Design Factors in Grassroots Networks

by Jim Britell

Summary:   Designing grassroots networks presents unique design challenges; activists are often technologically challenged.

I applaud the foundations and organizations planning to make communication technology available to activists on a wide scale. They are embarking on a project that badly needs doing and can have enormous long range implications for the environmental movement. The following observations derive from my experience as: a computer network manager and systems planner for the Federal Government; an ancient forest activist in Oregon; and the installer last year of thirty online systems for forest activists.

Networking grassroots activists is a unique systems design challenge
The ambitious ideas being considered by Brainerd, Bullitt and others to connect thousands of grassroots groups in a network represent a project on a scale that would be formidable even for a major company where all the potential users are employees under the control and direction of the company, and where highly paid technical staffs and consultants are on hand to supervise and oversee every facet of the project. For a grassroots network the audience won't be captive employees; but they cannot simply be treated as mere subscribers (like sign ups to AOL or CompuServe) either, because specific people need to come forward to join an activist network or else it will fail to reach a threshold necessary for optimal function.

Three problems/opportunities should be considered in the network design:

  • While the Internet doubled in size last year to 5 million host computers, the World Wide Web (WWW) grew 2000 %. New software that makes Web access and Home Page creation much easier will likely increase that rate substantially. Not only are the number of Web pages doubling every 53 days, "Netscape", the Internet browser that has become the de facto standard, is the product of a company formed in 1994.

  • According to Moore's law, computing capacity and power doubles every 18 months. The thirty computers we installed for forest activist groups last year could be bought today for less than half of what was paid; the same cost per computer would now buy 4 times the computing power. For 50% of what a 14,4 modem cost in 1994 one can buy a 28,8.

  • Metcalfe's law of networks states that the value of a network, its utility to the users, is roughly proportional to the square of the number of users.

A grassroots network project is in the envious position of being able to parlay these three factors simultaneously. But it will be difficult to plan a local network where the basic assumptions about the cost and performance of software and hardware, and the capabilities of the WWW to which it is connected are changing at a rate unknown to any earlier technology. It is likely that any planning assumptions made at the outset will be obsoleted by technological developments within 12 months, maybe sooner. The fascinating technical and management problems presented by this project could attract some industry high tech volunteers.

My experience suggests that 90% of the most active and effective grassroots organizations and their leaders are "technologically challenged", lacking the skills, equipment and communications access necessary to take advantage of basic information technology. Rural activists face additional barriers: these include among others, long distance surcharges, absence of technical support, and the slow data line speeds of the rural on-ramps to the information superhighway. Many activists are unfamiliar with emerging technology and do not grasp its value.

Consultants and foundations may know how technology can be used, but activists and organizers are in a better position to decide if and when it should be used. The environmental climate will improve when anti-environment legislators are lobbied unceasingly for it by their constituents; any technological application is a means to this goal, not an end in itself.

Review of the Issues

  1. Obsolete equipment
    Even people with modern equipment, current software and available technical support have difficulty reliably maintaining their online computer systems. Grassroots activists, on the other hand, often contend with obsolete hardware running old versions of bootlegged software without the benefit of a resident guru or a system shop next door. Activists often must shoehorn their activism into their spare time and may lack the necessary skills to operate or maintain equipment properly.

  2. Wiring
    Grassroots activists often work alone and out of the home, may move often, and contend with such problems as houses with substandard wiring. Inadequate telephone and electrical wiring may not affect voice phones; but can cause problems with electronic data, especially at the high transfer speeds that make the WWW usable. Activists sometimes even live "off the grid" completely, or travel a lot, requiring technologically advanced cellular/solar solutions. For example, activists in British Columbia spend months away from phones mapping watersheds along the remote coast, and others spend extensive time on eastern waterways.

  3. Which platform, Mac or PC?
    While activists with business backgrounds may tend towards the PC platform, many grassroots people lean towards the Macintosh, posing a problem for those who would undertake to extend technology to large numbers of activists. Developments in technology are beginning to erase the historical Mac-PC split and for online work this may disappear altogether. A good rule is that activists should adopt whatever platform is supported by friends and neighbors who can provide technical support.

  4. Two phone lines?
    Home based information systems need, in addition to Internet and Email, 24 hour computerized fax receipt and transmission capability with auto turn on to receive faxes sent at night to take advantage of cheaper evening rates. To integrate this capability with existing answering machines and voice phones, often with extensions, without creating a literal electronic nightmare is a technical challenge, especially on a single phone line; but it can be done. Improperly installed telephone and modem equipment can wake people in the middle of the night and cause other mischief which disrupts households. Probably two phone lines will be required for home based activists absent more user-friendly switching equipment than found thus far.

  5. Hands on training is essential.
    An activist with the proper computer tools can accomplish what it would take 100 people to do without such tools, but an improperly trained person with a computer can screw up what it might take 100 people to undo. For example, the careless selection of a name in an address file prior to transmission recently caused a sensitive and highly confidential document from The Nation magazine to be sent astray where it ended up reprinted on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.. A computer is always a loaded gun.

    Training classes, if available, are usually expensive. A good rule of thumb when offering any training or conference for working activists is that the cost threshold is about $30. Anything higher than that will screen out 75% of the activist audience.

  6. User charges.
    Any on-line service with an operational cost of more than $20 a month in maintenance and telephone charges will have few takers, irrespective of its value. Many activists who put their lives on the line daily are living in households with monthly incomes of less than $1000. On the other hand, the grassroots should participate in buying hardware, even if only for a nominal amount, since financial contribution towards the initial purchase of equipment creates a proprietary or personal sense of ownership. People appreciate equipment better if it is purchased at least in part out of their own funds. There is a trade-off between becoming a "free store" and needing to subsidize those in need.

  7. Technical support.
    In all aspects of design and updating, any system intended for a wide variety of grassroots groups must be easy to use. Technical support must be available with an 800 number, and those manning the phones must have infinite patience. Information resources on the Internet are often scattered, fragmented, overwhelming and time-consuming to use. Often information is constructed for specialized uses other than those grassroots activists would put them to. To master even one information source, like the Forest Service's online data bases, takes many hours. It is a waste of resources to have many activists trying to learn them, when a few are able to explain them to us all.

    We need one-stop shopping for activists who wish to utilize electronic communication resources. Central purchasing arrangements could be arranged for hardware and software, or companies approached for gifts and grants of equipment.

  8. Unique problems of the grassroots audience
    To upgrade a computer user's skills is one thing: to help novices become computer literate is quite another. The computer skills of the average grassroots activist are probably that of the average person, perhaps less. I have seen a forest activist using a computer for the first time attempt to use a mouse upside down. Putting 1000 computers in the hands of activists is not at all like installing a like number of computers in a company. In a business setting users may not: create their own customized installations, with unique hardware and software; or decline to participate in training; choose to ignore what they are told; neglect maintenance; or simply ignore the project altogether. Activists of course can do all these things.

  9. Quality training materials are critical.
    Not only because users are so variable in their knowledge and motivation (although that is important), and not just because the users are not employees who need to cooperate to hold their jobs, but because, given the dynamic nature of the Internet, almost monthly improvements in technology are occurring of such an impact that the system cannot just be frozen in place. The system must be dynamic, and this means that users will be improving and upgrading their systems often.

  10. Who will own the equipment?
    The environmental movement is uniquely unsuited to deal with political problems, even though the basic problems and challenges are almost entirely political. It is a movement based on non-profit 501(c)3 NGOs that by charter are mostly limited to education, and forbidden to participate directly in political campaigns. Ownership of hardware should be vested in organizers personally, not organizations, because equipment given to nonpartisan nonprofits can't be used for grassroots political organizing. Since after a year, hardware is probably worth only 20% of its purchase price, and computers are now cheap, giving equipment away so ownership is vested in persons, not organizations, is perfectly feasible. (The legal and tax aspects of this idea will be developed in the future note on hardware.)

  11. Voice calls on the Internet.
    The ability of the Internet to carry two way long distance calls on a toll-free local connection is an application that may change activism in America. But because of the way communications technology is spreading it will be a boon that may mostly benefit urban activists because toll free access to Internet and ready technical training is still an urban phenomenon. New communications technology is difficult to install and understand even for experienced users. Developments have the potential to leapfrog us over present conservative technology if we apply them, but could also further widen the resources gap between urban and rural activists if we don't.

  12. It's the phones stupid.
    The choke point for grassroots communications capacity is the phone system. For rural activists few calls are free local telephone calls, everything incurs long distance telephone charges. If there was one thing that would change rural activism more than anything else, it would be the provision of low cost or free phone service for rural activists. We need to find ways to use economies of scale to bring the cost of service down to bulk wholesale rate levels. For the purposes of purchasing telephone service we need to find a way to treat a thousand autonomous and independent entities as a single user. Some say that technology will help the movement because we can put out more alerts faster. I think the payoff is in: reducing phone bills for voice calls; networking the heads of telephone and letter trees better to encourage many more of them; and allowing activists across the country and the world to share information, strategy and experiences about corporate "bad actors". Merely increasing the blizzard of alerts is not enough pay off to counter the possible downsides of wiring up the grassroots (discussed below).

Cautionary notes and potential management problems.
While I believe that grassroots activists must be furnished a full range of technological opportunities, foundations and other organizations planning an extension of on-line capability should consider these potential problems:

  • Many volunteer grassroots forest activists believe that the technology embodied in on-line systems is part of the environmental problem, not a possible solution. Remember, since the on-line revolution began in earnest, the environment movement has been in continuous decline. This may be because activists have not sufficiently adopted technology, but it may also be that society has embraced it too much. In any case, the political beneficiaries of information technology to date have been the radical right and anti-environmentalists.

  • On some forests and in remote areas there are not too many activists; it will be a challenge to reach out to them and their small circle of co-activists.

  • Some of our best organizers may not care to learn new technology, or may be computer-phobic or simply reluctant to put themselves in the position of student. The best location for placement of equipment maybe with a person close to a key activist not actually co-located with the activist.

  • Some activists may be unwilling to spend the time to master or change their life style to accommodate new technology.

  • It is always possible that we may lose some people from the movement to the many and beguiling temptations of cyberspace.

  • Activists do not keep business hours; they often work round the clock 7 days a week. An activists network technical staff should be prepared to work longer than from 9-5, M-F.

A first class communication system, particularly if it involves cellular phones, will also be a first class surveillance system for "troublemakers ". The Internet and Email is by nature an insecure system. A master list of activists, for example, would also be a good hit list if it fell into the wrong hands.

©1995 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

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