Yeah, it has been a roller coaster ride ever since our project qualified for the final round of Uutisraivaaja. I have often been asking myself if our project really is too much of a daydream. I mean, building a whole new network with a decentralized architecture alongside the Internet seems like nutty idea, like tilting at windmills. Well, we are not exactly trying to supersede the Internet. What are we doing, then?
Parrots sending smoke signals
Our entry for the Uutisraivaaja contest was a neighbourhood microblogging software, Smokeparrot, built on top of a wireless mesh network. A wireless mesh consists of small individual nodes that make up the network. The nodes are ordinary wireless routers near each other, so that they are able to communicate. Our microblogging software Smokeparrot is meant to be installed on nodes in a mesh. So is this basically just re-inventing Twitter with all the hassle of building new networks? It’s the architecture of the mesh what makes this whole thing worth an innovation contest. Smokeparrot is built to be robustly location-aware, that means that instead of sending messages through the whole network an individual node only sends messages written on it to other nodes in its immediate vicinity. Users who read posts can share messages they find interesting on their own nodes and make them visible for a larger crowd. In this way the news slowly start spreading geographically. The name of the software, Smokeparrot, is obviously a play on words; smoke refers to smoke signals and parrot to the act of repeating received messages verbatim – parroting , both of which give a conception of the idea in their own way.
Building a mesh from scratch
For the project we have built a test mesh of 23 nodes in the student village of Otaniemi together with volunteering test users. A prototype version of Smokeparrot had been programmed and installed on the routers for the users to start playing with. Building a mesh network from scratch has its own challenges. Because very few people have ever even heard about this kind of technology, our Otaniemi native, Maria, had to explain the idea behind the project quite a few times for baffled test users. That just proves that a good idea alone is not enough. You need great people skills to make others appreciate it too, probably an important lesson that all Uutisraivaaja finalists have learned by now. But the very fact that we had to deal with users of the mesh personally kind of brought us closer to the ideal of building a network – that it is built for the community, with the community and maybe even bringing a little more communality to the community.
I personally am maybe the one who has learned the most during the six months of the contest. As a student of medicine I really had zero knowledge about mesh networks, routing protocols or embedded network systems. So now I maybe know the meaning of the words, but superior temporal gyrus still says a little bit more for me. But on a broader level the project has taught the whole team a thing or two about communities, communality and their relation to technology. And those are the most important lessons we have to learn if we are ever going to make the Smokeparrots fly. If we are going to make our vision of neighbourhood communities and mesh technology become reality, we have to learn how communities function and how a community spirit is formed. Any sociologists out there? We need to consult you ;-).
I think there is a small technocrat living inside each of our team members, because we see this technology as something that has the potential to unite members of a community, not scatter them each in their own dark room playing WoW. Virtual communities are a thing of the past, now we have to look forward again and help technology bring us back to the real world!
On behalf of team Naapurisopu,