The Internews-sponsored Mesh-Casting pilot project is unique in the field of mesh technology in that it is free and open source, making it widely accessible. The Mesh pilot project builds on the work of the Serval Project, which has pioneered the development of open source software to create autonomous mesh-based voice and data networks among Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones. The Serval Project mesh is further enhanced by a “Rhizome”—an application that allows news, geographical information, software and other content to be rapidly distributed throughout the cellular commons at no cost to the users.
The “Mesh-Casting” pilot project aimed to completely democratize the flow of information by moving it between phones directly, providing a less expensive and more connected communication alternative for citizens. Funded by a grant from the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning, the Media for Justice Project of the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) implemented this pilot project to provide communications solutions for a group of activists, citizen journalists and human rights monitors working in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
The pilot project included several activities. CEHRD built and managed the information system to connect local human rights activists to the Amnesty International media center. They also conducted various trainings on various topics, such as how to effectively use social media for human rights campaigns. In addition, they oversaw the building and adaptation of the mesh technology with the help of partners from the Serval Project.
The project was motivated by a local human rights movement that began in 2008 when a handful of small, proximate “slum” or “shanty” communities in the city of Port Harcourt were slated for demolition to make way for a dubious urban renewal plan proposed by the government. The plan would have displaced tens of thousands of residents. As many of these communities had existed for decades, the residents organized in an attempt to stop the demolitions and disseminate the truth about their communities, the actions of the government, and their right to remain in their homes.
The decision to use mesh-casting technology grew from a realization that the communities involved in resistance to demolition exercises were not able to send information out of their communities to NGOs such as Amnesty International because of lack of finances and poor access to Internet. This pilot project was designed to provide a communications solution for this group of activists, citizen journalists and human rights monitors working in this region of Nigeria.
The pilot project ran from mid-September 2011 to February 20, 2012. Initial data was collected from 10 project stakeholders as well as 28 of the 30 monitors participating in the pilot project from October 7-14th, 2011. Final data was collected from February 27 to March 4, 2012 from 27 of the 28 monitors who participated in the earlier phase of the pilot project.
Internews (Washington, DC, USA) commissioned iHub Research (Nairobi, Kenya) to conduct a 4-month study in Port Harcourt, Nigeria beginning in October 2011 to assess the impact of the introduction of mesh link technology on communications among community activists, and between activists and external human rights organizations.
Key Research Findings
Impact on communication channels within Nigerian shanty communities:
It appears that the mesh-casting technology generally increased communication among community members of the Waterfront areas. Communication increased principally because of increased ease and affordability. In addition, users of the technology perceived a decrease in risks involved in communication, which may have also led to an increase in the frequency of communication.
Impact on communication channels between shanty communities and others outside the area:
The effect of the technology on communication between shanty communities and NGOs such as Amnesty International and CEHRD did not seem to be as significant as the effect on communication within the communities themselves. Nevertheless, the technology appears to have increased communication between community monitors and outside NGOs. Again, this is likely attributed to cost and convenience.
Tech effect on facilitating data transfer from Nigerian shanty communities to others within and outside of the area:
The mesh-casting technology appears to have the greatest potential to enable data movement within high-density communities. The current available range of the technology severely limits the potential for high data movement between communities and those outside the community, as the farthest current range is only approximately 60 meters between two phones before the signal becomes too weak to use.