Internet and Evolution in Manchester Communities

I was encouraged to move onto the Bentley House estate, more commonly known as the ‘Redbricks’, back in 1999, in order to help with the Redbricks Online community internet project that was then being rolled out. Back in the day, a visionary called Nigel Stewart had a plan to provide Manchester with high broad band internet, using short wave radio. Although he was unable to make it happen back then, MDDA, with a little help from the EU, have plans to do something very similar now, a decade later. Here is the story ..
In ‘99 some friends of mine purchased a ‘leased line’ from BT, and installed a server in a flat on the Redbricks estate. Leased lines were a pre-runner to broadband, providing a 24/7 connection, but costing a small fortune, for a comparatively small bandwidth, relative to a modern home broadband connection. Still, the plan was that by squeezing 30+ flats through a single line, it could be made cost effective. So recycled PCs were bodged together, and flats across the estate were networked with 100s of meters of blagged ethernet cable, and servers hacked up with Linux free software ...
One of the brains behind Redbricks Online was a guy called Nigel Stewart, who’s vision extended way beyond the Redbricks. At the same time that he was doing Redbrick’s, Nigel was a founding director of a company called XTML, which rapidly evolved into one of Manchester’s first major commercial internet companies. Even in these early days, Nigel had a plan to use shortwave radio, to provide high bandwidth, at low prices, to resident-owned local area networks (LANs) like the Redbricks, across the city. Redbricks Online did get replicated to an extent, noticeably in the Yellowbricks (Homes For Change housing co-op), and a tower block in Hulme called Fulton Court. The photo above (scanned from an early edition of .Net magazine) shows Nigel with a short wave radio LAN transmitter he purchased, with a plan to mount on Portland Tower, where his company, XTML were based. However, as the internet exploded throughout the decade, and the price of domestic broadband became affordable, the Redbricks co-operative model was superseded by generally more preferable commercial alternatives.
Around 2003, following a health scare, Nigel sold his share in XTML, which had by now become a very successful internet company, and moved overseas, in search of an improved quality of life.
I’d all but forgotten about the radio LAN vision until last week, when I was invited to a presentation at Manchester University, about a new EU funded project that MDDA are putting together, called SMART IP. In this context ‘IP’ stands for Innovation in People, and MDDA plan to broadcast shortwave radio signals to and from their HQ on Portland Street (where XTML started out remember?) to strategic locations, in order to provide businesses and residents with mega-cheap, mega-bandwidth, symmetrical internet connectivity. The main thrust of the project will be the ‘Corridor’ development (Oxford Rd), where they are planning to use this technology to provide enhanced infrastructure for the major institutions, including the two universities, and the hospital, plus also for cultural organisations such as the Cornerhouse, and a host of smaller businesses.
I was pleased and intrigued to hear that they also plan to pilot the technology with 1,000 residential properties in the area, which are to include both Redbricks, and Homes For Change, two of the pioneer IT neighbourhoods from the hay day of Redbricks Online.
People’s Voice Media are also involved in this EU funded partnership with MDDA, with their main role being around community engagement. Whilst the techies at MDDA are putting together the nuts and bolts, it falls on the shoulders of organisations like PVM, and the residents of Manchester, to figure out how to use the technology best, in order to create social change, improved wellbeing, and equality.
Environmental monitoring is one particular kind of application that is being worked up by Alan Holding at MDDA. He is planning on implementing a wireless network of Waspnote environmental sensors. Described as ‘open source hardware’, these are programmable boards on which you can plug in a range of different environmental sensors, to measure CO, CO2, NO, Noise, dust, humidity, and temperature. They have a built in radio transmitter with a range of 250m which will broadcast live environmental data straight to MDDA’s SMART IP network. It is feasible therefore, that within 18 months, community portals like ManchesterPermaculture.Net, could be acting as local observatories, aggregating live environmental data, and feeding it out to their target communities.
The challenge then becomes how best to use this data? For example it is foreseeable that Redbricks may become a test bed for the environmental monitoring stations. The estate is situated at the intersection of two motorways (the Mancunnian Way and Princess Parkway), so it is a fairly safe bet that local residents will have issues with high noise levels, and atmospheric pollution from the traffic. Environmental monitoring stations will substantiate this, but the big question is, how do you empower a community, to use this information, to effect policy, and improve their quality of life in the long run?? It seems that ideas are needed, in order to engage citizens in this new technology in a meaningful way, so it is not just the same old online gaming, and file sharing sketch.
MDDA worked with the RSPB, and installed a live camera feed from the peregrine falcon nest high up on the CIS tower, enabling interested people all over the world to engage in this story. In a similar fashion, children on the Redbricks could install cameras in bird boxes on Leaf Street community garden, and develop a deeper relationship with their natural environment, by watching streamed images of the birds living and breeding in their own environments.
Thinking ahead, these very same children could grow up to be successful ecologists and behavioural scientists. By relating the live data from the environmental monitoring stations, and keeping an eye on the behaviour of the local wildlife, they could identify patterns, and learn interventions, to improve the quality of the wildlife in their natural environment.
It is interesting to recall Redbricks as it was 10 years ago, at the birth of our mini online revolution – a 'sink estate', with a smack house in every other block. Ten years later, it is des res, with its own baby boom, and a diverse, resilient community garden. I’m excited to see what changes a new generation of internet technology, and a new generation of young people will bring about over the next ten years.