The Offline Web

I was asked to speak to a delegation of community radio journalists from Bangladesh next week. A description of the group:

Participants will return with improved journalism fundamentals, understanding of the United States and American culture, and a perspective on convergence with and transition from terrestrial radio. This understanding will include the role and contribution of community radio in a democratizing country, the skills to optimize journalism through community radio, management and leadership exposure and how that translates into a community radio environment and more. Radio in Bangladesh is woven into the fabric of village life, but since the advent of mobile phones and 3G internet it is a matter of time until those patterns of life change.  These communities will likely still appreciate the content community radio produces. Therefore, this exchange program will help community radio stations make the transition to digital and mobile platforms while continuing to play their critical role in a democratic and democratizing Bangladesh.

This idea of bridging the space in between terrestrial radio and the world wide web had me thinking about Tim Clarke‘s presentation at the Domains Fairs at #domains17. As part of his presentation, he showed off a couple of DIY tools called the LibraryBox/PirateBox. These are tools built with some concoction of a wireless router, a USB drive or SD card, and (though not completely necessary) a Raspberry Pi. The idea is that you can flash the software on the wireless router, install your own, and thus create a mini offline web that is accessible as long as someone is in the range of the router.

LibraryBox v2.0 from Jason Griffey on Vimeo.

I thought this could be a nice way of situating some of the projects I like to work on with something that might be valuable to the group. There’s a quote that I saw Dave Winer refer to recently:

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

There’s an earlier quote that speaks directly to radio as well:

Like the press which is free for those who own and control it, the radio is free for those who can buy equipment, hire technicians and talent, and secure profitable advertising contracts.

The argument I intend to make in the talk is that freedom obviously isn’t given to everyone, but technology has significantly decreased the costs and there are affordable solutions out there. As Dave asserts, I think its necessary for journalists to not just understand CMSs but the infrastructure (or at the very least the concept of infrastructure). Per usual, it’s going to harken back to what I normally wax poetically about: domains and servers. Web servers give us an environment to come to understand what it means to take care of, produce, and serve content/publications. In many ways it is the modern press and, again while not universal, much more democratized. But it need not be limited to the World Wide Web. The skills you can learn by learning to host a site are transferrable once you can understand the concept of files sitting on a server to be received by other devices.

So as a demonstration, I’ve put together my own version of the PirateBox: the CroomBox.

At Domains, Tim Clarke gave away three gifts that consisted of everything you needed to make one of these so this gave me an excuse to check it all out. I lucked out as only two people claimed them and Tim gave me the third (thanks Tim!) I downloaded both the firmware update and the install package and by noon it was good to go. So now I have a little offline web that stays with me now and looks like this:

All anyone has to do is connected to the wifi network “CroomBox” and they’ll be redirected to this page. It’s got built in chat and file sharing and I’ve enabled a couple of extra features including a discussion board and media library.

I’ve made a couple of very basic tweaks to the index.html to personalize it to the crowd and I’m on my way.

Obviously, you don’t have to use yours to serve a PirateBox…. The site can be whatever you wish it to be. But this concept is pretty neat and I like the possibilities. An underground publication, information for disaster relief in case of network outages, distribution of OER books, a physical classroom shared network, anonymous file swapping in airports. Whatever.

I’d write more but I’m supposed to be writing my talk and/or leaving my office because it’s Friday at 4:59pm.

Featured image: CC BY/SA PirateBox

  • Tim’s table inspired me to dust off my StoryBox I travelled with in 2011. I think my USB drive went corrupt but it should be an easy rebuild. I made one for the Open Ed conference in 2012 – a “TreasureBox”

    The biggest challenge is the prompt or reason people will enter the door. I met someone using them in a small Iowa town for anonymous suggestions to a town government. There was also some interest. /work on enabling them to be part of a mesh network (that might have gone into LibraryBox). Have not seen much from David Darts, the NYU prof who hatched the idea- he gave a provocative talk at UMW In 2012.

    Glad to see you poking with the box. People seemed intrigued with the idea and the diy tech but I never found the click of a full idea. It still might be out there.

    • Matthias Strubel
      yes, David is pretty busy with alot other things recently. I am in close contact with him, but even with me we are not writing much. That is how live works sometimes :-/

      I am currently working to push PirateBox to the next version to be able to support new devices, because the common used models are at their end of lifecycle.

      PirateBox is still downloaded and used… but our downloads are dropping since March. Beside of that, I do not know a similar project… so I keep working on that tiny little project, because it used for various art projects, too.

      We are still out there,
      best regards Matthias

      • Thanks @matthias_strubel:disqus for your comment! I agree how that it is interesting that there aren’t more projects like this. It’s a very clever idea and one that I think more people will get behind. Has this project been able to receive much grant funding for further development?
        • Matthias Strubel
          In fact, PirateBox itself never received a grant for development. The PirateBox infrastructure is partially paid by Amazon advertising fees, the other part is paid by David Darts. I keep a small leftover part from the fees.
          LibraryBox was once funded by a kickstarter, which paid a lot of todays features on PirateBox/LibraryBox at OpenWrt. LibraryBox has a GSoC studend this year, but I doubt that much of the code will be ported back to PirateBox – for reasons.

          I am developing PirateBox in my free time, which is more or less… depending on the amount of work in my freelancer job. In the last months, I had a gap between projects so I was able to invest several weeks into development:

          – Moving forward from 2012 OpenWrt release to LEDE 2017.
          – Supporting other OpenWrt devices then ar71xx based.
          – Cleanups of scripts and configuration.

          Best regards Matthias

          • I for one appreciate your PirateBox support Matthias.

            Most of my own favorite projects were unsupported ;-)

    • @cogdog:disqus This ended up working out really well for my presentation. First, several of the folks worked in areas of Bangaledesh with WiFi isn’t as prominent as Wifi capable devices (interestingly enough). Second, it was a scaffold for talking about what exactly a server is in the simplest terms (requests, sends, files, browser). For people who had zero experience with a web server, it was a great model for them.