Mesh Potato Phone Booth at Dawn

Africa Burns for a Village Telco” is the subject line of an email sent to me from Bruce Strover. And really who could resist a subject line like that especially if the Village Telco has been your passion for the last two years and if you happen to be a fan of Burning Man and the South African variation on Burning Man called AfrikaBurn. AfrikaBurn “is a creative arts and freedom of expression festival that aims to build temporary community through collaborative arts projects, in a completely non-commercial environment.” It is based on a gift economy, no money is used at AfrikaBurn but participants are encouraged to trade goods, art, performances, services with each other in a manner that promotes engagement and community.

In that spirit, Bruce proposed to establish a Village Telco at the “Burn” by creating free-standing, solar-powered Mesh Potato phone booths that would bridge distance in the two kilometre span of the event. Well, not just Bruce but an eclectic band of hackers and artists. I think the original idea may have been Bretton Vine’s. I remember him mentioning the idea of a Village Telco for AfrikaBurn back at iWeek last year. He and and graphic designer Diaan Mynhaardt hooked up with Scarborough Mesh founders David Carman and Antoine Van Gelder who have been involved in one way or another in the Village Telco since its conception. Bruce was the tipping point that pushed the idea from concept into action. He got me and the Foundation involved, albeit in a very nominal way in underwriting some of the costs of the setup, and Isigidimi was born. Isigidimi means important message in Xhosa and is the name the group chose for the AfrikaBurn phone network.

In the spirit of standing on the shoulders of giants, it is worth saying that Bretton and this group’s inspiration came from David Burgess’s amazing work in setting up his OpenBTS GSM base-station at Burning Man in the United States in 2008 and again in 2009.

The Isidigimi collective brought a unique combination of talents to the challenge. Bretton’s anarchic imagination, Diaan’s brilliant Isigidimi design for the phone booths, David’s serious 12Volt systems hacking, Antoine’s mesh networking design, and Bruce’s creative but sturdy and re-usable phone booth design all combined to make a seriously cool AfrikaBurn happening that is definitely worth repeating.  Re-reading the above I feel like I have done the group a disservice in describing unique contributions as they are each so multi-talented that I have failed to do them justice.

David Carman has a wonderful narrative of his experience at the Burn which also covers a lot of the technical challenges experience in setting up this network.

My own observations, based on a very short stay at AfrikaBurn, are on the social use of the phones and what worked and what was a surprise. While the original design was just to have five phone booths dotted about AfrikaBurn, it quickly became evident that Isigidimi could add value by connecting key elements of AfrikaBurn. So, from the start the Isigidimi camp had a support extension on 999 but it rapidly became evident that it could be useful to set up the Medic tent on extension 911. The main gate for AfrikaBurn also needed a way of communicating with the organisers at the main AfrikaBurn site.

However, the really interesting behaviour for me was the use of the public phone booths. Because there were so few numbers to call and most of them were other “public” phones, people ended up doing a lot of random calling. It was kind of a ChatRoulette for phones. Given that “engagement” is the norm for AfrikaBurn, this worked surprisingly well. I got invited to breakfasts, gatherings, gifting events and also had my share of strangely philosophical conversations with complete strangers.

By the time I left, my head was teaming with ideas how this experience might be improved. An obvious next step would be to offer voicemail services for all participants. But that opens the more complex question of how offer directory services, how to find people on an improvised phone network. This is easy to solve for each camp as they are all numbered on the programme and one could use the camp numbers as extensions but you would also want to offer the possibility for individuals to set up their own voicemail. Number discovery is a hard problem just waiting for some creative minds to apply themselves to it. Next year’s AfrikaBurn would be the perfect place to experiment…

P.S. There are some more photos from AfrikaBurn on my flickr page and you can also explore the AfrikaBurn tag on Flickr.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data