When requested, or during check-ins, we provided technical and community organizing support to the groups. Grantees most frequently asked for support with the selection of equipment, network design, and community facilitation. As a result, we published resources on the (Re)Building Technology website to address these questions. These included a guide to facilitating community projects, new planning and technical additions to the Neighborhood Network Construction Kit: A Do-it-Ourselves Guide to Community Networks, and group activities for exploring Community Technology and Digital Justice. Building Technology zine.
Most of this interaction with grantees was remote, but we also conducted hands-on workshops in Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil. Activities and agendas for these workshops are available on the (Re)Building Technology website. Whenever possible, we referred groups to each other for support and collaboration.
If we could go back one year and start again, one thing that we could improve would be the intentional building of relationships between project groups. While there were important links that developed virtually, the ability for people to meet face to face is critical. Thus far, we managed to help a few projects meet face-to-face over their grant period, but it is something we would want to do more in the future.
We have facilitated direct, in-person exchange in three ways:
1. Co-teaching workshops or sessions at events.
2. Participating in barn raising style network build outs with partners.
3. Facilitating retreats or gatherings that focus on exchanging lessons and practices.
In many cases, our grantees were more helpful to each other than we could have been on particular technical, policy, or social issues. Grantees frequently communicated online regarding their projects, both to share ideas and request assistance. In future iterations, we would concentrate more funds towards these types of exchanges.
LESSONS IN COMMUNITY TECHNOLOGY
Based on our experience working with community networking projects and the experiences related by our grantee organizations, we offer the following simple advice on community technology projects and community-controlled, autonomous infrastructure:
1. Community networks should be led and built by the people they intend to serve. Too often outsiders initiate projects to help a local community build a network. Outsiders can serve as supplemental technical support, or provide other expertise, but should not initiate or lead a project.
2. Begin projects with open, participatory community meetings where everyone can be involved in the initial planning and learning. Shared ownership and responsibility are best built from the first moments of a project.
3. Focus on the community process at least as much as the end result. The promise of community networks is only met when they are actually built and governed using an inclusive process. How are users becoming leaders or experts? How are people engaged in the decision-making process?
4. Are you providing a service (as an Internet Service Provider), or organizing people to build infrastructure? Either model is valid, but it is best to be clear about the goal, and establish your organization and strategy accordingly.
5. Choose the simplest technology or even non-tech solution to get the job done. For example, a lot of energy in community wireless has been dedicated to creating open-source mesh firmware; however, in some cases a simple point-to-multipoint network will be more resilient and easier for people to understand.
Similarly, a community radio station, an outdoor bulletin board, or two-way radio system may fit the need better.
6. Be sure the project is not a technology in search of a problem. A network should not 11be the goal—but a means to an end. It should be clear that the project serves a critical need articulated by the people most impacted. It is easy for people to get caught up in new technology and never get to the point where the technology is serving its intended function.
7. Incorporate art, media, music, and storytelling. Content is at least as important as the network infrastructure, especially for drawing diverse people into the process and keeping them engaged.
8. Involve other groups, organizations, and movements even if they seem unrelated. Using a shared visual language and participatory planning process can help involve a wide range of groups.
9. Invite kids to everything. Similarly, make sure community elders can participate. Ensuring that the process is accessible to everyone strengthens the project.
10. Make sure there is a cycle of learning and teaching included in every aspect of the project. Learners becoming teachers will help ensure sustainability.
No single solution will solve digital access disparities, rural broadband, Internet shutdowns, and telecommunication monopolies, much less ensure traditionally marginalized groups are not further excluded from technology. Communities will seek to address these issues based on their context, resources, technical skill, interests, and organizing capacity. We have seen that a technology solution is less important than a process that redefines who has a voice in shaping the issues and solutions. Community networks are one tool we have seen groups use successfully to this end, but there are certainly others. We hope the practices and lessons shared here will be applicable to other types of community technology projects.