MassMesh x Ujima Event March 6

On March 6, three members of the core MassMesh team, plus Ned and I ventured down to Jamaica Plain to present about mesh nets and their liberatory potential. Our audience: Ujima Boston, a democratically controlled investment fund focused on building the solidarity/co-op economy. In order to demonstrate the process of building a mesh network vividly, we played a game called NodeRunner that was originally developed in 2015 by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. Participants were able to successfully play through the game, and we garnered a lot of rich input about what residents of JP expect out of community owned internet infrastructure.

Participants debate which node to activate next. Organizers are wearing green hats, while technologists are donning sparkly green ties.

Although we hypothesized that most concerns would center on cost and speed, most were about coverage (as a percentage of the neighborhood) and completeness of the break with traditional ISPs. This was dramatically highlighted when we presented information about sharing existing internet connections. A wave of concern swept the room. “But if we plug into Comcast in the end, what have we gained?” This is exactly the kind of enthusiasm for cutting the cable that we want to hear/foster, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear it expressed in our very first community meeting. Discussions focused on obtaining and operating an internet exchange point (IXP) are coming up next week.

Overall, the event on March 6 was a great first engagement, and there are more to come. The relationship we’re building with Ujima could help us grow into our first neighborhood installation while Ujima expands their list of accomplishments for their membership.

Framing MassMesh’s Rollout With E, V, O, And S

The framework for thinking that we explored during class has helped me surface some of the strengths of MassMesh, and has also raised a few questions about out strategy for rolling out our network.


Right now, we’re of course focusing on building the basic technical knowledge necessary to participate in a mesh network. This has to be there in order to lift ourselves out from under the thumbs of corporate internet giants. There is also a bit of necessary education about the political implications of joining the mesh, and the historical basis for our current situation (in which ISPs have an impressively powerful lobby in the legislature.) In addition to spreading technical know-how, though, a good outreach strategy should also garner knowledge about how to effectively organize in our communities. This is important knowledge for the developers at MassMesh.

Until we have a deeper understanding of how to successfully organize in our communities, MassMesh’s discovery efforts will be limited by our own ability to draw out insights without creating biases in the room. We also run the risk of over-simplifying concepts to the point that residents don’t feel like input is necessary or possible. There are a host of options for implementing community controlled open internet, and these must all be explored.

The knowledge that we create must be sharable, but this is one of the things that I struggle to visualize. We grew our mailing list when we engaged with Ujima, but those tend to have low participation. We could certainly do more to maintain a strong online presence as a group (MassMesh.) Creating useful artifacts for other organizers would be a good thing too. The NodeRunner game that we played on March 6th could benefit from a bit of clarification. While participants in our workshop could likely tell the difference between a regular ISP and a mesh network, I’m not sure in what situation they would propagate this knowledge. We should do some work to discover or create these situations if at all possible.


All view expressed below are meant to be representative of Mass Mesh, not necessarily any of our community partners or affiliated organizations.

The values that drive our project include the belief in the power of non-market exchange, desire for building neighborhood autonomy, belief in ubiquitous and open internet, and disbelief in both private intellectual property and private infrastructure.

These values can create serious dilemmas and conflicts for us. One is that it is impossible to simply install autonomy. The social project of building community owned internet is one that is just barely under way now, but is of critical importance. If we choose to approach it in a way that minimizes the required effort from residents, we could end up creating just another ISP. If we choose to approach the social project in a way that requires a lot of work from residents we risk fizzling altogether due to lack of engagement. Ultimately, we will have to figure out a short, medium, and long term strategy for this, which will be the subject of a later blog post.

In addition to the difficulties associated with building autonomy, I see a potential conflict on the horizon where a neighborhood that has successfully joined our mesh network decides to pursue profit in some way. This could include over-charging new residents for access or some kind of fine system for people with fussy hardware on the network. Ultimately, the network would still be operational under these circumstances, but it would certainly undermine our value of non-market exchange.

Our values are in flux, and in particular we have begun to value community input much more this year. In the past, most of our time has been spent hashing out the technical underpinnings for the project. Now, we are actively engaged with one community partner, and that list is growing to potentially include Tent City Apartments/ SETC, Artisan’s Asylum, and even Netblazr.


Depending on who is talking, our outcomes could be measured in several ways. One is simply the cost of internet. If my internet costs go up by joining the mesh, why join? This one is understandable, but I don’t think it’s likely to be the only measure used. When conducting the game last night at Ujima, the primary question that got asked was, “what about all those inactive cones?” Essentially, “what if the whole neighborhood doesn’t have access to the mesh?” This leads me to believe that a common measure of our success with be coverage as a percentage of the neighborhood. Other possible success metrics will be speed, reliability, and consistency of network coverage.

Ultimately, these outcomes will be owned primarily by residents, with Mass Mesh’s reputation sustaining either a healthy boost or critical blow as a result.


There are three kinds of participants/stakeholders.

  1. Residents
  2. Organizers
  3. Technologists

Each of these groups will have distinct roles. While the technologist is responsible for guiding installations, education, and network strategy, she may not be as qualified to speak about the reliability of the network. Residents, on the other hand, will be deeply aware of the quality of network coverage, and will need to maintain their hardware/software in order to uphold it. This process of staying up to date and the process of continually improving the network should be facilitated by organizers, who convene residents and technologists in constructive ways.


In conclusion, the values of Mass Mesh are ambitious, but attainable with the help of residents. Autonomy really begins with the mobilization of affected communities, and we are now actively working to foster this. Although we have been a mostly technologist lead organization up until this point, resident input has already changed our perception of expectations. As we build knowledge, it will be critical for us to share it in meaningful ways. This is something that should be explored more in the near future. Now that we have identified our stakeholders, we should spend time refining their personas and gathering input from them. Overall, the framework for thinking that we employed in this post has exposed some under-pursued interests in our project.

HCD at Optum

While working at Optum (United Health Group,) I was part of a medium sized team tasked with guiding the development of an app to help veterans re-acclimate to civilian life. We conducted interviews with veterans, organizers, and veterans’ family members. We compiled our findings, debated what they meant, and ultimately, provided a laundry list of features to the development team.

Only insiders were involved in the design work.

  • Designers were all employees of Optum. This manifested more technical solutions than were called for.
  • Designers were mostly male, and mostly white or eastern asian.
  • Design conversations took place in Optum’s corporate headquarters, in a locked room. Not even all employees were authorized to enter.

I think this stands out to me now that I’m not in that environment. At the time, I was happy to be interviewing people in the real world, and thought that human centered design was the best that we could do. It was more empathetic than the other work I had done at Optum, which was mainly focused on efficiency in our call centers. In hindsight, it is a shame that no impacted veterans were in the room when we were debating the features that were and were not useful. Something tells me that they would have shot down many of the ideas that us 20 somethings thought were appropriate.

The product shall be an app.

When interviewing the veterans, it became clear that they already had substantial assets for their recovery. These were often support groups hosted in their local church basements, and friends willing to be on call in a crisis. The whole time we were compiling our interview results, it was very clear that the expected output of our time would be plans for an app. With that in mind, we set to work creating features. Small groups imagined calendar helpers, gamification of therapy, enhanced chat clients, and more.

Ultimately, the one feature that did get implemented was a video series — pretty low tech. This was a bit of an about-face on the design team’s part, but a good one in my opinion. In the end, though, we shouldn’t have spent a whole week talking about apps. It was abundantly clear from the interviews that mobile apps were not a welcome approach. If we hadn’t wasted so much time trying to imagine a mobile app, we may have been able to provide something better than a (very basic) video series.

Lack of true institutional support.

Some part of me feels like the whole endeavor was akin to government hackathons “as an exercise in the State feeling good about itself.” If United Health Group really wanted to get behind veterans re-entering society, they would support the organizers that we interviewed rather than trying to commodify their insights in an app.


The fact that this design endeavor was pursued by a corporation seriously compromised it in terms of design justice. The well from which we drew our designers was seriously tainted by racial bias in hiring. The problem we were trying to solve was framed as something that must be solved with technology from the beginning, but ultimately, was not. The project was shuttered about 6 months later. This was touted as a win — we “failed fast.” At least we did no harm. I’m not entirely sure that we had to fail, though. By including the insights of our interviewees in a more meaningful way, we could have potentially helped them to make a positive difference in their comrades’ lives.

James Vorderbruggen – Massachusetts Mesh Net

Ideas radiate from our comfort zone when we’re shocked to life.

I’m James, and during the co-design lab, I’m hoping to meaningfully engage communities in the design process of Mass Mesh, a community owned internet initiative that is currently in its infancy. This project is really comprised of the shared effort of a small group of core developers/enthusiasts right now. Work so far has focused on developing a low-cost, high-throughput router that is capable of scaling the network. The developers are disillusioned by market-based approaches to community internet like Althea, and unimpressed by short-cut implementations like the NYC Mesh (See: hub and spoke network.) In order to move beyond these implementations, though, we will need to engage with potential network participants in order to create a better strategy. It would be impossible to build a meaningfully decentralized network of this kind from the top down.

We have not done market research, as far as I know. We have agreed that we should focus on low income communities, but this decision was made based on no data about where that community may be. We have also not verified whether this imagined community would be receptive to operating network hardware in their home. We hypothesize that those without the means to purchase internet access from corporate providers will be the most receptive to alternatives because they have the most to gain.

I personally think that events and targeted advertising would be a good way to get the ball rolling on community engagement. Events could focus on getting hardware up and running, but I don’t think that’s the most effective way to use our time. Hardware setup is basically a fixed process. I think that the question of how to overcome the service provider -> customer relationship on our network is of central importance. Organizing as a co-op makes intuitive sense, but this is vague. Establishing basic by-laws and funding mechanisms will take some conversation. It would be best if we had early adopters to engage in this conversation with. Ideally, these people would know what it means to run a network node, and understand the methods available for connecting our mesh to the broader internet infrastructure at least in general terms. This basic knowledge will help guide the conversations about ownership of network infrastructure.

The problems facing Mass Mesh are multifarious, and we will be up against strong capitalist players in this market. Radical engagement with the community provides a way forward for us without compromising our core mission of bringing internet access into the Commons.