Last weekend, more than ten days after superstorm Sandy, and after many days of darkness, most residents of Red Hook finally had power back. But power isn’t everything anymore. In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, people across the city used Internet and social media to communicate with their loved ones and let them know they were OK or needed some help. The Internet is no longer a frivolous thing, it’s a critical tool during and after natural disasters like Sandy. And in Red Hook, a neighborhood mostly comprised of low-income public housing residents, Internet is sometimes a luxury very few people can afford.
It’s in this low-lying neighborhood that an unlikely alliance was formed. A pair of mobile do-gooders with a gizmo-filled bus, a group of hackers, and a local non-profit teamed up to give the residents unprecedented free Internet access.
The do-gooders are Joe and Debbie Hillis, who drove 1,600 miles from Saginaw, Texas to New York on the day Sandy hit the East Coast to help people in need. After getting to New York, the Hillises went door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood to give relief to victims of the storm, from the darkness of Lower Manhattan to Staten Island and Breezy point, driving a special bus they retrofitted with all kinds of tech devices.
Called the mobile technology recovery center, it’s designed to give disaster victims and first responders all the tools they need in the first hours and days after an hurricane, a tornado on any other calamity.
The bus is equipped with UHF and VHF radios, so that it can become a makeshift command center for police, firefighters and medical personnel. It also stores 30 workstations, four servers, a mobile server rack, two laser printers, more than one hundred routers, 5,000 feet of cables, computer repair parts, switches, hard drives and much more. “Every time we get to a disaster we find something we don’t have,” says Joe, “that goes into our ‘lesson learned.’ ”
In their two weeks in the city, Joe and Debbie brought laptop computers to fire departments, set up workstations in disaster recovery centers and even helped set up a Wi-Fi mesh network along with a group of hackers to get Red Hook neighbors back online.
Joe Hillis, a mustachioed, upbeat man, has spent most of his life in public service as a fire fighter, a job he retired from in 2004. Technology has been his other passion, even during his years in a fire suit. He started consulting as an IT manager for the city of Saginaw in 1998, working with small businesses. In 2000, he founded his own web and IT consulting company, UR Tech.
After 9/11 and the creation of the National Emergency Technology Guard (NETGuard), a disaster relief corps of volunteers with technology background, Joe and Debbie wanted to get involved. NETGuard never took off though, and when it was taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) it became just a local response service with local volunteers. The Hillises thought the local focus was a mistake.
When a disaster hits, Joe explains, the local community suffers and often people can’t really help each other because they can barely help themselves, having lost their own homes and loved ones. What happened in Breezy Point, where most of the families who saw their houses burn down are actually first responders, is a tragic example of how people hit by a disaster just can’t do it by themselves. They need help from the outside. That’s why they decided to create their own non-profit.
“That’s when we decided we would launch ours at a national level,” Joe tells Mashable. “And that we wouldn’t be restricted by local government and the boundaries that they have.”
In 2008, they founded the Information Technology Disaster Recovery Center (ITDRC), and then incorporated it as a non-profit in 2009. Since then, they’ve been to 18 disasters across the country. From tornadoes in Kansas and Missouri to hurricanes or tropical storms in New Orleans and now, New York.
Initially, the ITDRC wanted to focus on helping small businesses get back to business as usual providing them tech tools to hit the ground running after a disaster hit. Think about a small family-owned shop that used to do accounting on one desktop computer that got destroyed or damaged by a storm. The ITDRC could provide them with a temporary workstation to replace it. The focus on small businesses, however, was soon replaced by a wider one.
“What we quickly found is that it wasn’t the small business that needed the help in the beginning, it was the community itself,” says Joe.
And in New York, as FEMA told them, the community needed computers and Wi-Fi.
They set up five workstations at the IKEA in Red Hook, where FEMA established a temporary disaster recovery center, so that neighbors could log onto Facebook to communicate with their families, send emails and, most importantly, request individual assistance to FEMA online.
The biggest task of all, however, was to bring neighbors back online in their homes, taking advantage of an existing network created in 2011 by the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a local non-profit that helps the community with social outreach and youth educational programs.
Last year, the RHI had set up a wireless mesh network in the neighborhood with the help of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. A mesh network is made of multiple nodes that serve as relays — if one goes down, traffic is rerouted to one of the multiple relays in the network, without anybody noticing. With limited support from authorities and a small budget, RHI’s network couldn’t reach many houses and had limited capacity. That’s a huge weakness, especially when the residents who normally had their own Internet connection started using it after the storm. The network could only serve 100-150 simultaneous connections, according to Becky Kazansky on TechPresident.
That’s when a trio of hackers came to the rescue to help expand the reach of the mesh.
Bryce Lynch (The Doctor), Ben Mendis (Ben The Pirate) and Chris Koepke (Haxwithaxe), are the core developers working on a system to deploy an ad-hoc mesh network called Project Byzantium. The idea behind Byzantium is to quickly provide Internet access and set up a mesh network in case of an outage, such as an Egypt-style blackout or a natural disaster, like Sandy.
According to Mendis, Sandy “is exactly the type of situation that we have been developing Project Byzantium to help with,” since they launched the project in February 2011. So when Willow Brugh of Geeks Without Bounds called asking for help, they “jumped at the opportunity.” Brugh put them in touch with Frank Sanborn, one of FEMA’s innovation fellows who also knows Joe and Debbie Hillis.
Over last weekend, the three hackers installed routers and configured them to be compatible with Commotion software, most commonly known as “Internet in a suitcase,” a mesh network project of the Open Technology Institute. The ITDRC provided a satellite dish to connect the mesh to the Internet with ViaSat, a satellite-based Internet provider that mostly works with the military and has collaborated with them before.
At the end of the weekend this unlikely tech alliance effectively expanded the reach of the Red Hook wireless mesh, doubling its coverage and capacity.
This was a major win for Joe and Debbie, who have now spent almost three weeks away from home – and don’t plan to go back at least after Thanksgiving – sleeping on the floor of their bus and getting as little sleep as possible, helping Sandy victims all over the city. Joe and Debbie, however, credit New Yorkers in general and the tech community in particular for the success of the recovery after the storm.
“This is by far the best volunteer response I’ve seen from the tech community,” Joe tells Mashable, citing the more than 50 volunteers who registered directly with ITDRC and the more than 300 who did through the New York Tech Meetup.
Whoever deserves credit, all the volunteers as well as Debbie and Joe share the same passion and drive. “Once you do it you’re addicted,” says Debbie. “Helping people, there’s nothing like it.”
UPDATE, 11/27/2012: The story has been updated to clarify that the RHI set up the mesh network in Red Hook with the help and collaboration of the Open Technology Institute.