What do pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and disaster responders in the Caribbean have in common?¨

stockvault-hong-kong-gold-coast-at-night126404Since protests erupted a few weeks ago in Hong Kong we’ve seen reports that protesters advocating for greater input in upcoming elections, have begun using a new mobile app called Firechat. Launched in March 2014, Firechat allows users to communicate with each other both and offline. We recently had occasion to discuss potential for use of Firechat in the circum-Caribbean in a workshop we conducted entitled ¨Off The Grid: Community Based Approaches to Disaster Response and Preparedness using Technology¨. The workshop was part of the Caribbean Youth Exchange for Climate Resilience held on September 19 at City College-City University of New York.

The underlying technology behind Firechat, ¨mesh networking¨, developed following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, has already proven useful in aiding search, rescue and recovery communications following natural disasters due to its ability to work even without internet or a mobile connection. Firechat´s mesh network allows users within approximately 210 feet of each other to communicate without being online. If enough people who have the app are close to each other it essentially creates its own network using the multiple wireless signals emitted by phones as far as 1 mile away. Now Firechat is becoming a key way for protesters and activists to communicate in the calls for elections in Hong Kong.

Interestingly enough, because of the Hong Kong protests it now has a larger stage to be tested for use in social activism in the face of censorship and media blackouts. Several other companies have begun developing mesh networking apps to provide local internet in communities where there is little access. The pros and cons of mesh networking range from the possibilities of connecting rural communities or those without internet to privacy and regulatory considerations have been documented here and here. While the concerns raised are important, we will have to pay attention to whether real world circumstances such as the next inevitable natural disaster, political or social protest will further thrust apps developed using mesh networking technology and their possibilities for ¨off the grid¨ connectivity into the development, telecommunications, or disaster relief spotlight.

© 2014 The Afrolatin@ Project

Amilcar Priestley is an attorney and Director of The Afrolatin@ Project ( (@Afrolatinprojec) a digital cultural heritage preservation non-profit working at the intersection of technology and development. The Project, founded in 2005 and based between New York and Panama City, Panama, most recently became regional partners in the United Nations My World / World We Want 2015 sustainable development campaign.

Key words: democracy, protests, China, Caribbean, climate change, disaster, Fire Chat, Mesh Networking, mobile technology

October 13, 2014
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