Community technology projects can address social, physical, and economic forces that are compounded by crisis and disaster events. The community technology approach is to build everyday resilience at the local level through workforce development, knowledge transfer, participatory methods, and community ownership.
As a local community resource run by a trusted neighborhood institution familiar with local needs, RHI WiFi was able to organize a digital response and provide aid in a way that federal, state, or even city-level agencies could not. OTI’s proposed plan to bring community-led resilient wireless networks to at least five additional neighborhoods in New York City through the NYC Economic Development Corporation’s RISE-NYC competition is based on the learnings from that local effort.
This model is called Digital Stewardship -- a principled approach to local technology that emphasizes self- governance and sustainability. Digital Stewards grow and maintain the technology their local communities need to foster healthy relationships and increase access to critical information. In a disaster, the breakdown of large communications systems and power failures can isolate neighborhoods and hamper response efforts; local Stewards with skills to build, maintain, and troubleshoot communications tools can support volunteer efforts within their communities, and can also facilitate relationships between local people and external emergency managers and responders.
While the Red Hook WiFi project demonstrated the value of Stewardship for resilience, the concept first emerged from a collaboration between OTI and the Allied Media Projects in Detroit. Detroit has experienced a different kind of emergency: a slow-moving disaster that has overtaken the city through several decades. But the results are the same: displacement, lack of access to essential resources like water, the destruction of property, an erosion of trust in authorities and government, and the relative success of small-scale over scaled-up efforts to address wicked problems.
What we learned in Detroit is that residents, already accustomed to organizing locally to address food, education, economic, and environmental justice, are well prepared to lead from the local level on digital equity for resilience. The Digital Stewards model emerges from Detroit’s Digital Justice coalition and its practice of community technology: a “whole community” approach that builds tech innovation without losing sight of its principles (Access, Participation, Common Ownership, and Healthy Communities). Detroit now has seven new, growing resilient local wireless networks.
The field of crisis informatics tells us that resilient systems should be diverse, efficient, redundant, autonomous, strong, interdependent, adaptable, and collaborative. These are the same qualities that make neighborhoods and cities stronger and more adaptable. Rather than directing efforts from the center out, or from the top down, the most innovative approach to scaling up resilience efforts is to keep them local, distributed, and in conversation -- person-to-person, neighborhood-to-neighborhood -- to ensure that models are adaptable and intentional.