Thee Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is an interesting study in how tech — and personal tech in particular — profoundly changes everything.
OWS even had an IT department — it calls itself tech ops — but that IT department has zero governance over the movement.
Without that governance — or leadership — protesters use off-the-shelf tools and open source software to build a nimble, flexible, and extensible network that rivals the institutions it’s challenging.
The tool of the movement is the smartphone. That’s provided most of the live raw coverage of the movement. Hundreds of camera phones often capture the banal but sometimes incendiary video, like this one of two women getting pepper sprayed by an NYPD officer, a video, which quickly went viral.
Most of the compelling footage is not coming from the networks because the networks can’t afford to commit the resources waiting for events to happen. In fact, the networks are increasingly turning to citizen journalists like Tim Pool for coverage.
Pool, who founded the media company, The Other 99, is now an overnight celebrity for his on-the-ground coverage. With a smart phone and a solar pack, he is running circles around the conventional media outlets that are saddled with trucks, helicopters and satellite links.
Pool streams his video through U-stream straight from his phone. And with just a $500 donation, Pool’s company bought an AR Drone, a smartphone controlled min-helicopter with a wireless camera mounted to cover events from above. He calls it the OccuCopter. Soon he will mount a 3G network controller so it can be controlled from anywhere in the world.
Pool also uploaded the video of the two women getting pepper sprayed. He didn’t shoot it himself. An anoymous tipster slipped it to him on an SD card.
The movement increasingly sees the value of live streaming as critical because the raid on Zuccotti Park destroyed many protesters’ computers, cameras and phones. Had the data been in stored the cloud, it wouldn’t have been lost. U-stream takes the footage and immediately feeds it to the web. The New York Times reports the movement has over 700 video channels. Seventy percent of Occupy live streams come from mobile phones.
The movement started with a handful of students in Zuccotti Park but, as it grew, communication became impossible and the human microphone — where a group of people repeated what one person would say – soon became as ineffective as a game of telephone. So the movement turned to The People’s Skype, a platform to circumvent the ban on amplified sound.
The People’s Skype, though not off- the-shelf, is open source software by engineers at MIT. It’s a phone-powered distributed voice and voting system that is platform agnostic. The call initiator micro-broadcasts their message to any phone and the receiver can either repeat the message to those around them as they hear it, or can turn on their speaker phone.
Why not use Skype? Skype doesn’t allow for voting, requires a smart phone or PC and it’s owned by Microsoft. For a movement that is fighting corporate greed, the irony is only too obvious. “The Occupy Movement doesn’t exclusively rely on open source stuff but tries to use it whenever they can,” says Jake Degroot, a tech who works in a core of about 10 techs for OWS.
“As far as hardware, there are no specific rules about that. Individuals make their own choices, but they [the protesters] would expect blowback if they were to use GoDaddy for hosting”. Earlier this year the CEO of GoDaddy, Bob Parsons, was criticized for boasting through Twitter about killing an African elephant.
Raising money is easy through resources like PayPal and WePay. On that first night of Occupy Wall Street, Henry Ferry, Pool’s partner helped raise $1,000 in the first 9 hours through a WePay asking sympathizers to donate $9.17 each. Through the site, the movement has raised $290,000. Because it’s just a few clicks, its reach is global.
To communicate more mundane subjects, protesters are uploading self-made instructional videos to YouTube on topics such as what to expect if you’re arrested, how to make effective signs, and even instructions on how to order food for protesters from anywhere in the world. Still others are raising money for various projects on Kickstarter.com, an online pledge system for funding projects, bringing together small funders with creative endeavors.
Kickstarter.com is helping to fund indie film, music and food-related projects. The Occupy Wall Street Journal, an ink-and-paper publication, raised the bulk of its money on Kickstarter.
The more tech savvy — like DeGroot, who freelances as a lighting designer — are building platforms such as Permabank, a system for connecting haves and have-nots. He is also on a team building Consensus, a system to extend voting ideas up or down on a global scale.
“We have lots of projects we’re juggling all at once,” said DeGroot. “And because the movement is changing all the time and we’re just trying to keep up the best we can.”