What great good could come of community WiFi?

Here’s a hypothetical for all you geeks and geek-lovers.

Let’s say we could blanket Charlottesville in WiFi. Or, at least, substantial portions of the city. The connection could be fast (say, 384k) or slow (dial-up speed), strong (available in buildings) or weak (not). There could be an authentication page, or it could be instant-on.

So, fine, we can all hypothetically be on-line while we’re sitting out front of Bizou or on the bus.

Then what?

What’s the multiplier effect? What magical things will happen as a result?

I’m not being facetious (a word which I have just now, for the first time ever, spelled correctly on my first attempt) — I really believe that all great ideas should have some sort of a multiplier effect.

Years ago, when I set up cvillenews.com, I didn’t intend to provide any sort of special news to people. I wasn’t trying to going around the “MSM.” I wanted to provide an on-line watering hole for folks in Charlottesville and folks who wish they were in Charlottesville. The multiplier effect has been the establishment of connections between area journalists and regular joes that would otherwise have never happened, providing sources of information for local media. Another has been increased awareness of a wide array of news among people who might not otherwise pick up the Daily Progress, but are hip enough to want to read a local website. Another has been those people who are a part of the news — even being written about — are able to talk back, involving the community in the news, as opposed to the news being a distant, removed concept. It’s just a website where I post rehashed descriptions of the daily news. But all of these other things have come from it.

I just set up Charlottesville Blogs a month or two ago, but that multiplier effect is already clear. It’s nothing more than a listing of recent local blog entries, along with a listing of every local blog of which I’m aware. I do nothing — it updates itself a few times each day, and I enjoy reading it. The result has been bloggers in the area becoming aware of one another, commenting on one another’s blogs, sharing interests, and everybody having their blog’s traffic boosted as a result of their listing and the cross-traffic. I really enjoy reading Charlottesville Blogs every day, because I get a taste of what dozens of people across town are thinking about. I anticipate other multiplier effects coming out of this — I’m just not sure of what they are yet. Setting up the site cost $15 for a domain name and maybe an hour of my time establishing the site itself, so I’m OK with that uncertainty.

Back to my thesis, what is the multiplier effect for C’ville WiFi? Here are a few off-the-wall ideas that I’ll make up as I go along:

  • By providing extremely high-speed access within the network, but throttling external connections, along with encouraging things like Bonjour services, perhaps a BBS of sorts would develop, with people providing bandwidth-intensive services only to others on the network. A local filmmaker could make works available at no cost to anybody on the network. Venues could narrowcast time-shifted concerts throughout the network to promote themselves and the bands. Discussion boards and blogs could be free-ranging and open, without fear of spam or outside intruders.
  • Area websites could customize their content, based on the individual’s access point. If each access point only covers a few square blocks, sites could provide service overlays via, say, Google Maps, to show where restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. are located, relative to the individual’s location. On the more creative end, somebody could provide an interface to the city real estate assessors’ data, making available home value assessments on a map centered on the current location. Ditto for crime data, electrical lines, sewer lines, and so on.
  • Public services could be improved through always-on connectedness. Police officers could have high-speed access to the department’s database from their cars, providing them with mug shots, plate matches, rap sheets, warrants, etc. Buses could have a WiFi-equipped Palm Pilot stashed in each one, with a bit of software tracking their current base station by MAC ID. Not only would that make it possible for CTS to know where all of their buses are at all times, but individuals could then track the buses. If I know that my bus is six blocks away from my office, I know it’s time that I headed on down to the bus stop.

Again, I’m just making this up as I go along. I’m not sure that these are particularly good — or even particularly likely — multiplier effects.

What other good could come of community WiFi?

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

9 replies on “What great good could come of community WiFi?”

  1. This is probably somewhere on my website, but at one point, when I had a hiptop, I was in Whole Foods. They had some Mead for sale, and Mead is something I had wanted to try for a while, but never had. I knew there was a wide variety of meads, some were good, and some were nasty. So I hopped on the hiptop, hit google, and looked up the brand being carried. Turns out it was a good one, so I bought it and had some tasty mead. Simple, but handy.

    For more impressive, if there were community-wide wireless, then it would be easy (or at least easier) for various restaurants to be able to put their availability/specials/etc up on the web real-time, so people could find out rather easily where they might go for dinner. Tying such a system together is a much more feasible process if all of the players are on the internet for free. Indeed, one could bundle together a mac mini with a small monitor and some custom software to make it a turn-key operation, or the restaurant could use the SOAP interface (or similar) to implement their own system (if it’s not just web based).

    Of course, a public, location-based commenting system, perhaps a wiki, would be keen as well. Try this particular tea at this restaurant, check out the sci-fi books at this store, there’s a sale for the next three hours on shoes over here, that sort of thing.

    Off the top of my head.

  2. For more fun, you could have scavenger-hunt style games, or the kind where you find clues based on things in the environment. Naturally, chatting with your friends will be an almost immediate benefit. From my work perspective, it would be handy if I had to take pictures of something for an article, and I could just send the pictures in before the drive back. Not as important (usually) for the weekly paper, but there are other instances when it would be more so.

  3. I love the idea of a Wiki, because Wikis (I think) really do their best with small, self-policing communities.

    Ooh, another idea is overlaying that Wiki, along with, Flickr over Google Maps. Anybody could establish a self-guided tour of town. People could walk around with their PDA and take the Jefferson tour, or the used book store tour, or the DMB tour, or whatever.

    Also, with such a Wiki/Flickr/Google Maps system, but with business reviews. This restaurant looks interesting. Are they any good? A quick check later shows that they’re not so hot, but that place two blocks away has the same style food, only way tastier.

  4. Brian,

    Please say it’s not Chaucer’s. It’s like sweet cardboard.

    Mead is sort of like bread. Always much better than anything at the supermarket if you make it at home. Honey, water & yeast. It’s probably easier to make than bread.

  5. Honestly, I don’t remember which mead it was. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve had it. I’m working my way through the food chain of cooking, and eventually I will likely make some mead. Now that I hear it’s pretty easy, perhaps I’ll get on that sooner.

    Waldo, if there are community servers around to hold content, then you could establish the local nodes for things like podcasts for the tours as well, rather than just p2ping it. Of course, then you have other legal issues, but when isn’t that the case, really? However, the option to allow private ventures to add servers to the wired infrastructure of the wireless setup would be great, and might be a way of recouping some of the costs of the service.

    So really, you’d divide things into persistent vs. ephemeral states. If you used a service like Rumor Mill, then it could be persistent while there is at least a contiguous set of connections over time. Or if someone who was connected adds back in, then it can spawn the information all over again. Sort of like a gestalt mind, in that it’s as capable as whatever is connected at that moment.

    Which, of course, leads to distributed computing. If people wanted to have some manner of local set of distributed computing (no, I don’t know why they would want this, but let’s say they did), then they could join that project while they were around.

    But, yes, I’m also keen on the google maps mash-up ideas. I think quite a bit of keen things could be done with it.

  6. We have community WiFi in part of my city (Alexandria, VA, in the old town section). We haven’t done anything with it. The restaurants are generally too busy trying to keep thier old town atmosphere to maintain websites (a few have posted real time menus/specials, etc).

    Actually, most people use it to check thier email when they leave the office for lunch. Some of the artsy types use it outside by a large studio/gallery to do some work on the weekends outside and then email it to thier main computers, it’s OK for the photographers if they need to get pictures to someone right away…

    The really sad thing is that the powers that be who set it up didn’t actually make it too public that they were doing it, so most people didn’t even know about it until the Post article a week after set-up. Yay Alexandria!

  7. The possibilities for community WI-FI are greater tha you are thinking. It assists tourism. If a community had a sign out on the interstate that said they were community Wi-FI, many business people would get off to check their email and make replies to documents that really can’t be dome well with a blackberry. If the entry screen listed the restaurants and just showed their regular menus, it would make the traveler get away from the chains they are comfortable with as they would know what was offered without having to go in and look at a menu. It could easily be self supporting with charges for “click through”. Some businesspeople plan their travel stops now by going to Yahoo and seeing where hot spots are.

    Second, it brings down the cost of access for some users. Many lower cost laptops now have wireless cards installed and it gives some access who would not otherwise have it.

    It brings people who are visitors in the area into the downtown areas where the hot spots are helping small business in those areas.

    If installed in libaries, it lowers the cost of providing access. Go to any libaray and see how many people are using the public access computers. With Wi-Fi, the libary can allow those with laptops to come in and the libary does not end up with the extra cost on hardware and software to provide more people access.

    Thise are just the begiinings- just the beginning- just as few had a vision of what the web would/could be, the same is true with community Wi-Fi.

  8. Though you’re quite right, “miataforme,” those are the givens — the basic benefits that just come with the territory. (In my time representing Charlottesville on the board of the Jefferson Madison Regional Library, I’m pleased to say that I pushed for WiFi in the libraries, and the library staff installed it and has it up and running today.) Those are the benefits generally used to promote WiFi, and rightly so. What I’m interested in is are the benefits that don’t consist purely of access, but that emerge from having ubiquitous access.

  9. Of course there are benefits of community WiFi, and I do agree with the whole tourism thing- the main problem is not only letting people know about these opportunites, and then getting people, (ie, business owners, especially in the restaurant venue) to get off thier “But this is OLD town!!” soap boxes and do something. We’ve had ubiquitous access (at least in the old town section of town) for several months now, and most people really don’t, to put it bluntly, give a shit.

    However, you have to look at the fact that WiFi was really poorly promoted in Alexandria- no one really knew about it, and benefits, both long and short run, were never discussed. It was very much “turn on your laptop and… SURPRISE!” A small problem (at least in Old Town) with the restaurant thing, is that Old Town is only restaurants. Only. There is virtually nothing else. Maybe an antique shop on one block. For us at least, it would be damn near impossible to list all the restaurants in the WiFi part of town, and then of course, you’d run into “but why aren’t we on the list?” from the other parts of town.

    I’m not saying community WiFi is a bad thing, but it’s very tricky to get it up, promote it and actually have long run benefits emerge. About the only one we’ve had so for (and I actually did ask a few people who work in that part of town, because I don’t), is “Um… I can, um.. check my email at lunch… and, um… well, it’s nice to sit at the Waterfront and work instead of sitting in the office.”

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