Finding this newspaper article from the future reminded me to give the Merri-bek Tech website a refresh. You can also find this article on our Vision page.

Local Community Stays Online Through the Blackout Link to this heading

State News: Jan 3, 2029

With much of metropolitan Melbourne without power for three days after the latest in what the BOM is calling a summer of unprecedented storms, one group of Melbourne suburbs managed to keep digital infrastructure online and use it to organise assistance for those most impacted.

In Merri-bek, a local council area in the inner north of Melbourne, volunteers at a local non-profit are running their own grass-roots alternative to major internet services, powered by solar panels and batteries. This group, called Merri-bek tech, has built a community of skilled volunteers over several years by providing free web hosting to local community groups.

I help maintain websites and email addresses for over 200 local community groups, from churches to bowling clubs” - says Mehri, a volunteer systems administrator with Merri-bek Tech. “When I started three years ago I had never even used linux, and now I’m teaching others, many of whom are refugees like myself.

While running websites for local clubs has provided plenty of work for Merri-bek Tech volunteers, creating local resilience in the face of climate change has been a major driver behind the group’s plans.

We run our servers at community facilities across Merri-bek”, says Mehri. “Each one is a rack of machines like a small fridge, and we’ve got them at places like community houses, council libraries, one at Ceres environment park, a church, and an anarchist book store. We make sure that all the data we store is at multiple locations, and that each location is powered by renewables and has plenty of battery storage.

Just having computers on battery power that can stay online during the blackout isn’t enough to help the community though. Merri-bek Tech has been working on ways to allow connection to those servers if other networks go down. Many of their installations provide long range Wi-Fi to the surrounding areas, and all sites are able to syncronise data using a range of technologies including “LoRa”, a kind of long range, low powered radio transmission.

The blackouts this week provided an opportunity for all this work to benefit the local community. Many areas across Merri-bek were able to connect to the Merri-bek Tech servers, including all the community facilities that host them as well as people using their mobile phones in range of the wireless. This didn’t provide internet access, as NBN services have been down all week, but it did provide access to a range of web software hosted by Merri-bek Tech.

This is the first time that we’ve really seen how useful these services are during an emergency”, says Sarah, volunteer coordinator at Barnaby St Neighbourhood House. “Despite having grid connected solar panels, we had no power and no internet in the neighbourhood house for three days, and so we setup a physical notice board for locals in the front yard. People would pin up asks and offers, and a couple of the local teenagers helped out typing them in to the one working laptop powered off the Merri-bek Tech battery. That let us exchange needs and news with the other community groups across Brunswick and nearby suburbs. I heard of people coordinating bicycle trips to pickup food that was going off in fridges, and even a rescue trip for an elderly man who couldn’t power his dialysis machine”.

With power now restored to most of Melbourne, it’s back to the regular internet for most people, but for some, the community run software at Merri-bek Tech has made quite an impact.

I was pretty blown away when I was able to connect my phone to wifi during a power outage”, says Coburg resident Daniel. “The page that came up showed me local notice boards, social media apps, even a full copy of Wikipedia. I hadn’t heard of all of these apps before. They’re running Mastadon instead of Twitter, Pixelfed instead of Instagram, Matrix instead of WhatsApp, but now that I’m starting to use these apps I’m finding I love that they are full of real local people and no adds.

So what’s next for Merri-bek Tech? Not resting on their laurels. Their committee writes:

The storms this summer have been called “unprecedented”, which is also what they said about the storms two years ago, and the fires the year before that. While it’s been great to see some real action on lowering carbon emissions in the last few years, we’re also solidly past 1.5 degrees of warming now and it’s clear that these wild weather events are going to get worse before they get better.

If we’re going to be really useful in emergencies, we’d like to do a lot more to connect with other organisations to help us widen our Wi-Fi coverage, and to make sure that all the community groups that participate in emergency response locally, from food not bombs to the SES, have at least one device that can connect to our messaging systems.