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Allied Media Projects and the global relevance of Detroit's grassroots tech scene








From their office in the Cass Corridor, Allied Media Projects (AMP) have focused on strengthening digital literacy and Internet access at the grassroots in Detroit's neighborhoods. Now the world is starting to take notice.

In the past month, AMP's Digital Stewards project was featured in both the New York Times and Le Monde. AMP's deployment of wireless mesh technology, a decentralized Internet network, is part of a global policy push to bolster democratic social movements. Both the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have pledged millions to support this technology in an effort to promote and protect freedom of expression around the world.

While this technology improves communication capabilities for residents living under repressive regimes, its implications in Detroit are more nuanced. The Digital Stewards project and the use of wireless mesh technology offer a window into AMP's innovative contributions to our city's tech ecosystem through the development of a new cadre of technologists.

But first a bit of history.

AMP evolved out of the Allied Media Conference, which has existed in one form or another since 1999 (Mark your calendars! The 16th Annual AMC takes place in Detroit, June 19-22). The AMC wasn't always a local asset, however. During its first six years, the conference was held in Bowling Green, Ohio. AMP formally incorporated as an organization in 2002 and Detroiter Mike Medow (now AMP's business manager) got involved to help move the AMC to Detroit in 2007.

The AMC's origin story is firmly rooted in the midwestern punk and DIY publishing scenes that gained momentum during the early 2000s. The AMC's programming focused on the production of everything from zines to comic books, screen prints and independent radio stations.

However, as AMP's executive director Jenny Lee explains, "The move to Detroit expanded upon our punk roots, incorporating more independent media communities, like hip hop and spoken word activists, and women of color bloggers who were organizing against violence online. The AMC's momentum is now driven by an astonishingly diverse network of media and technology activists. A majority people of color and LGBTQ people, it's a community that defies a lot assumptions about what it means to work with digital technology."

AMP's mission also evolved during this time, shifting their focus to the process of mediamaking rather than simply the end products.

"At the AMC, we see so many examples of the transformative process of creating media," says Lee. "When people shift from passive consumers of information to creators of media, there's usually a corresponding shift in the way they relate to the power structures around them. Reality becomes more malleable."

AMP's nearly two-decade-long history as leaders of innovative media work in the midwest has allowed them to build a powerful global partner network. AMC co-founder Josh Breitbart went on to work at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI). In 2011 he helped AMP and their partners in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition secure a grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA). The BTOP money required a focus on expanding broadband Internet adoption in underserved communities. AMP and the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, both founding members of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, used the BTOP funds to launch three programs under the banner "Detroit Future" (no relation to Detroit Future City).

Over three years, the Detroit Future programs has trained thousands of Detroiters in digital media literacy. AMP's recently published "Detroit Future Media Guide to Digital Literacy" provides an in-depth look at their uniquely effective approach. AMP's Digital Stewards program began as a "track" within the Detroit Future Media training, taking "digital literacy" a step further -- not only were students learning how to make their own media, Digital Stewards learned to install and manage these decentralized Internet networks in their own neighborhoods.

Today, the Digital Stewards project has emerged from AMP's Detroit Future Media program as a distinct force and a platform for hands-on technology education and improved Internet access for some of what used to be Detroit's least connected communities.

To understand how wireless mesh networks are used to train, engage, and empower Digital Stewards, it's essential to understand a bit about the technology. Individuals can join the network by logging into the mesh wireless signal transmitted by a router. To extend the range of the signal and grow the network, they can simply install a router along a direct sight line with a router already within the network, usually on rooftops within a neighborhood. When participants connect their computers or other devices to these routers, they are able to exchange digital information with one another.

This specific network structure is called an intranet. It allows participants to communicate only with each other through a secure network that is independent from the Internet; however, it is also possible for one user within the intranet network to connect directly to the Internet and broadcast that signal, allowing all users on the network to gain Internet access. While, a large number of users may affect the quality of this external Internet connection, the cost of a wireless router is relatively low, about $50-$100, making the Internet much more accessible in low-income communities.

By building these networks themselves, AMP's Digital Stewards develop skills and learn about the Internet, software, and hardware. In short, they deveop a general digital literacy. Diana J. Nucera, the community technology director at AMP and coordinator of the Digital Stewards Project, explains that participants tend to be older Detroiters who are looking for a safe space to learn about technology and the Internet. Currently, stewards range in age from 20 - 78. To create an inclusive learning environment, Nucera has developed a unique curriculum that is accessible to and respectful of all ages and backgrounds.

"This pedagogical approach tends to challenge traditional notions of who technologists are and how they are trained," says Nucera.

She believes that Detroit's tech ecosystem currently lacks technologists, but the stewards program is a powerful localized strategy for filling this skill gap.

Currently there are seven mesh networks in Detroit. They are all supported by AMP and maintained by Digital Stewards who are residents of the neighborhoods where the networks have been installed. An anchor organization in each community also assists with organizing and managing these networks. This is essential to Nucera, who believes that building these networks inspires residents to think about the future of their neighborhoods in new ways.

"Locally maintained networks require community investment to a degree that results in community improvement," says Nucera. "Additionally, there is the added bonus of Internet access, which AMP considers to be a human right."

Once network installation wraps up, the stewards will begin populating the networks with locally specific apps that serve the needs of their neighborhood. Stewards will help with the development, installation, and testing of these apps.

The stewards of a network located in the 48217 ZIP code, which has been listed as Michigan's most polluted ZIP code, are planning to install sensors that track air quality levels. The data these sensors produce will be collected and maintained on their network. All stewards plan to develop and install an app that allows for their communities to operate a digital radio station through their respective networks (this particular project was recently chosen as a finalist for a Knight Arts Challenge Grant).

These highly local and Detroit-specific apps will work in tandem with open source software developed, tested, and fine-tuned by people all over the country, highlighting the unique scale and scope of the Digital Stewards project. AMP's national partner OTI has recently released Commotion 1.0, an operating system for wireless mesh networks that provides a platform on which the Steward's apps can run. Navigating this software package provides Stewards another opportunity for building their digital literacy, but additionally, the apps they build in the process have the potential to be adopted by other wireless mesh users all over the world. The Work Department, a Detroit-based design and development firm, collaboratively designed the curriculum toolkit and documentation for Commotion with AMP and the OTI. The Work Department underlines one more example of how Detroit-based technologists are contributing to a global conversation through local projects.

The Digital Stewards project is able to take on the specific and nuanced issues affecting Detroit and develop tech solutions that are globally relevant. Across its projects, AMP have been finding innovative ways to engage Detroit's grassroots and diversify the city's tech ecosystem. While this work has a direct impact in Detroit, AMP's organizational power comes from their ability to see these narratives in a larger context and then share them with world for maximum impact.

Kat Hartman is a Detroit-based freelance writer, data analyst, and information designer. Follow her on Twitter @kat_a_hartman and check out her website, kathartman.com.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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