The Long and Winding Road to Burning Man

It’s hard to believe that it was a year ago that I first started talking publicly about this GWOB thing.  August 19th in San Francisco at Jeff Pulver‘s 140 Characters Conference and then the very next day August 20th at Chris Pirillo’s Gnomedex were the first two times I expressed (in front of an audience) the idea of building an organization of Geeks coming together to help people communicate in times of crisis.

And while Geeks without Bounds officially launched on 10.10.10, the 140Conf and Gnomedex conferences will always hold a special place in my heart, pretty much because of my own amazingly dumb luck.

At 140Conf, it just so happened that there were two people in the audience that had a tremendous influence on the direction that has taken in the past year.  The first of these two people was Ethan Zuckerman.  Ethan founded the GeekCorps back in the late 90’s.  GeekCorps was an international non-profit organization that transfers tech skills from geeks in developed nations to geeks in emerging nations, especially entrepreneurial geeks who are building small businesses. In other words, a Peace Corps for geeks.  By the time I got back to my seat after my talk at 140Conf, I had an email in my inbox from Ethan. Ethan gave me a list of people and companies to talk to…. a list I followed like a blueprint… and he was dead on.

One of the people that Ethan pointed me towards was Patrick Meier, one of the founders of Ushahidi.  Patrick was in the 140Conf audience at that day too and even tweeted about my talk (like I said…lucky, huh?)

Ethan also suggested I talk to Heather Blanchard at Crisis Commons, Eduardo Jezierski of Instedd, Inveneo (among MANY others)…all of whom I’ve subsequently met and many of whom I’ve worked virtually side-by-side in times of crisis.  All are incredibly talented, passionate geeks with similar goals.

The very next day I arrived in Seattle at Gnomedex, where I first met Willow Bl00, and we all know how terribly that went… 😉

Over the past year Willow and I have traveled around the U.S. and beyond, connecting with hacker & maker communities, software developers, network admins, local, federal and international emergency responders.   We’ve helped organize hackathons, codeathons, tinkerstorms and meetups.

One of the concepts I’ve held since even before those first two conferences a year ago is to build an open source communications infrastructure that could be used in times when traditional methods of communications have failed.  Originally I called this a “Backpack Network” but in reality it’s more complex than that.  Last summer I spoke on the phone with David Burgess (one of the developers of OpenBTS) on his way to Burning man.  OpenBTS (Open Base Transceiver Station) is a software-based GSM access point, allowing standard GSM-compatible mobile phones to make telephone calls without using existing telecommunication providers’ networks. OpenBTS is notable for being the first free software implementation of the industry-standard GSM protocol stack.  For the past 4 years, David has brought equipment to Black Rock Nevada during Burning Man to test the gear in the harsh desert conditions.

David and I talked about using OpenBTS in conjunction with Tropo to allow developers to build apps that hook into other things…like crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi.

David loved the idea. My friends at Voxeo Labs loved the idea too.  While it was too late for us to do anything about it last year…this year we are actually running some tests during Burning Man integrating OpenBTS with Tropo (and ultimately, Ushahidi).

Geeks without Bounds at Burning Man

The camp where we’ll be testing from is called Papa Legba.  If you are heading to the Playa this year and would like like to participate in the test, I strongly urge you to check out the Papa Legba 2011 FAQ. Details about the kind of services and what kind of GSM phone equipment you need to connect to the OpenBTS network can be found there.  Also, check out these posts:

Tropo Blog Post:  Voice Board and Group SMS for BurningMan

Tropo Blog Post:  Tropo + OpenBTS + Burning Man = Awesome

YouTube Video with Chris Pirillo, Diggz, Loopingrage and David Burgess:  How to Communicate at Burning Man