Resident take over

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This weekend was deemed the most important point in the Digital Merthyr project for the future sustainability of our community network.

To explain, we are at the point where our friendly Spanish engineers will soon leave us, having installed the foundations of our network. After weeks of observation and theory, the reality sets in that we, as residents, will be responsible for the maintaining and installing any future hardware.

No amount of grey skies or rain could stand in our way…

Project partners Creative Coop, Routek and Efrain from Guifi.net Barcelona arranged a hands-on practical training day.

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In the morning we began configuring 12 pairs of nodes and routers (session pictured above) that we are going to install into resident homes ourselves over the coming days. This will take the total homes connected to 42, our target number for our experiment.

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Images above: Digital Champion Tom up a ladder and ready for drilling a hole through his mum’s bedroom wall (sorry mum) to thread cable from outside into the home.

In the afternoon we divided into two teams and started to align and fix the ‘node’ devices to the outside of the houses. We also learned to 'crimp’ our own ethernet cables and connect the router inside resident homes.

In addition to the local Digital Champions, we were pleased to welcome Doug and Jo from the Hackspace in Cardiff and Damien from neighbouring Tai Calon Community Housing.

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Image: Digital Champion Ian learning to 'Crimp’ Ethernet cable with Doug from Cardiff Hackspace. Crimping is basically adding plugs onto the end of the cable with a special tool. Learning to do this means we can buy cable at a cheaper price and drill small holes for threading ;-)

Doug and Jo kindly volunteered to help with the installation in exchange for learning about the project. We are hoping we can form some kind of partnership in the coming months to improve digital skills in Gellideg, grow the mesh beyond the estate and find innovative uses for the network.

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As a team we decided to start by connecting two of the Digital Champion’s, Tom (below right with Jo) and Justin (above right with Doug). Justin, a local self employed roofer recently joined the team to help Ian and Tom, by climbing ladders, laying cable, drilling holes and fixing brackets.

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We really have a great local team and an incredible network of support building – it was great to see everyone pulling together and after the weekend, we think our future looks rather promising.

This picture shows the first terrace to be connected to the Digital Merthyr Network. On the left is Albin’s house from Poland, he will host the primary node and we will connect the remaining houses via cable tomorrow.
We have two elderly people in...

This picture shows the first terrace to be connected to the Digital Merthyr Network. On the left is Albin’s house from Poland, he will host the primary node and we will connect the remaining houses via cable tomorrow.

We have two elderly people in this row who have expressed they do not want a connection so we are going to take these houses a little more slowly and see if we can change their minds over time.

Inspiration - what can digital innovation look like in Gellideg?

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On Monday we took Digital Champion Ian Wright to meet Darren Taylor (pictured above), a social entrepreneur who runs and enterprise called Eco Communities.

Darren is a true inspiration and this visit proved to be no exception. Eco Communities started life as a PC refurbishment company that distributes their profits to support community projects. Income now allows Darren and his team to run 5 libraries and all manner of schemes across South London which you can read about their on their website..

The reason for our visit was to see how we might work with Darren to replicate his success in Merthyr Tydfil. Collecting unwanted PC’s from local organisations and refurbishing them to provide an affordable hardware solution for our residents who want to connect to the network.

Coupled with IT training that is currently being offered by the Gellideg Foundation, starting our own version in Eco Communities would mean we can offer holistic package of digital support for residents covering the essential elements of connectivity, hardware and software.

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For the duration of our prototype Ian (pictured above) hopes to create a pop-up PC refurbishment unit to provide any of the participants with hardware. We’ll also be hosting ongoing conversations with Darren and his team how Ian and myself and can make this venture a permanent feature in the town.

Watch this space!

Mapping our installation

Today marks the completion of the first challenge. Beaming internet connectivity into Gellideg from Merthyr Valley Homes.

We have tested speeds and the results show an impressive, almost symmetrical, dedicated connection of 15mb up and 18mb down, with minimum latency (the time it takes for a packet of data to travel from MVH to Gellideg).

Tomorrow sees Roger and Victor from Routek start on challenge two; connecting our first row of houses ahead of a short break for Christmas.

At this stage I thought I’d share a simplified engineers map with you to show the estate and which houses we will connect as part of our prototype - 42 properties in total.

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Bear with me as I try to explain…The yellow arrow indicates the internet line coming from MVH going into the Gellideg Foundation (pictured below). This connection is then to be shared with the houses using a mixture of wireless and wired technology.

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The green lines on the map indicate the Local Area Network (LAN), a ‘mesh’ we are creating to connect houses to one another.

We will then connect this mesh/LAN to the Gellideg Foundation (shown above). This will enable us to share the internet across the mesh with each of our homes.

The first terrace to be connected is the second block of red houses from the top, as shown on the map.

We will start by adding a wireless aerial (Primary Node) on the end of the terrace (this is indicated with a green circle). This Primary Node will connect to the Gellideg Foundation wirelessly to access the internet.

The Primary node will share the connection with the rest of the terrace using a cable that runs along the top of each house and into each of the residents’ homes. This model will more or less be repeated for each terrace shown in red.

Finally, you should also see the pink star, top right? This marks the first Digital Champion (Ian Wright) to be connected into the network.

Our plan is for the engineers to show Ian how to configure a node and connect his house. Then, hopefully, in the new year Ian can take that experience and share with Tom, Digital Champion #2, supporting him to connect his home into the network (with a bit of help from our engineers while they are here, if needed).

Our hope is that by the time our advisors from Routek leave Wales, we are in a position to extend and maintain the network ourselves - but we’ll see how that goes ;-)

I must say, as a team we are feeling rather nervous but are certainly excited to give it a go.

If my explanation doesn’t make sense in any way, a key for the map is shown below.

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The future of our community is yours to create

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Today was grey and foggy with a constant light drizzle, but it didn’t prevent our team from ploughing on with the installation.

We had the pleasure of installing a node on the Gellideg Foundation Building in the heart of the community. The Foundation is Digital Merthyr project partners, supporting our community engagement and digital skills development on the ground.

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We tweeted a photo earlier in the week of their rather apt and inspiring strapline (pictured below). It states, ‘The future of our community is yours to create’ - we couldn’t agree more!

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Colette (pictured below), Helen, Tina, Ricky (a Digital Champion) and the rest of the team have been an incredible help. Without their support, knowledge and relationships with the residents in Gellideg, Digital Merthyr simply would not be possible. The Foundation provided a much needed warmth on an otherwise grey day (+ local fish & chips for our hungry Spanish engineers ;-).

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The Gellideg Foundation was formed in 1998 by 6 mothers on the estate who wanted to create better life for their children. Over the years they have grown into a community group and registered charity, employing over 35 people, delivering programmes across the themes of health, youth, education and the environment. Over 100 local residents volunteer their time to provide activities for all ages, across the ward.

Today they remain a grassroots organisation, valuing the potential within their community and believing the future is theirs to create. They continue to ensure that every resident in the area has the opportunity to realise their full potential thus helping young people, the community and local business to prosper - retaining created wealth in the community. A perfect fit for Digital Merthyr.

You can read more about the work of Colette and her team on their website. From the Foundation we’ll be able to connect our first row of houses next week. I’ll share a separate blog post with a map of our planned installation tomorrow.

Installing our first wireless node

After two days of training workshops we finally got our hands on some equipment and started to install the network with Victor and Roger from Routek. (The image above shows Victor left and myself, Nicholas right).

The first node (wireless ariel) to be attached will beam the Merthyr Valley Homes (MVH) Internet connection into the Gellideg Estate via a 5ghz wireless signal using a device called a Nano Bridge M5 (pictured above).

MVH do not have direct ‘line of sight’ to the estate from their offices in Martin Evans House, so we had to create a route via another building called Sunny Bank (a block of flats) which we will install another node on tomorrow.

Line of sight means both wireless devices which are to be connected need clear sight of each other with no obstructions. In this case we have some trees and heavy foliage in the way which the wireless signal cannot penetrate.

From Sunny Bank we will beam directly down to the Gellideg Foundation and we hope to have this connected by the end of the week. After this we begin the process of connecting resident houses. Start with six before Christmas followed by a total of 42 homes to complete the prototype installation in January.

I will of course be sharing progress step-by-step as we go.

Using open frequencies in Gellideg

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We are two days into our installation and the training of Digital Champions continues. We were invited to another workshop led by Efrain Foglia and Marc De'ath to help us understand the difference between open and closed frequencies and the technology we will be using to connect the homes.

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We built a very simple model of the Gellideg Estate out of cardboard and using coloured string we were able to demonstrate how the different frequencies (5ghz and 2.4ghz) will be used to connect devices inside the home, both to other residents on the estate and to Merthyr Valley Homes who are sharing their internet connection with us throughout the prototype.

This simple exercise not only helped us visualise the different devices that would required to complete the network but it also allowed us to discuss the roles within the group of Digital Champions and our advisors. We discussed who would be responsible for maintaining which aspects of the network, keeping the need for external support from engineers down to a minimum and thus keeping the running costs down.

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An immensely useful exercise which I think we might repeat in simplified form to explain the concept to school children on the estate. Marc De'ath provides a summary in the video below.

And so it begins…

Today we were very excited to welcome project partners from Creative Coop and Mobilitylab to talk to some of our residents who have volunteered to help us develop a prototype local network for Gellideg.

The photo above shows the first four Digital Champions (Volunteers) who will receive training to help install, scale and maintain the network over the coming months. From left to right: Nicholas (me), Ricky, Tom, Ian, Efrain and Marc.

Efrain (Mobilitylab) is also a co-founder of the Guifi Foundation and Marc (Creative Coop) is currently leading a programme called Our Digital Community with Common Futures, to support groups like us to use Digital Technology in enterprising ways.

Today, they ran a workshop (pictured above) to explain the history of open networks and how other communities are using these systems to provide an peer-to-peer connections and to essential services. It was also really exciting to hear how local area networks can be used to stimulate new innovations, improve a neighbourhood and teach residents digital skills.

Here is an interview with Nicholas Giles, project lead for Digital Merthyr, after a week of learning in Barcelona with the Open Network Academy.

The Open Network Academy is an educational programme focused on teaching you everything there is to know about Open Telecommunications Networks including how they can be built, owned and managed by citizens themselves.

The academy provides both the theory and practice required to build and maintain an Open Network in your community

By joining the academy you can:

1. - Understand the concept that underpins the Open Network movement.

2. - Explore, touch and play with the latest technology used for building Open Networks

3. - Learn about the social dynamics often found in community built, owned and managed Open Network projects across the world.

4. - Gain the knowledge needed to maintain your own Open Network

5. - Understand the scalable methodologies for telecommunication infrastructure.

6. - Be inspired by the communication possibilities and services that can be delivered through an Open Network.

If you are interested to find out more about the Open Academy and developing a community network where you live in the UK. Contact Common Futures and the Creative Coop at [email protected]