Why should we care about FireChat, mesh networks and development

Mobile phones have changed the way we interact with each other and with our surroundings. A new communication tool has the potential to be used to assist in global development efforts. Photo by: Adam Fagen / CC BY-NC-SA

Technology and human necessity have the power of reshaping the way we interact with each other, as well as impact how democracy manifests itself in more restricted environments.

Last week, multiple news outlets reported about FireChat, a new communication tool used by protesters in Hong Kong to organize the Occupy Central pro-democracy rallies. This represents the first time that a mesh network application has been used within the context of a political demonstration, and could potentially trigger a shift in the way political movements manifest.

FireChat doesn’t require Internet access and uses a mobile device’s Bluetooth signal to form a wireless network where participants can send and receive messages. Even though FireChat took the world by storm in Hong Kong, the truth is that mesh networks have been around for more than a decade. We are now just grasping its potential for global development and strengthening civil society.

A mesh network is a local area network in which all the nodes are connected to each other and are able to relay or exchange data throughout the network. Like most technologies, mesh networks were originally conceived as a military tool, but since 2004 experts have been exploring their use for providing broadband Internet access to areas that have not yet been reached by commercial ISPs.

Mesh networks are controlled by those who control the nodes. Every single person who controls a router (node) has an equal amount of power over the networks. The fact that users and communities are able to control the network presents an opportunity for communities that operate under stringent conditions. Recent price drops in the required equipment for building the network, including routers and mobile equipment, grants it the potential of increasing its use on a wider scale.

Mesh networks and development

Mesh networks are being used today to promote promote transparency and encourage civic participation.

In December 2013, representatives from Tunisia’s Sayada community created the wireless network Mesh Sayada, which serves as a platform for locally hosted content such as Wikipedia and Open Street Maps. Furthermore, local technologists have developed a website that incorporates an online chat application, key government data — such as municipal budgets — and other relevant open data. Similar efforts have taken place in Afghanistan with the creation of the FabFi network.

Mesh networks can support life-saving emergency communications when systems fail in the aftermath of natural disasters. After Hurricane Sandy, cellphone service and Internet services were lost in Red Hook, Brooklyn. People in the community were in need of timely information about relief services and where to find emergency supplies. The Red Hook Initiative Wifi network proved crucial in providing relief information and helping government officials communicate with those in need.

During the IREX’s last Technology Deep Dive, more than 30 technology professionals came together to discuss concrete applications for mesh networks and their development initiatives. Some of the case studies explored included:

Agriculture. Mesh networks can help boost agricultural production by adding data from meshed sensors to determine use of water and fertilizer levels in crops.

Finance. Mesh networks can be used to transfer microinsurance payments to farmers based on reports out of local, mesh-enabled weather stations. Once a certain limit of weather conditions is reached, it triggers an automated financial disbursement to farmers.

● Community building. The mere act of establishing a mesh network is a community exercise as many actors and stakeholders need to be involved to make the network successful. Mesh networks not only provide communities with an alternative form of communication, but they also incentivize the creation and sharing of local content and skills.

Mesh networks are not the panacea for all technology challenges, and they won't solve the last-mile problem of connectivity. For example, mesh networks could not be deployed in an area without electricity as the routers and nodes require power to function unless alternative sources of energy are put in place. Mesh networks could also not be deployed in areas where there is no community buy-in, as they will most likely would not be sustainable. Nonetheless, mesh networks can be powerful and can help communities if the right conditions are in place.

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About the author

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    Olimar Maisonet-Guzman

    Olimar Maisonet-Guzman works is policy coordinator for IREX's Center for Collaborative Technologies where she explores the use of emerging technologies such as drones, data and new media in international development and citizen engagement. Previously, she worked worked at the U.S. State Department and as a policy coordinator for the United Nations Rio+20 and the post-2015 negotiations.