Digital in the Wild: Community Using Technology in Post-Katrina New Orleans NOLA Blogger panel session at NMC Regional Conference at Tulane.
A panel of five community activists (Ted Cash, Bart Everson, Alan Gutierrez, Sandy Rosenthal) will present their perspectives on how the levee catastrophe in New Orleans catapulted the need for digital information and communication in the community. In various ways, the panelists have each been involved in using technology since the storm to assist in the transformation of the city. They will share their perspectives on why technology has been critical to the lives of New Orleanians since Katrina, and how.
Moderated by Chris Reade – never expected to be involved in rebuilding or recovery. “Digital in the Wild” coined by Alan Gutierrez not about “cool new tech”- technology was not even the pivotal role. After the storm, you would ave thought a Treo would be useful, but it was a brick. Every switching station was under water, but the key tool was text messaging. Before the storm few people here text messaged, but now it is common. Broadband cards have revolutionized social services in the area.
Sandy Rosenthal intro. Began as education mission that the effects of Katrina was not a natural disaster but a man made one. Investigative assessment about what happened here, outside of Corps of Engineers. Needed citizen support. Created a one minute PSA to Youtube. Got 24,00 views in 24 hours- not accident, they reached out and alerted membership and contacts. (see YouTube channel)
Alan Gutierrez intro. Was in Ann Arbor during Katrina, following CNN. When levees broke was looking for more in depth and detailed info than news was providing. Started looking in web forums at local news sites, which became inundated with posts- the BBS was really old (1998 vintage tech) and clunky. But participants stepped in with tremendous user support for themselves. Having interest in social media, as software developer, understood that there was need to get more info out there. When people got to NOLA, they dropped the social tech and went back to old methods- coffee shops, human networks etc. Got interested in tools to help capture those conversations.
Bart Everson intro. multimedia artist, teacher at Xavier. Lives in mid city New Orleans, got 6 feet of water in house, but had raised basement, not much roof damage. Able to move back in quickly, but were only people in blocks nearby, no electric. Around Christmas 2005 finally got electric. Took internet a year to return. No newspaper, no mail. Text messaging was key for communication. Hooked up with neighborhood organization previously saw how it operated as opaque, but after Katrina became ideal vehicle to support recovery. Not like a homeowners organization, more like an interface to government. Helped them set up blog for them. Started working with other local agency groups involved in recovery efforts.
Ted Cash intro. Tech support for neighborhood organization, Common Ground Relief. Open source work, computer recycling. Helped people get access to tech. Set up system of repeater from cruise ship to relay network access to neighborhoods, satellite based city labs. People involved learned how to do this as they went.
Chris Reade intro. Was based in Baton Rouge- became in sense “New Orleans West”. Had work to coordinate and connect displaced businesses. Asked to help develop centralized org to coordinate relief agency activities. Need for information, to connect people. Developed “Yahoo for Recovery”- LouisianaRebuilds.info – calls it low tech– “yahoo about 6 years ago” = not fancy web 2.0 tech, basic, but filling need to share information.
Question. How did your tech needs change from before flood to today?
Ted: A lot of people still lack conventional internet access (no cable, DSL). Have no money for this. Uses open source, labs run on Ubuntu (Linux OS). Set up 300 PCs from recycled computer (Green Project).
Bart: Mobile tech became much more important. Before, did not see need to use since was on computer all day. After, it became critical. Still uses same Blackberry first bought after flood. Neighborhood has needs to compile data, wikis have become useful. Most technologies are solutions looking for a problem, here there were problems in need of technologies, deployed common tech in unexpected ways. Collected common information for per square foot costs of roofing, etc.
Alan: Still huge need for new tech to be developed here. Her there was a community but needed to find tech to bring them together. Like opening scene of Lost, looking at destroyed plane to say, how can we use this? Uses wikis, wordpress- using it less than traditional daily journaling, used it more as a database tool (see homes posted at Squandered Heritage). Site owner looks at site stats, to see for example, when contractors are looking at information. Turned into community activism vehicle.
Sandy: Wikipedia was important- as an organization had license to add external links to Levees.org to Wikipedia articles related to their work. Became number one referrer to their site. She monitor 10 articles a day.
Question: What didn’t exist pre-Katrina that exists now that makes people more vital?
Sandy: Many more activist groups, actually so many she gets confused. Who would have thought there would be so many?
Alan: Much greater savvyness, people became “Knowledge workers” looking at so many sources how to ‘triage information’, what was important, what could be ignored– towards an end.
Bart: Much more cohesion among blogger here, reading and commenting to each other. Not enough news if I just read newspaper or listen to radio. Has become a real community unto itself. Started local dinners among bloggers. Has put together local conferences, not just virtual community.
Ted: Company has developed repeater devices that are much easier to use Meraki Repeaters.
Question. What ahs failed to live up to hype for what to should do?
Ted: Earthlink free wifi was major failure.
Alan: Offers from high tech firms to do social networking not recognizing the dynamics of the local communities, who are not interested to quick hopping to new networked spaces (a digital divide?). Block Captain concept of local people who went house to house to share information, who was there, contatc info, made basic Excel database. “Not necessarily tech savvy, but are now information savvy”.
Chris: Broadmoor was not a well known neighborhood, but became significant after for its level of activism. Power of internet to mobilize local people.
Sandy: Skyrocketing cost of advocacy. To use company to help generate one click letters to congress went from $1200 to $20,000 per year.