting in a lot of funding on a public broadband infrastructure.  The effects of this will become obvious in the years to come, and it will be clear that in the US such measures would have been beneficial.  The above information resources and projects put such matters back in the hands of people.  One can develop a mesh network with their community and allow people to connect cheaply, or even freely. Imagine the impact on education, information flow, and community engagement.



Mobile data platform and personal data storage

Wow. No secret that I dig the work of Alex Pentland at the Media Lab, but this next project is awesome. funf an Android app that will help you collect and store data of your cell phone usage. Previous research from his Media Lab group, Human Dynamics, has shown that such high resolution data can help explain our behaviors. Based on your cell phone usage, its possible to infer things about an individual, including preferences in food or music, but also in diagnosing illnesses.

But here’s the kicker. This app will empower users with the data. Instead of collecting all of the data and selling it, or using it for ads, its going to be an implementation (probably the first) of the personal data storage idea. Check out the video below for quick details on it. Basically, the user can choose which companies and apps to share data with.

This enables innovation for companies, and also privacy for individuals. I imagine in setting up that marketplace, the companies that are most just with the data will win out. Awesome. One of those things that seems obvious- but really at this point when so many companies have tons of our data, its hard to imagine who will adopt these practices.

People are becoming increasingly concerned of their data, and what it is being used for. So there is an incentive to build apps for this framework, and funf will allow developers to focus on the interfaces, analytics, and machine learning logic to build inferences- instead of the data collection. And funf will handle all the personal data storage stuff- what a great way to spread and implement the concept.

The PDS is just one example of a funf back-end, however it is one that we believe is a very important for an ecosystem where massive amounts of data are collected on end-users. If we want such an ecosystem to flourish, we have to protect users’ privacy, and give them tools to understand and control who has access to their data and what is done with it. [from the funf site]

Also, its open source. It will be cool to see what sorts of remixes people build using the framework, and what additional sensory peripherals are included.

Now, if you had this kind of mobile data, what would you make with it? I’d try and figure out things like ‘data signatures’. Would there be a way that I could identify myself more accurately solely by my behaviors? Credit card companies already use this idea. How could it become useful once harnessed by a mobile phone? Anyway, I’m excited to hear thoughts of other implications.

Funding Open

Mozilla put out a great video outlining an open source funding and development model.  Basically they highlight that in a conventional funding model we fully plan a project, and allocate funding for certain features and steps of development.

What actually happens is that some steps require more funding, some steps are never reached, and some are never needed.  We waste a lot of funding.  But in the beginning, our planning was clear.

Contrast that with the open model.  A single, simple feature is created and deployed to the target community.  The community plays with the product, offers feedback and hacks new trajectories.  We can consider these as we develop the product.  Simply, Including conversation with the target community in the design process allows us to understand what the community finds useful. It allows users to voice what they want.  And in the end, we are creating for them anyway. This allows for a generative product, adaptive to the needs of the community as the product grows.

In the open model, the planning part can be convoluted, but the actual product is cleaner, more useful, cost-effective, and community driven (as the video puts it).

This video describes clearly the benefits of the open model and how to go about ‘planning’ it.  Collaborative (+ generative) design is a huge source of innovation and allows for effective use of resources.  I’m excited to see groups like Mozilla spreading the ideas in such clear ways.

As technologies become more complex, the designer must set aside their ego.  Top down planning inherently assumes the solutions exist in the mind of the designer.  Technological trajectories are impossible to predict successfully, so rather than sole individual planning, products must be collaboratively grown.

Barcamp Boston 6 talk about Maker Communities

I knew I wanted to give a talk about the social context of design at Barcamp Boston 6: there would be tons of people thinking of product development, marketing, start ups, open source tech, and entrepreneurship- why not describe some of the things I learned in design for empowerment and how they could be both profitable and socially conscious?

Adam Hasler (Dorkbot Boston) and Ben Sugar (who also took DFEX) agreed to join in the presentation, and we crafted a talk that would be an overload of ideas meant to inspire a discussion.  We wanted the talk to be interactive, and excited discussion that would trickle out of the room and continue through the rest of the weekend.  We made sure to include audience engagement throughout the talk- through back chatter and quick interactions- and left a good amount of time at the end for others to speak.

Take a look at the slides to get an idea of the talk:

The discussion was pretty exciting. Some notable comments from the audience were that :

+It can be easy to fall into an us vs them against coporations, but not all corporations are bad- they can be created as platforms to work for you.  Some corporations take principles from healthy communities in their development- Southwest and Virgin were cited- and we can learn a lot from these companies.
+While changing the corporate landscape could be difficult, the interest in widening connections of the maker community is feasible- the qualities of an entrepreneur are invariant over many cultures, and these similarities could help spread the spark.
+One inherent value in makerspaces is their low barrier to entry.
+A potential source of funding for certain projects bourne out of makerspaces could be SBIR programs (small business innovation research)

Moment of Clarity

An experimental electronic piece created using a recovered sample of the oldest recorded sound, 150 years old. Awarded first prize at the LAC2010 conference in Utrecht.


Listen here if the above player doesn’t work

This piece was created for the 2010 Linux Audio Conference composition competition. The theme is 150 years of recording sound, to mark the anniversary of the oldest reproduced sound fragment “Au Claire de la Lune” dated from 1860:

The original 150-year old “Au Claire de la Lune” sample, found at can be used as a starting point… For the composition process the use of Linux and/or open source applications is strongly encouraged and appreciated.

The composition must be accompanied by a (short) description of the work and the use of software technology.

In Moment of Clarity, I sample the 150 year old recording and create a composition based on the narrative of experimentation, exploration and discovery.

Initially hearing the sample I thought to remove the noise, at which point I realized that the noise is an essential aspect of the recording, giving it history and character.  In the piece I explore reframing the noise of the sample, i.e. as a percussive sound, or a texture.

The manipulations of the sample were written in Super Collider, and the mixing was done in Audacity.  Both pieces of software are available for free download and are open source. I thought about what compositional tools were available with the open source software that would be much more difficult to achieve, with as much freedom, in commercial software.  I found this an exciting opportunity to explore open source music apps, and push myself to learn something new.

I followed a similar stereo sound particle theme that I explored with virtual hardware in emergence_voice and live analog synths the guests/ a vision/ to this river .  In this case I was able to execute the randomness and repetition of the particles through code, rather than twisting knobs live through software or hardware.  This allowed me to slice up the sample and collage it on a larger scale, and immediately feel what differences slight parameter shifts made.

The 2010 Linux Audio Conference will be held in Utrecht from May 1st through 4th.

update: Moment of Clarity was awarded first prize in the Linux Audio Conference composition competition.  The following is an except from what the jury from (who provided the audio sample) had to say

“I’m impressed with the distinctively percussive use the composition by Kawandeep Virdee makes of the source material. It is quite effective, and very different from the strategies found in other creative works I’ve heard using phonautogram samples, so it rates highly in terms of originality. Despite the thorough transformation of the sample, it still retains enough of its original timbral character — the “noisiness” — for the source to be recognizable and meaningful.”