Chicago Colo: A New Internet Opportunity for Chicago
A community colocation project is an effort to pool together technical resources to provide no- or low-cost Internet resources and services to non- commercial groups and projects in a dedicated, secure, pro-free-speech environment. Community colocation projects are taking off in cities across the continent, and such a project is underway in Chicago. The Chicago Community Colocation Project (or "Chicago Colo" for short, "colo" rhymes with "polo") is an effort to build a colo for Chicago.
Third Coast Press' Mitchell Szczepanczyk interviewed Terry Ott, a volunteer with Chicago Colo whose devoted involvement with the project includes roles as webmaster, mailing list administrator, and the lead investigator for colo space.
How did Chicago Colo get started?
In the fall of 2002 I became a client of the California Colo (www.communitycolo.net). The more I learned about the group, the more I wished I could be directly involved with some of the organizational and operational issues. This was complicated by the fact that I lived in the Midwest. On the Net, I found some very early discussion about starting up a sister project in Chicago. I got in touch with the others who had expressed interest and started generating momentum. We've grown from three people on our mailing list in March of 2004 to 50 people currently.
Could you talk about the progress since October 2004 that you and others have made in getting Chicago Colo up and running?
We have a nearly-completed application to become a recognized project of the Online Policy Group (www.onlinepolicy.org). OPG is a California-based non-profit corporation that is the parent financial organization of the California Colo. Once the group finalizes the application and gets it approved, any donations to the group will be tax-deductible. We also have had very active discussion on our mailing list about the way the group should be organized and run.
Could you describe your particular individual role in helping to get Chicago Colo off the ground? And what was it about Chicago Colo that appealed to you?
Having limited experience with all-volunteer groups in the past, I realized that one of the most important things the group needed was momentum. To help with that, I created the mailing list and started calling data centers for price quotes and to line up tours. I created the mailing list to make sure that progress was being made and regular status updates were being sent to the group. This helped get other volunteers motivated and we have made incredible progress. The aspect of the project that appeals most to me is how it will cultivate free speech. The Chicago Colo will help individuals and non-profit groups get their message out -- regardless of what it might be -- when they might not be able to otherwise. The California Colo has provided a home for groups such as an independent radio station, student organizations, religious groups of wildly differing beliefs, and an archive of Marxist writings. I expect the Chicago Colo to be just as successful in enabling free speech.
The global Indymedia computer network faced a serious loss months ago when the FBI seized one of Indymedia's web servers in London for as-yet unknown reasons. The server was later returned, but the seizure shocked free speech advocates. Chicago Colo, like all other colocation projects, describes itself as fervently free speech. In what specific tangible ways would Chicago Colo support such devotion to free speech, and in what ways would Chicago Colo help provide protection from such raids in this time of the USA PATRIOT Act?
The Chicago Colo and the Online Policy group will actively defend its clients against all such attempts. In fact, the California group has already successfully resisted such an attempt. Diebold, Inc. tried to silence a client of the California Colo with threats of legal action. The Online Policy Group immediately started responding. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) were notified of the situation and ended up representing OPG in court. You can read the details of the case at http://www.eff.org/legal/ISP_liability/OPG_v_Diebold/.
OPG, who will be our parent organization, have proven their commitment to defending their clients' right to free speech. Should similar problems arise, we have strong ties to dedicated people who have experience responding to them.
Could you discuss the concerns of money? It will be a boon to Chicago-area nonprofits and organizers to have a cost-competitive and secure home for their websites and Internet resources, but by offering no- and low-cost hosting how do you hope Chicago Colo will finance itself and achieve sustainability?
It is a requirement of our financial sponsor, the Online Policy Group, that the Chicago Colo be entirely donation-based. In other words, we are forbidden from having any sort of required dues from clients. Instead, we will encourage all clients donate approximately $50 per month. This will pay for our expenses, namely space in the data center, electricity, and network connectivity. We will also actively seek funds from sources such as grants. There will be groups that cannot afford to pay for the services they will receive, but we expect that other clients will pay more than their share for the community good. The California project has operated under this financial model from day one and has been tremendously successful, growing from five clients in the spring of 2002 to their current size of 130 clients. Their expenses are quite significant, yet they are able to collect enough in donations to thrive.
A lot of nonprofit organizations are not only starved for funds but also starved for technical assistance in creating or maintaining websites. In addition to hosting resource support, do you expect or hope Chicago Colo will provide technical support in addition to technical resources?
We and our partners will provide services in addition to hosting, all of which will also be free! These services will include e-mail lists, e-mail accounts, web hosting (if you don't have your own server), DNS hosting, website design, computer refurbishing, and IT consulting. We have many friendly and talented people on our mailing list who are happy to donate both time and expertise.
What kind of vision do you hold for Chicago Colo? Where do you hope Chicago Colo will be in one year, two years, five years?
I expect rapid expansion for the project in the first two years. The California project grew faster than anyone could have expected. The group will start to form a solid group of dedicated volunteers that handle organizational and technical issues in order to deal with that rate of growth. At around 150 clients, I suspect we will follow California's lead and put a cap on new growth. An all-volunteer cannot sustain exponential growth indefinitely without becoming unmanageable and/or losing its sense of community. When we hit our maximum size I hope to see members of the Chicago Colo project help start sister projects in other cities. I believe there is a real "market", both across the country and around the world, for non-profit internet services, and I'd be thrilled to see members of our group helping out.
What next up in the immediate future for Chicago Colo? And what can people who are interested in Chicago Colo's efforts provide or offer for the project to help achieve its immediate goals?
Our next immediate steps are to get our application with OPG signed and approved. When that's done, we'll need to establish committees to provide direction and organization to the project. Next, we'll need to do some intense fundraising. When we have enough money to comfortably move in and survive the first few months of operation we'll open for operation. Any individuals or non-profit groups will be welcome to host their computers with us.
Interested parties can provide assistance in any number of ways currently. We'd love people to join the mailing list to provide as many suggestions and opinions on the matters we're facing as possible. We need people to join our committees. We need as much advertising/exposure as possible to let non-profit groups aware of our existence. Last but not least, we need donations: time, expertise, equipment, and money.
To learn more, go online to www.chiccp.net