How local can you get? Michigan Welfare Rights Organization uses a wireless network to get its message out in downtown Detroit

article | December 21, 2011

    Joshua Breitbart

Using just a few wireless routers and open source software, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition is demonstrating how community organizations can use wireless networks to strengthen neighborhoods.

In “Full Spectrum Community Media,” OTI discussed the importance of making the Internet relevant for local communities by “influencing the architecture of local networks” through participatory design and leadership processes. This enables community media centers to solidify connections to surrounding neighborhoods and to reinforce their role as anchor institutions. OTI is a member of The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC), a group of organizations that has taken up this challenge by running a citywide broadband adoption program which combines peer-to-peer training programs with with mesh wireless technology anchored at community computer centers.

The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), another member of the DDJC, works out of Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit. The Church is a centrally-located, historic building with a wheelchair ramp and an elevator. It also happens to be adjacent to Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ home stadium. On game days, the Church rents its parking lot to baseball fans, making MWRO’s office inaccessible for visitors who arrive in cars. Patrons of the soup kitchen make up a large portion of the church’s visitors, and most of them arrive on foot, so the temporary lack of parking is usually not a problem.

This past November, MWRO was forced to cancel a planned workshop in order to accommodate a game. It was painful timing, as Governor Richard D. Snyder had announced that he was preparing to cut cash assistance to over 40,000 households. The workshop would have been a chance to highlight MRWO's organizing campaign to support those families.

When the DDJC heard that the ballgame was going to displace the workshop, it realized that wireless technology could help get MWRO's message out -- DDJC and MWRO together could reach the 40,000 Tigers fans coming for the Tigers' game against the Yankees in the American League Division Series.

Digital Billboard

Gwendolyn Gaines, a MWRO organizer, Anderson Walworth, the technology coordinator for Allied Media Projects, and Jenny Lee, one of the AMP Co-Directors worked together to set up a Ubiquiti NanoStation M2 as a wireless access point using Commotion firmware. They put information about the Governor's policies on the splash page, so that it would appear whenever a user joined the Commotion network.The message read:

Me Today, You Tomorrow – 40,000 welfare families cut off of cash assistance Oct 1st. Call Michigan Welfare Rights Organization if you or someone you love needs help: 313-964-0618. Join us Thursdays, noon to 1pm to protest attacks against children. – State Building – 3044 W. Grand Blvd at Cass.

At first, the setup did not work well; the ballgame seemed to occasionally disrupt the Wi-Fi signal MWRO uses for a local area network in their office. On October 4, though, the team was able to provide a proof-of-concept, as you can see in this video: