The revolution will not be powered by smartphones (but these apps might help it along)
The year 2011, marked by mass uprisings in the Arab world followed by the wildfire-like Occupy Wall Street movement, also brought a handful of incidents that inspired mobile application developers to invent new tools for protesters taking to the streets.
There was the time Sam Zimmerman, a media producer in New York City, received a series of frantic texts from his girlfriend, who was getting arrested and wrapped up in orange mesh by New York Police Department officers along with a crowd of demonstrators at an Occupy Wall Street protest.
Then there were the protesters targeting Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations to denounce the fatal police shooting of a homeless man who learned BART had cut off passenger cell phone service to thwart their efforts.
Activists criticized the BART cell-phone service shutdown as "pulling a Mubarak," because it seemed to echo an earlier incident that year, when Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak cut off cell phone and Internet service to quell pro-democracy protests in Tahrir Square.
In all, 2011 was a banner year for free speech crackdowns — and finding innovative ways around them.
Shortly after Mubarak tried unsuccessfully to stem the tide of texts and Tweets unleashed early in the Arab Spring uprising, New Orleans attorney Kevin Vogeltanz learned what had happened while listening to a broadcast on NPR. It planted the kernel of an idea for a smartphone app that would allow people in crowds to communicate with one another through anonymous messaging, regardless of whether their phones were getting a signal.
"What they really needed," Vogeltanz told us, "was a way to communicate through their cell phones peer-to-peer." The project may have seemed an unlikely fit for a lawyer whose day job is working in maritime, oilfield, and insurance law, with some experience in white collar criminal defense. But he said he was stirred to action.
In the fall, Vogeltanz caught wind of BART's unprecedented cell service disruption. "What I was incredulous about was, this is America," he said. He was infuriated, but that served as motivation to hammer out the app. He convened a team of collaborators with knowledge in computer science to help tackle the challenge.
The app has been dubbed Dovetail. While still a work in progress, the plan is to use wifi transmitters built into smartphones to send short-range message bursts to other smartphones in the vicinity. People who install it will be able to send or receive messages, anonymously, to people around them — regardless of whether cell phone service is functional.
In New York, meanwhile, the plight of Zimmerman's girlfriend inspired app developer Jason Van Anden to create the I'm Getting Arrested app. This tool for Android phones, which has been downloaded roughly 17,000 times so far, allows protesters who anticipate that they'll soon be wearing handcuffs to instantly send emergency notifications to lawyers or loved ones.
"I researched it very quickly, and put it together," explained Van Anden, who has a background in fine art and software engineering and develops mobile apps through his company, Quadrant2. "It was a way I could contribute to what was happening with the demonstrations."
The I'm Getting Arrested app is free to download. To use it, arrestees hold their finger down on a bullseye on the phone screen before their wrists are constrained with zip-ties. The phone vibrates to let them know the message has been sent, and the pre-written distress signal goes out to previously selected contacts.
Since Van Anden released it this fall, just as the Occupy Wall Street protests were beginning to heat up and make international headlines, I'm Getting Arrested has been translated into more than a dozen foreign languages, with more — including Turkish and Azerbaijani — in the works.
"In the last two weeks, we've had about 1,000 new downloads from people in Russia," Van Anden noted. In early December, Russian riot police arrested hundreds in Moscow protests led by citizens angered over election fraud, and voicing opposition to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling party.
The year's protests have sparked ideas for other apps, too. Mobizi's Rich-O-Meter, for Android, features a circular gauge with a needle that points to your standing on the spectrum from 99-percent-to-1-percent, based on personal income.
Although learning how one stacks up against billionaires may have limited appeal, the app's usefulness is revealed by pressing the red "Occupy Wall Street" button. That brings up a comprehensive "Actions and Directory" listing of Occupy websites and Twitter feeds from around the globe — from Fresno to Istanbul, with hundreds in between.
Then there's the Shouty app — which still might not be as effective as the Occupy-inspired People's Mic, an echo delivered with old-fashioned vocal chords. Shouty helps amplify sound in large crowds or spaces where sound systems have been banned by authorities. Developed by coder Nathan Hamblen and others at the "social coding" site Github, Shouty is a live-streaming tool that broadcasts sound as an MP3 stream so others in the crowd can pick up what is being said, even if they're out of earshot.
Other sound apps may still catch on, like the just-released Occupy Drum Circle, which allows one to "start your own drum circle protest anywhere," according to an description posted by developer Michael Desmond. For newshounds, there's Occupy Wall Street News, an iPhone app, plus about a dozen others that aggregate information and news updates relating to Occupy and display it in a common feed.
I'm Getting Arrested, Shouty, Occupy Drum Circle, and Occupy Wall Street News all require cell service or an Internet signal to function, but Dovetail will be unique in that it's designed to operate even if cellular towers have come down or a repressive government has sought to block the free flow of information by silencing networks. It could also be used in a natural disaster scenario.
Vogeltanz and his team have tested out Dovetail using Bluetooth transmitters, which send information over a shorter range than wifi, but project team member Robert Meredith, an IT director, says he thinks they'll be able to harness wifi transmitters to improve the distance messages can travel. They plan to make it available for a free download, and it would be free to send and receive messages.
In a protest situation, there would be nothing barring law enforcement agencies from outfitting their own devices with the app to see what people in a crowd were saying to one another via Dovetail — but theoretically, they wouldn't be able to pinpoint the senders.
To help their project along, the Dovetail developers have started a Kickstarter page where they hope to raise $30,000 by Jan. 23. Much of the funding will go toward purchasing phones for testing.
"We're cutting the cell companies out of the equation," Vogeltanz explained. "You're using the built-in equipment on your cell phone to send a short-range radio burst." Messages sent via Dovetail would be more resilient in a denser and larger group, he added. "There will be no viable way to shut down that communication," he said, "unless you disperse the real-life group."