Amy Cavender found herself among the “unruly mob” at the Texas Capitol last June in the aftermath of the “People’s Filibuster,” which saw thousands of people protesting in support of Texas Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis’ quest to defeat a controversial abortion bill.
“It was a huge, huge number of people and they showed up early and they stayed late,” Amy says of the protests. “It was very heavily documented by people, not by news organizations, but by normal people. And they were using their cell phones and their iPads and their laptops. There was this one guy who had a video streaming from the legislature, it was just his laptop and he was holding it up and that was better coverage than major media outlets were doing.”
As protests grew and committee hearings were taking place, Amy says she and a friend who are both professionals and do not have a “penchant for trouble” almost got arrested for standing up and dissenting when the chairman announced a hearing would stop at midnight despite hundreds of people wanting to testify.
“We are usually people who go about our lives and try to be good citizens but we were right on the edge of being rebel at that point. We were told we couldn’t use our mobile phones or take pictures, we couldn’t do this or we couldn’t do that,” Amy says.
“It was just strange because those tools were obviously important enough to be restricted or banned or controlled and it hadn’t occurred to me to think about them that way before.”
Starting Simple: Sharing Resources to Stay Connected
Amy does technical support, training and writing from home and kept an eye on Twitter feeds following the ongoing Texas story. She noticed ebbs and flows as people would say they have to stop tweeting from a hearing or during an action because their device was running out of battery power or signal.
The idea of Citizen Node was born. Amy thought it would be nice to ensure people providing on-the-ground, live, unfiltered information have support so they don’t lose their ability to report the happenings and stay in touch with the outside world, she says.
“My first inkling of Citizen Node was literally having some spare iPhone cables in my backpack when I would go up (to the Capitol),” Amy says.
She carried a USB charger that had two outlets so she and someone else could charge their phones at the same time. For people on their phones using WiFi, making calls or creating video, the battery is likely to go out before a full day, she notes.
After thinking about the battery-charging issues, Amy realized Internet signal can be a problem when a large group of people are trying to use a limited frequency that cell phones use to communicate.
During the final few days of the Texas protests Citizen Node kits were used that included different charging connectors, wall plug-in units, and some portable USB battery cells that people could connect with using USB cables. There was also a Verizon WiFi jet pack that provides Internet access for up to five people. A universal lesson learned is to know which Internet service provider has the best coverage in the area you are active, Amy notes.
On the Ground: Kits in Action
Volunteers carrying the Citizen Node kits had to help anyone who asked, regardless of whether it is someone they agreed with, Amy notes. From a humanitarian standpoint “who are we to decide who deserves to talk on their phone,” Amy says, adding being willing to help anyone also reduces the chance of conflict.
When volunteer Brandon Wiley went to the protests with a Citizen Node kit he made signs such as, “I can help you with your phone” and “I’d like to help you with WiFi.” People had a hard time believing he wanted to help without having any agenda or corporate sponsorship, Amy says.
“I think that’s one of the biggest struggles with something like this; if you hold as your highest value the value of engagement then I think people may have a hard time believing that that’s what you think is truly valuable. But it is, in my case – I came to believe that this is a way to boost engagement,” she says.
“The challenge is letting people know you are ready to help them even if you don’t agree with them.”
The Citizen Node kits were on the ground for four days of the Austin protests, which proved that it could be done and they were useful, says Amy.
“(Our goal) in the future (is) to have enough equipment, know-how and volunteers to not only be helpful at the capitol but also during times like South by Southwest and ACL and other festival events,” Amy says, noting these events all have in common a large number of people wanting to share but experiencing the limitations of technology.
Amy and Citizen Node volunteers are continuing field testing of the kits at various festivals. The project is also looking for grant opportunities.
Exploring Technology Solutions
Amy says one solution Citizen Node is exploring is creating temporary WiFi networks. She and a friend who has communications expertise are still working on finding the anchor points of a network in order to repeat the signal lines between two landlines, she notes.
The Open Technology Institute is leading Commotion, a free, open-source communication tool that uses mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks. Commotion is a way to share your Internet connection with people around you.
Commotion is one idea Amy says Citizen Node is looking at for the backbone of creating the temporary WiFi networks. However signal is still an issue, especially at the Texas Capitol complex which has a significant underground area.
During the Occupy protests, “Freedom Towers” were in a few cities providing free WiFi. Using two modems and six radio antennas, The Free Network Foundation created towers that ran on batteries charged through a biodiesel generator.
But the Freedom Towers were not set up on property owned by the people creating the towers, making the equipment vulnerable to being taken, Amy says, adding Citizen Node wants to look at solutions that are portable.
“We don’t want to leave things behind because then you have either the responsibility of protecting it or the risk of losing it, both of those can cause issues that you don’t necessarily want to have to deal with,” she notes.
Another piece of technology that has caught Amy’s eye is called BRCK, described on its website as a “rugged, cloud managed, full-featured modem/router.” Developed by people working in remote parts of Africa that needed consistent Internet access. BRCK has a charging cell, WiFi card and cellular modem. BRCK is not yet commercially available.
Citizen Node is crafting draft documents with information on how to extend your phone’s battery life and how to interact with law enforcement in security.
In addition to Amy’s first two tasks — finding ways to help people with charging their devices and accessing WiFi — she is interested in figuring out how to help people with accessibility. She has started creating blueprints of the Texas Capitol grounds, looking at different entrances and where the outlets and washrooms are located. A longer-term project Amy envisions addressing disability access including hearing and vision impairments.
“From a hardcore logistical standpoint knowing where the bathrooms are and the plugs — always a good thing. Knowing where people are safe and where people are running a higher risk of being arrested and/or having material confiscated — that’s valuable as well,” she says.
“I think as activists of all stripes, and as involved citizens of all stripes, if we stay in touch with each other and see what lessons we can take from different actions that we see around the world that’s going to be really valuable,” Amy says.
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Categories:organising, mobilising and engagement