Enviros should pay a lot more attention to stories like this one about the role of grassroots techies in disaster relief in Indonesia. A group of people that met in an online chat room formed the Aceh Media Center, with coordination and funding help from the Indonesian Information Technology Federation, a coalition of nine local business groups. It’s an absolutely remarkable tale:

As aid organizations around the world made plans to gather food, tents, and medical supplies, members of the Aceh Media Center sent out pleas via e-mail for the tools that would help them to set up emergency Internet facilities. On Dec. 27, a day after the disaster, donated equipment began to pile up, including computers, wireless devices, cables, and very important, the VSAT — a portable satellite dish.

A two-man “advance team” then flew to Banda Aceh carrying 13 boxes of wireless equipment, cables, antennas, the VSAT, and a collapsible tower. “Our first objective was to assist the flow of data,” says Anjar Ari Nugroho, an Air Putih member whose day job is an Internet service provider.

Using resources begged and borrowed from locals, they set up a wireless network with kiosks around the city and a central website that has become a hub of information about missing people and relief coordination.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Drawing on previous experience in earthquakes, Mr. Anjar realized that distribution and coordination were the biggest hurdles in the beginning. “Some people get rice and need water; some people get water and need rice,” he says.

International organizations say the work of Air Putih has been invaluable. “They were an enormous help in the first days,” says Ian Woolverton, a spokesman for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

“It’s desperately needed,” said Alvis, an Indonesian coordinator with the same group. “For movement, reporting of the names of the dead, the numbers of the dead, the number of camps, and for open communication.”

The group now wants to spread the wireless network all the way across Aceh.

Why should an environmentalist care about this? Because even after the immediate disaster relief, some people will still get water and need rice, and some people will still get rice and need water. And once people are accustomed to a wireless network where they can get information and coordinate with each other — where those who have rice but not water can connect with those who have water but not rice — they aren’t going to let it go away. If countries like Indonesia are going to leapfrog the destructive, polluting path of development taken by the developed world, they’re going to need a foundation of open, vigorous information sharing: spontaneous, open-source, decentralized, and driven by the needs and initiative of local people.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Beyond the immediate benefit of assisting and coordinating the relief effort, the work of groups like the Aceh Media Center is laying that foundation.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!