Unlike their twentieth-century counterparts, today’s media organizations rely almost entirely on the centralized distribution infrastructure of the internet to disseminate news. Yet the internet is, in many ways, a fragile system, as illustrated by disruptive events like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and 2016’s Mirai botnet attack on East Coast DNS servers.1
Over the last decade, however, the evolution of microcomputers has made it possible to build small, independent web servers that can host substantial amounts of material accessible via their own, standalone Wi-Fi signal. Such offline wireless projects have been used in classrooms 2 protest sites, 3 libraries, 4and even for news. 5
The goal of the You Are Here project was to develop and document a fully open-source, offline wireless system and explore how it could be used to engage audiences with community-oriented news content. Over the course of one year, our team designed, built, and tested You Are Here at two New York City locations using originally reported podcast stories to prompt users to share their own reflections and experiences about the sites. While our project suffered from some the same challenges as previous systems, we believe that offline wireless systems hold substantial promise for safe, resilient, independent digital news distribution.
- The internet as we know is both relatively centralized and relatively fragile. Political actions, technical disruptions, and natural disasters are all a significant threat to news organizations without an alternative distribution method. Inexpensive, independent wireless content stations like You Are Here can act as a resilient backup network for everyone from ordinary citizens to first responders.
- Designing for engagement with a broad audience means making tough decisions about functionality. The sheer range of mobile devices and available features may mean compromise about how “offline” a particular wireless distribution point can be.
- Offline wireless is an unfamiliar paradigm: Most You Are Here users seemed to conflate “Wi-Fi” with “World Wide Web.” News organizations, however, can leverage their existing reach to provide messaging to readers about the functionality and purpose of offline wireless nodes, as well as use them to offer exclusive content.
- Location, location, location: Installing nodes in semi-public places increases interference from surrounding networks and devices. Keeping the You Are Here node small puts limits on antenna size, which in turn affects how far the wireless signal can reach. Physical obstacles (e.g., walls, trees) around the node can also moderate the range.
- Visibility is crucial: Our project was limited by how visibly we could advertise around our sites. Branding needs to go beyond promotional events and postcards; just like apps and online platforms, news organizations will need to cross-promote their offline network locations and content.
- The You Are Here hardware and software is entirely open-source. You can find all the instructions (including hardware recommendations and software downloads) on GitHub at: https://github.com/TowCenter/YouAreHere.
On an early Sunday afternoon in late October of 2012, mobile phones across New York began sounding the harsh, electronic bleat of the city’s emergency warning system, signaling the imminent arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Over the next few days, large swathes of the city would flood, isolating residents unable or unwilling to evacuate. Flooding also took out power and telecommunications in whole neighborhoods, leaving residents without access to basic news and emergency updates. Compounding these challenges, data centers in Manhattan were also hard-hit, taking news organizations like BuzzFeed and Gawker offline.6
In the aftermath of the storm, downed internet connections left aid workers and government officials struggling to gather information and coordinate efforts.78 Yet Sandy’s impact on connectivity wasn’t entirely unprecedented: 2005’s Hurricane Katrina took out seventy percent of the cell towers in New Orleans.9 In the intervening years, however, more than one-third of American housebolds became “wireless-only.” 10 11 By mid-2017, the Center for Disease Control found that just over half of all American households were wireless-only.12 While the vast majority of Americans still own and listen to AM/FM radio broadcasts,13 most news outlets do not have access to the airwaves. For many media organizations, this means that when the internet goes out, their publishing stops cold.
While large swaths of Brooklyn remained disconnected in the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, there was one neighborhood that stayed online: The Red Hook Housing Project, located between the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the waters of of the Red Hook Channel in northwest Brooklyn, was home to an existing “mesh networking” project started by the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) in 2011.14
The concept behind RHI’s efforts was simple: By tethering a wireless router to a single working internet connection and then interconnecting it to other wireless routers in a “mesh,” a single broadband connection could provide wireless internet access across an entire neighborhood. After Sandy, RHI used a landline connection from Brooklyn Fiber to provide connectivity to the existing routers it had set up on the tops of buildings in the area. While the network provided much-needed internet access in the weeks and months after the storm, RHI affiliate Georgia Bullen points out that in many cases the internet connectivity is not necessarily the most crucial aspect of these wireless hotspots. “A lot of what you need doesn’t change that often,” says Bullen, now technology projects director at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. Reference content, such as maps and guides for example, need only occasional updating. Moreover, the wireless nodes lend themselves to flexible placement. “They don’t take very much power,” she says. After Sandy, “We ran a couple of them off of twelve-hour power supplies.” Thanks to these semi-autonomous, local wireless nodes, the the local Red Hook community was able to access essential information even while the internet was down.
In today’s digital news business, of course, it may seem anathema to update information only occasionally. Yet when one considers the resurgent popularity of digital newsletters and continued relevance of digital “Today’s Paper” offerings from existing news organizations, audiences seem to be indicating an interest in news that is both more episodic and more local 15 16. Plus, in an increasingly monitored and fragile online environment, the idea of offline wireless distribution points offers the chance to provide both news publishers and audiences with digital spaces where, as Wired columnist Clive Thompson describes it, “one can talk—and listen—in private.”17 Moreover, whether an internet disruption is the result of political, technical, or natural events, offline wireless networks can help media organizations ensure that despite such circumstances their news can continue to reach readers when they need it most.
Over the past twenty-five years, the internet’s potential for global reach has proved a double-edged sword for professional journalism. On the one hand, the web has opened up new audiences and reporting methods; on the other, it has gutted business models and fragmented audiences. Perhaps even less anticipated is the increased homogeneity of the news ecosystem, with even global media organizations tending to “all emphasize the same thing,” as Google News creator Krishna Bharat observed in 2010.18
The centralization of news is not just a content phenomenon, however, but also a technical one. With the rise of web publishing, news media depends on a fairly limited distribution network—namely, the broadband connections and undersea cables that transmit all of the content on the internet, from news to Netflix.1920
This highly centralized structure is a sharp departure from print distribution methods. Traditionally, newspapers were delivered to consumers by tens of thousands of “paperboys,”21 who were directly employed by the news organization. But while successful twentieth-century news outlets often owned everything from the trees, to the shipping routes, to the printing presses they relied on,22 today’s digital-only news organizations are almost entirely dependent on internet for getting their product to audiences. Innovations in news distribution are often confined to content-sharing partnerships among existing news outlets (such as ProPublica’s partnerships with WNYC or the New York Daily News23), or through deals with third-party platforms like Facebook and Apple News (many of which have proven ultimately unfavorable to publishers).24
Yet even these efforts all still depend on the same supporting infrastructure: the routing protocols and connectivity of the internet. One result is that if internet access is disrupted, whether due to cyberattack25, government manipulation,26 natural disaster, or simple human error,27 public access to information is severely reduced. When the internet is inaccessible, in other words, so is the news.
The Case for Offline Digital Distribution
The goal of the You Are Here project is twofold: first, to create a simple, easy-to-use system for building an inexpensive, offline wireless web server to distribute locally focused news content. Unlike previous projects, we specifically wanted to focus on audio storytelling in order to provide our audience with an intimate experience of an important local space. Likewise, we were most interested in facilitating a mobile experience, since the vast majority of news consumers now obtain content on mobile.28 Second, by providing a simple interface that would allow visitors to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the physical space around them, we wanted to understand if tying our content to a specific location might improve audience engagement.
The initial concept for You Are Here was to create offline wireless nodes that audiences would connect to via their mobile devices as a way of accessing content that was available literally nowhere else. Inspired by the intimacy and immediacy of pieces like artist Janet Cardiff’s audio walks,29 we saw potential for audiences to use their mobile phones as a medium to both easily hear and contribute to the stories we would post.
As we began discussing the larger goals of the project, however, it became clear that insisting on a completely offline configuration would ultimately limit who could participate. While newer mobile phones could upload and download audio and photos directly to the You Are Here node’s browser-based interface, audience members with older phones wouldn’t be able to share their thoughts. Given that inclusivity and engagement were driving motivations for the project, we revised our design to instead rely on an inexpensive call-in service called Twilio30 for gathering audience-contributed content. Because this meant that contributors’ recordings would be collected via a centralized service, we did have to provide the You Are Here node with a certain level of internet connectivity. That said, we preserved the spirit of You Are Here as a local-only listening station by making user-recorded content the only internet-hosted content the device could access. Visitors couldn’t use You Are Here to browse the web, and if the connection went out, a team member could always go to the area to update the content manually.
In recent years media organizations have understandably been focused more on revenue models than internet protocols. The perils of centralized digital distribution, however, have long since caught the attention of the artistic and information-freedom communities.
In 2011, for example, NYU art professor David Darts created a device known as PirateBox, an offline wireless node built in response to copyright policies that Darts feels make a “misleading connection between stealing and sharing.”31 Darts, who first used his device to distribute files to his students during class sessions, admits that the project is a “provocation,” but also highlights its capacity for creating a private digital space even within a physically public one, by allowing users to share files “with total privacy.”
While the PirateBox project was originally composed of proprietary hardware running open-source software, more recent iterations use open-source hardware as well. One version, for example, is built on the inexpensive Raspberry Pi, a microcomputer that was introduced in the United Kingdom in 2012. Though no bigger than a credit card, the Raspberry Pi is actually a fully fledged microcomputer that runs the (also open-source) Linux operating system and can run multiple programs simultaneously. Popular with hobbyists and makers of all kinds, the Raspberry Pi recently became the United Kingdom’s all-time bestselling computer.32
When the Turkish government began used DNS manipulation to block access to Twitter in 2014, ongoing interference with internet communications was relatively unheard of, especially among aspiring EU member states. Suddenly, the limitations of internet-dependent information distribution was on full display, leading protesters to spray-paint Google DNS addresses on the sides of buildings as a means to circumvent the ban.
Though by that time projects like PirateBox and LibraryBox were becoming more robust, there were still few examples of offline wireless networks really being used to distribute news stories. Thus, for the You Are Here project, we sought to combine the immersive and locally focused experience of audio storytelling with the independence and resilience of offline wireless connection points. In addition to providing both intimacy and privacy, these nodes could be updated manually, if needed, in order to distribute digital information even when the internet was unavailable.
While the diversity of skills needed to produce these devices and the content they would carry was substantial, we were lucky to bring together a project team with expertise in the many areas it touched:
Principal developer and project lead
Sarah Grant is a Berlin-based media artist and educator. She is a former Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Journalism at Columbia, Adjunct Professor at NYU Polytechnic in Digital Media and current Impact Resident at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center. She researches and develops open source software, artworks as educational tools, and workshops that demystify computer networking technology. Sarah is the author of Subnodes 33 and organizes the Radical Networks conference in Brooklyn. Together with her partner Danja, she also runs a commercial research and development studio called cosmic.berlin.
Developer and graphic artist
Amelia Marzec is an American artist focused on rebuilding local communications infrastructure to prepare for an uncertain future. Her work has been exhibited at SIGGRAPH, MIT, ISEA (Canada), LAPSody (Finland), ONCE Foundation Contemporary Art Biennial (Spain), NODE Forum for Digital Arts Biennial (Germany), and is part of the Rhizome ArtBase. She has been a resident at Eyebeam, a resident at Harvestworks, a fellow at New York Foundation of the Arts, the A.I.R. Gallery Emma Bee Bernstein Fellow, a Tow Fellow at Columbia University, a grantee of the Research Foundation of CUNY, and a nominee for the World Technology Awards for Art. Her work has been featured in Wired, Make, Hyperallergic, Neural Magazine, Metropolis Magazine, NPR, and the front page of Reddit. She holds an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design, and a BFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts. She is a founder of the Radical Networks conference, has written for the Huffington Post, taught at Hunter College and Queens College, and has given talks at RISD, Barnard College, and the Queens Museum of Art.
Installation coordinator and communications
Susan McGregor is a faculty member at Columbia Journalism School, where she conducts research in privacy and security issues for journalists. Her experience developing Dispatch, a resilient, secure, and anonymous application for mobile communication and publishing, led to an interest in how local, offline wireless servers could be used to distribute news and provide essential information during times of conflict and crisis.
Audience engagement developer
Dan Phiffer is an artist and former technologist at The New Yorker whose projects include the localized, wireless-distribution system occupy.here34. In 2011 and 2012, Dan and collaborator Ellie Irons built “Neversink Transmissions,” an offline wireless community oral history archive in Denning, New York.
Audio narrative producer
Benjamen Walker is an experienced radio producer, as well as the creator and host of the Radiotopia podcast “Theory of Everything.” He was a driving force behind Radiotopia’s wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, which had contributions from nearly twenty-two thousand individual backers.
In addition to the core team members listed above, the individual audio segments for the You Are Here sites were reported and produced by independent audio producers:
Audio producer: Tompkins Square Park site
A multimedia journalist and producer based in New York City, Hilary Brueck has worked with international news outlets including ABC News and Al Jazeera America. Hilary is a newswriter with the Writer’s Guild of America and a frequent contributor at Forbes and Fortune, where she reports on science and technology. Before moving to New York, Hilary lived in Madagascar for two years, where she taught English and started a library in the island’s vanilla-growing country. A recovering Minnesotan, she speaks three languages and writes, edits, and produces for the web, radio, and TV.
Hardware and Networking
Thanks to the substantial prior experience of our project team, developing the hardware and software for You Are Here was not the ground-up endeavor it might have been. Sarah Grant, our project lead, had already developed subnod.es, a self-contained wireless server that runs on a Raspberry Pi and offers basic chat room and digital bulletin board system (BBS) functionality.
While You Are Here built on the subnod.es technology, says Grant, “that project was really only designed to work well in-room.” By design, however, You Are Here was meant to reach into public spaces—in this instance, parks—and therefore required significantly more range.
“We had to make sure that the network range extended beyond just the room,” she says. Though the particular model of Raspberry Pi used to build You Are Here includes a built-in wireless antenna, an external hardware amplifier and antenna were needed to generate a wireless signal strong enough to extend outdoors. Because wireless signals are easily blocked or weakened by physical obstacles, determining how to extend the signal was something of a trial-and-error process.
“There was one antenna that was fifteen decibels that I really wanted, so I just bought it,” says Grant. “When it arrived—it takes up the entire length of my kitchen.” She eventually settled on a nine-decibel antenna that is about a foot long.
In our final configuration, the reach of the You Are Here station node is about half a city block in every direction, depending on the nature and number of physical objects surrounding it. “If you’re in a flat, open field, you can get awesome range,” says Grant. “But if you’re in a park where there’s trees or statues or lampposts, all these things block the signal.”
Another goal of You Are Here was to make the physical station small enough to install in a wide range of locations, which placed additional limitations on how powerful the signal could be. At the Tompkins Square Park site, for example, You Are Here had to fit behind the door at the Blind Barber—a well-known barber shop by day and popular watering hole by night. While ensuring that the station’s signal reached as much of the park as possible was a key goal, “There’s also that balance of not showing up to a host with a fifteen-foot antenna,” says Grant. “There are ways to make [the signal] super powerful. But I think the compromise was: we can still cover a good quarter of the park.”