Disaster Proof Your Internet

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

This weekend, a massive “historic” blizzard is threatening parts of the eastern seaboard - including communities that are still recovering from the effects of Superstorm Sandy.  One solace for those bracing for the worst, they should be able to stay connected: the blizzard likely won’t disable Internet networks the way Sandy’s winds did.  

Still, if climate change means more weather disasters, it’s worth taking a moment to think about how to make this part of our infrastructure more robust. Consider the work the Open Technology Institute did in the wake of Sandy : our network in Red Hook, Brooklyn, stayed live while other, larger, networks did not.

That success was  a hot topic at White House meeting this week. On Wednesday, officials from the Homeland Security and Defense Departments rubbed elbows with members of Occupy Sandy (an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street) at a meeting held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to discuss innovation in disaster response. OTI was invited to explain why the community wireless network we built collaboratively with Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn, New York, survived Sandy,  filling a critical gap in local infrastructure left by the failure of many traditional broadband services.

Our network stayed in operation in large part because it is decentralized  -- it doesn’t have a central point of failure as is typical of traditional communications systems.  Our work enabled hundreds of area residents to access crucial information, check in with family and friends, and apply for disaster assistance online, as noted by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in her remarks on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, on the same day back in Brooklyn, our colleague Georgia Bullen spoke at a Federal Communications Commission workshop on network resiliency. She highlighted how our network not only weathered the storm of Sandy, but also saw a spike in users and an outpouring of interest from area residents and businesses eager to help us grow it. With that local support and logistical assistance from FEMA, we expanded the network after the storm.  A case study of our work will be featured in the forthcoming edition of Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

There are two key points for policymakers and community groups that we stressed in our talks this week as critical to our success after Sandy:

1) Get started on building community networks before a disaster hits and ensure that communities prone to disasters are aware of this technology beforehand.

OTI and RHI were working on the network for over a year before Sandy hit. We had already installed wireless access points at key local buildings, stocked extra networking equipment, and planned out the next steps to expand the network through the neighborhood. We had also contacted the community members that could make it happen. When FEMA Innovation Fellow Frank Sanborn and his team of volunteers came to help with recovery efforts, he was able to funnel his resources effectively, with leadership from RHI, to rapidly grow the network over one weekend.

2) Start by listening to what the community is already doing.

When responding to a disaster, it is important to tap into the informal communication networks already present throughout the neighborhood. The FEMA team started by listening and learning about the work RHI and OTI already had in place, which led to effective expansion and an even more durable and resilient platform that is still used by the community today – and will be available in the event of another crisis. Working with Brooklyn Fiber, a local ISP, and utilizing additional funding from New York City, RHI is now training a team of young adults from the Red Hook community to expand and maintain their network while educating others from their community.