Hackathon: Mesh-Networks in Museums

1-day Hackathon asking UCSC students to explore potential mesh-network projects at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Hackathon: Mesh-Networks in Museums   1-day Hackathon asking UCSC students to explore potential mesh-network projects at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

About the Project:

  • Role: Project Lead
  • Institution: UCSC, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
  • Technology: Webapp, mesh-networks


I first came across Mesh networks at UCSC in spring of 2014 when there were several student protests on campus. A friend and I started talking about developing a way to make sure friends were ok and perhaps even warn people if an area was blocked off or unsafe. During the bi-annual UC Hackathon, which happened to be around the same time as the protests, we demoed a mesh-network app- built off Apple’s multi-peer connectivity framework, a peer-to-peer feature that lets you share messages with other users nearby, regardless of whether you have an Wi-Fi or cellular connection, which is sometimes hard to find depending where you are on campus.

How a mesh-network works:

Basically, a mesh network is a decentralized network in which each node (in this case a mobile phone) connects to at least two other nodes (or phones). Network nodes can "talk" directly to each other without requiring the assistance of an Internet connection through Bluetooth, or built in Wi-Fi. A big advantage of this decentralized network is that there is less likely to be a single point of failure. If one node can no longer operate, people can still communicate with each other directly or through one or more intermediate nodes. The more nodes added to the network, the more robust and further reaching it can be. So for example, if I was at the library and wanted to get a message out to people located at the student union, but my range is only 100 feet, I would need several people on the network in between us in order to reach someone there.

Often when mesh networks appear in the news it is seen as an emergency tool during a natural disaster like the Haiti earthquake, or during a crisis like the Boston Marathon Bombing. Probably the most publicized mesh-networks were during the Arab Spring political upheaval when the Egyptian government attempted to shut off the internet to the nation, or most recently during the Hong Kong protests. Also to note, this type of device to device communication was also built into the MIT One Laptop per child to create a robust and inexpensive infrastructure in developing nations.  But what I think we might be missing here is not just seeing mesh networks as backup when all else fails, but looking at the possible social impact mesh-networking could have on the way communities form and operate. On a grass roots level, it allows people to self-organize share resources among themselves without relying on third party Internet Service providers (like Comcast).


Hackathon Project


So then I started to think about what a grass roots mesh network could be in a museum and see if there was a way for visitors to create ephemeral hyper local and ad-hoc connections between each other. Over the summer I met with Nina Simon of MAH to talk about having a small Hackathon at the museum to explore these ideas. Her response was “yep, what do you need” which is pretty awesome. Over a dozen graduate students from the engineering, linguists, digital media, and visual culture departments attended. They broke off into small groups of 2-3 and spent the whole day in the gallery prototyping different types of community building mesh-networks. Below is a quick description of the top 3 projects to emerge out of the hackathon.

  • Project 1 share emotions in a gallery
    • lights in the gallery change color depending on the emotions expressed by art viewers.
  • Project 2 exquisite corpse slam poets
    • Game where visitors add 1 line of poetry text to an ongoing poem. The 11th person is tasked with reading the poem out loud in the gallery
  • Project 3 sending “bubble” files of art
    • Visitors create little drawings that relate to the art around the museum. When visitors enter into the hyper-local space (or bubble) it "pops" sharing those jpegs with the new visitors and encouraging them to leave drawings behind too.

·       While I am not convinced that mesh-networks will take off in the museum, after all people have to come with a bit of knowledge about how to set it up on their phone and use it, I think this project was more about understanding what is going on outside our museums, and if we do start to see more of these ad hoc networks pop up as backlash against net neutrality or government control, to perhaps support it and foster more bottom up way of sharing information among our visitors.