Chattanooga as a hub of digital innovation
Open source culture thrives in Chattanooga
Last week I had a chance to visit Chattanooga for several days and received an up close look at the maker and entrepreneurial culture of the city. Chattanooga is home to a municipal gigabit fiber installation, which reaches every home and business in a 600 square mile area. The city is positioning itself as a hub of digital innovation, and from where I sit they're doing quite a good job of that. Some of the smartest minds from other parts of the country are moving to Chattanooga because of the quality of life combined with structural community support for innovators.
The most exciting innovations, in my eyes, are happening on the 4th floor of the public library and via Jason Griffey, Head of Library Information Technology at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Griffey has embarked on a personal project named LibraryBox, which is an open source wireless file server that uses very affordable, off-the-shelf consumer technology. Even before Griffey launched a Kickstarter campaign for the project, it was filled with possibilities. Moving this project into higher gear, the LibraryBox Kickstarter campaign ended up bringing in more than 10 times the original funding goal. Many of the possible uses of LibraryBox remain unexplored, which to me is one of the great excitements of this project. I asked Griffey how many concurrent file transfers can happen via this two ounce device and while exact numbers are still in the testing phase, LibraryBox can serve multiple users simultaneously.
Most excitingly, LibraryBox can work its magic completely separate from any Internet infrastructure, so it might end up having expansive uses for education, health, and science in areas of the world lacking Internet access.
Across town, the 4th floor of the Chattanooga Public Library has become a popular destination in the short time it has been in existence. Formerly used for storage, this large space (it's about the size of a small airplane hangar) is now the home of the library's 3D printer and other digital experiments. Nate Hill, Assistant Library Director, is bent on building a space where community members come to make and produce things. Nate has assembled an all-star staff of librarians who are putting this vision into practice. While giving me a tour of the 4th floor, Nate explained how he is feeling his way forward, progressing step by step and doing what seems sensible. For example, he converted several of the library's public iMacs to Ubuntu Linux as a way of testing open source solutions throughout the library.
The Chattanooga Public Library was also the home of a coding camp this summer, teaching 50 teens the basics of HTML, CSS, Python, and robotics. This camp was conducted as a partnership with Engage3D.org, a visionary new nonprofit. Having the library as a center for digital learning and digital exploration makes so much sense.
At another location in town, just getting off the ground is Chattanooga's makerspace, Chatt*Lab, which has established a physical location and has assembled a core group of members and supporters. They are also open for membership! I visited Chatt*Lab and was impressed by one of the co-founders, Tim Youngblood, who is moving the initiative forward step by step. Tim embodies the maker culture—of constant curiosity and a kindliness in encouraging the curiosity of others. The usual array of Linux laptops were cracked open with people sharing information about various projects they were working on.
Speaking of Linux, the Chattanooga Linux Users Group, Chugalug, has a very vibrant email list. Whether by design or not, many of the most creative folks in the city seem to participate in this list. Reading the message traffic on this list you can feel the camaraderie and goodwill in this community.
The highlight of my visit was an annual event called Gigtank Demo Day where seven startup companies pitched their stories to venture capitalists and to the public. All the startups had convincing presentations, but FwdHealth's business proposition resonated the most with me. Better health is within reach, but people need incentives and the right tools to get there. After their presentation I had a chance to chat with Jon Stanford, one of the lead developers of AOKP, an open source Android distribution. Jon shared an interesting thought about open source in our conversation. He said, "If you have patience and perseverance, open source can be your university."
My strongest impression of Chattanooga is the sense of people pulling together towards a common goal. This is a city with smart leaders who have their eyes on the prize. It's a place of possibilities. Other cities will seek to replicate Chattanooga's path.