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RELEASE: New Community-Tech Tool to Help in Sandy's Aftermath

Published:   November 19, 2012

Brooklyn, New York — The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) and the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) launched today a new tool to facilitate community-based response to Hurricane Sandy.

RHI/Status allows residents of the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn to send a report by text message to a public map, which RHI will monitor and coordinate community-based responses to neighborhood needs longstanding or caused by Sandy. The public map is available at https://rhiwifi.co/status. The phone number to text is (347) 778-0570 using the format “Report @ Location” where “report” is your need or status and “location” is an address or intersection. (Example: "Gas, Water Pump @ Van Brunt and Pioneer Brooklyn.”)

This tool is part of a project by OTI and RHI in Red Hook that has showcased how community organizing and groundbreaking wireless technology can transform disaster response. Prior to Hurricane Sandy, the two organizations had begun to develop a neighborhood wireless network and the status tool.

“We were able to rapidly adapt to post-hurricane realities due to our long-standing partnership with the Red Hook Initiative, our use of open technologies, and because our team of experts had the technological acumen necessary to be agile under disaster conditions,” said OTI Director Sascha Meinrath. “These experiences are a reminder that we must not wait until after a crisis hits to begin building resilient communications infrastructure -- disaster response begins with empowering communities well before the problem occurs.”

When residents lost Internet service after the hurricane, the nascent network was quickly swamped with users. OTI and RHI coordinated a rush of contributions to the community infrastructure to handle the increased demand. Neighborhood residents and small business owners volunteered to host wireless routers on their roofs to extend the coverage area. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing a temporary Internet connection via satellite uplink. Local ISP Brooklyn Fiber is
currently donating Internet connectivity as well.

The network is currently available at and around RHI offices and at nearby Coffey Park. Residents can get online using their own Wi-Fi devices, like a smartphone or laptop, or using one of RHI’s computers.

“We immediately saw communications as one of the critical needs in the community,” said RHI Media Programs Coordinator Tony Schloss. “We wanted it to be as easy as possible for people to contact their networks to find housing, gain access to information, and report their safety status. And now with RHI/Status, it just takes a text message to assess community needs.”

OTI and RHI are using Commotion to power the wireless network. Commotion is an open-source communication tool that runs on mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks. OTI is developing Commotion for situations where the government has cut off or is severely restricting access to the Internet. Such networks are also resilient to other threats, including extreme weather. The Red Hook network is the first time OTI has used Commotion for disaster response.

OTI and RHI built RHI/Status on an open source social mapping platform that OTI is developing called Tidepools. OTI has been working with Red Hook residents since summer 2012 to use the platform to gather and present critical information, including arrival  times for the B61 bus and the location and severity of police stop-and-frisk activities. Tidepools incorporates Leaflet and OpenStreetMaps and presents map data, except for users phone numbers, through a standard Application Programming Interface. RHI/Status stores users’ phone numbers securely.

To schedule an interview, please contact Clara Hogan.

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