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 2protest 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
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 11By 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 Twilio30for 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
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 Newsand 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.
Audio producer: High Line site
Journalist and professional killjoy, specializing in long-form writing and audio. Film buff, fly-on-the wall, seasoned skeptic.
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.”
The relative publicness of You Are Here also meant that more technical safeguards were required. Though our nodes were installed inside businesses, and were thus protected from physical vandalism, “We’re leaving this device in public, so we have to put some safeguards in there so it doesn’t get abused,” says Grant. In order to limit the possibility of ill-intentioned users manipulating the device or its content, “We had to set it up so that it blocked all outgoing traffic except traffic going to [our] server.”
The security concerns of You Are Here are minimal compared to those of a typical Wi-Fi hotspot; one of the benefits of a device with limited internet connectivity is that there is much less harm it can do if it’s compromised. Apart from basic protections—like strong passwords—on the administrative parts of the device’s software, the fact that You Are Here nodes aren’t networked means that they don’t need a complex network security strategy. Without access to the broader internet, You Are Here nodes are unlikely to attract malicious actors trying to capture others’ data, engage in illegal online activity, or just bog down someone else’s network connection. Moreover, since the connections into the device are so limited, their vulnerabilities are too: Anyone wishing to compromise the device would have to be physically near it. And even in New York City, the number of people passing through a public park is tiny compared to the number of malicious actors online.
Our need to host some of the You Are Here content online, however, did create some technical conflicts. For example, because we ended up storing user-contributed stories remotely, we had to determine the best way to provide the limited internet connectivity our setup required. While we could have piggybacked on our hosts’ wireless connections, we didn’t want to expose our audience members’ listening habits to the host organizations’ hosting. Instead Grant decided to use a 3G “data stick,” which supplied a standalone internet connection.
Balancing Privacy and Metrics
Even without the imperatives of advertising, any system intended for news distribution needs to support basic metrics. In this, You Are Here faced another design hurdle common to privacy-enhancing systems: how to effectively monitor users’ engagement with the system without monitoring the users themselves.
“I always knew that we’d somehow have to track people who were using the app, and obviously I’m not interested in tracking individuals,” says Grant. “Still, to understand how the device is being used in order to improve it, or just understand how people use something like this, we want to have some kind of analytics/tracking in place.”
Eventually, Grant settled on using the open-source Piwik tracking platform, which provided a good balance of information and anonymity. You Are Here can log information like “the device that’s connected, what kind of browser they’re on, screen resolution, how long it took for the page to load, the date and time, what they were clicking on,” says Grant. Although relying on Piwik made recording some information—such as how long a user listened to an audio track—more difficult, the fact that it was simple and lightweight was worth the additional effort. While tracking packages like Google Analytics require sending information to Google’s servers, Piwik was small enough to both live and store data right on the Raspberry Pi.
“That was also cool,” says Grant, “that we were using something that just lives on the front end and doesn’t send any information to some remote server.” Although the data was securely accessible via a remote login, without this, checking the user statistics would mean visiting the device in person.
Ultimately, each You Are Here broadcast station ended up costing about two hundred dollars to build (of which thirty-five dollars went to the SIM card needed to download user content) and is smaller than a breadbox, requiring just two non-grounded power supplies (one for the Raspberry Pi and another for the amplifier) to operate. Before we could go about installing them “in the wild,” however, we had to configure both the call-in feature and the “front end” of the system: the web pages that users would see and interact with when they logged on to the network.
Integrating User Content
In order to support the widest range of devices—and therefore contributors—You Are Here uses a platform called Twilio to let audience members submit their own audio stories in response to our site-specific podcasts. Though newer phone models can upload audio directly to a website, older phone models can’t—and we didn’t want to limit You Are Here’s engagement only to audience members with the latest phones.
Using Twilio allowed us to quickly and inexpensively set up a unique dial-in number for each You Are Here node. When an audience member calls in, they’re greeted by a pre-recorded prompt explaining that we’d like them to share their thoughts and experiences connected to the You Are Here node site. Users can then record their stories by leaving a voicemail. In order to make those audience recordings available on the correct You Are Here node, however, team member Dan Phiffer had to build a small web application to connect the two.
“In order to [both] use telephones and also to keep [You Are Here] relatively offline, we would need to have some kind of connecting middleware,” says Phiffer. In this case, that middleware consisted of a small, web-based application. Though Phiffer is relatively experienced with web technologies, he had never used Twilio until this project. Still, he was able to put together the Twilio portion over the course of just one afternoon.
“It was really easy,” says Phiffer. “It was surprising.”
Using basic web-based technologies1, Phiffer created a script that was triggered whenever a message was left for one of our You Are Here nodes. Phiffer’s middleware would then download the user’s audio story and save a copy of it.
In addition to serving as go-between for the You Are Here node and the Twilio platform, Phiffer’s middleware offered some real-time insight into how the system was doing. That’s because Phiffer also configured his system to send an update to his Slack channel whenever a recording was made. In addition to posting an alert message, it “sends the link to the MP3 so we can listen to it,” Phiffer says.
Those real-time notifications helped the project team get an idea of how much activity there was on each You Are Here node. It also provided an opportunity to review recordings for problematic content. Although no inappropriate content was submitted to our pilot installations, our experience with news websites and prior projects made us aware of this very real possibility. Like related systems,35 You Are Here does not provide for any automated content moderation. Still, being automatically notified of new content made the review process less manual. In a fully offline context, of course, any human moderation would need to be done on-site—one of the many reasons we envision You Are Here nodes living in easily accessible places.
Given the goals of engagement and exchange that drove the You Are Here project, audience members contributed stories with the idea that they would be heard by others. Because of this, our efforts to keep the stories private as they passed from the Twilio platform to the You Are Here node were minimal. Technically, for example, a person who discovered the (otherwise unpublished) URL of Phiffer’s middleware could access the recorded stories from anywhere.
That said, Phiffer suggests that blocking undesirable access would be simple. “By having a random, long string of digits that are shared on the device and shared on the server,” he says, one could ensure that only the You Are Here stations were able to access any recordings. “If you don’t have the correct thing, [the middleware] rejects the request.”
While inspiring and maintaining user participation is always tricky, Phiffer says, platforms like Twilio can make it easier to customize the audience’s experience and stay connected with them. Initially, for example, when a contributor calls in, “It’s using this robot voice to say, ‘Hello, thank you for calling. Please leave your response.’” Replacing that message with a customized recording allowed us to offer participants a more customized experience.
While the use of Twilio to support audience participation was initially a compromise, it does offer additional functionality that could be useful for long-term You Are Here nodes. In addition to facilitating real-time content moderation as noted above, the fact that users are placing a phone call to submit a response opens up possibilities for reconnecting with them after they’ve left the area.
“Repeat participation could be a possibility,” says Phiffer. For example, one could use the Twilio/middleware combination to create an opt-in feature allowing contributors to be notified via SMS when a new You Are Here site launches or new stories are added.
Ultimately, though, the functioning of the system has little effect if audience members don’t know where it is or how to use it. To generate awareness and draw audience members in, we needed appealing and coherent graphic and user-interface design.
Interface Design and Signage
When done well, the design for a user interface or graphic identity seems simple, intuitive, and even obvious. Of course, the best and most effortless interfaces are the hardest to create, often requiring multiple experiments and iterations.
Such was certainly the case for the You Are Here web interface, whose final version consists of a simple title banner and an image overlaid with a large “play” button. Below this, a short written prompt and a bright “Tap to Call” graphic clearly invites listeners to join the conversation.
According to artist and designer Amelia Marzec, finding inspiration for You Are Here’s graphic, red-orange logo was relatively simple, as she borrowed from common wayfinding and comic conventions.
“I was looking at the subway map and they have the little ‘You Are Here’ circle,” says Marzec. “And that’s really common.”
When it came to the interface, however, things didn’t start out so simple. “We had a lot more screens initially,” she says.
As is often the case, the many screens represented in the early designs for You Are Here reflected our debates about what the system itself would be, and how it would be used. Part of what excited us about You Are Here was the flexibility of the system: offline wireless nodes could be used to foster and create all kinds of communities and conversations. In schools, for example, where safety considerations make traditional online conversations too risky, You Are Here nodes could be used to host message boards or important notices. Alternatively, neighborhoods wanting to ensure the integrity of local conversation could gather input from residents while minimizing onerous security processes.
Our experience in designing and implementing You Are Here therefore exemplified one of the essential tensions of building any technology: While its flexibility can be exciting, its effectiveness comes from its specificity. As Marzec explains, “We’re approaching it as a system that could be used for anything. And that’s something that’s really interesting for engineers, but…people really need something human to latch onto.”
Getting those specifics right, of course, requires a negotiation between the goals of the project and the possibilities and the constraints of the technology.
In the case of You Are Here, our primary goal was to engage readers by telling journalistic, site-specific stories that listeners across the technology-adoption curve could access and contribute to. This led us away from a fully offline solution, and toward one that incorporated some web-based technologies. Similarly, our desire to keep the project physically small (the physical You Are Here unit was approximately eight inches by five inches by four inches with a two-foot antenna) as well as fully open-source influenced the amount of content that we could effectively store on the physical device.
This meant that some of our early ideas for the You Are Here nodes simply weren’t feasible. Yet these constraints were also what ultimately allowed us to streamline the interface and user experience into one simple, accessible web page, saving us from the “feature creep” that might have overloaded the interface to make it clunky and cumbersome. In other words, designing the You Are Here interface helped us both define and refine our goals for the overall project, an aspect of the design process whose value is gaining currency in both creative and journalistic settings. As Heather Chaplin, director of the Journalism + Design program at The New School wrote for the Tow Center in 2016: