Innovations in Mobile Technology for Disaster Response Part IV

(Source: afromusing, Flickr: BRCK acts as a backup to the Internet)

The usage of technology to improve humanitarian action and make disaster preparedness and response more efficient has been increasing in the past number of years. In this blog we look at what BRCK, based in Kenya have designed and built to help people in developing nations to access the internet for the first time. The BRCK modem-cum-router could also have an impact on how people in post-disaster zones gain internet connectivity whilst electrical girds suffer outages.

Many Africans access the internet for the first time via mobile. The mobile internet subscriber penetration in 2013 in Sub-Saharan Africa was just 17% but this is set to grow massively to 37% by 2020 (Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2014, GSMA). Studies further predict that by 2020 there will be 525 million smartphones in the region up from only 72 million at the end of 2013. Data traffic will increase twenty-fold to 2019 which is twice the global average. The contribution of the mobile ecosystem to the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa – a region without fixed line networks

where mobile is a real differentiator – is set to grow in a similar fashion. All of this of course, supposes that there is connectivity available and in some of the more rural and challenging parts of Africa this supposition is not always valid. BRCK comes from the same team who first developed the Ushahidi crowd-mapping software and they have the (unofficial) tagline of “if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere”.

BRCK acts as a backup to the Internet so that when the power goes out – which happens often in some African settings – the unit fails over and connects to the nearest GSM network. ‘’Mobile connectivity in Africa is so pervasive that it made sense to build this’’ says Juliana Rotich. Indeed in rural areas, rural areas, it can be the primary means of connection. Excluding South Africa, the entire installed generation capacity of sub-Saharan Africa is only 28 Gigawatts, equivalent to that of Argentina and this does not take into account power spikes or outages. Furthermore while 60% of internet surfers are in the developing world only 24% of the developing world is connected, highlighted the need for a product such as BRCK.

BRCK has a rugged design and has been road tested extensively by the team around Kenya and on trips as far south as South Africa. It has a battery life of 24 hours and switches automatically between Ethernet, Wi-Fi and 3G signals.

Furthermore, BRCK can be set to extend an existing Wi-Fi connection (or another BRCK) device and so the connectivity can be daisy-chained to extend the working environment. BRCK accepts a local SIM although the BRCK team is working on a global MVNO solution which will allow the unit to work with a large number of different networks from a single device. This can function as a failover method in situations where there is limited connectivity to the network to which the installed SIM belongs.

One of the most common problems in powering remote disaster equipment can be getting a clean power source; quite often the power sources can be quick and nasty. In such situation however, BRCK can be powered using anything from a car battery to a solar panel (with the latter soon to be available as a hardware add-on from the BRCK team). This is very necessary and in-line with kit developed by others working in the disaster response space e.g. Ericsson Response and Vodafone Instant Network.

Two exciting developments recently announced include partnerships with the satellite company Inmarsat and the team behind the Raspberry Pi single-board computer. By joining a Raspberry Pi to a BRCK, it is possible to essentially make a little mini-server that can exist at the edge of a network.  While the BRCK internal hard-drive can be updated from 4GB to 32GB, adding computing power via the Pi enables a network to be set-up which need only connect once the connection becomes available, a sort of mini-cloud within the cloud as we know it. This enables communities to access local content relevant to them without a full connection to the rest of the internet. Using the Inmarsat BGAN satellite network ensures that connectivity is possible using satellite backhaul whenever required. These two functions should be available to users from Q3 2015.

BRCK was funded in the early stages by the Kickstarter crowdsourcing platform but most recently has secured USD 1.2 million in seed funding from a variety of venture capitalists.

You can read about other examples of innovations in mobile tech for disaster response in the rest of the blog series:

Innovations in Mobile Technology for Disaster Response; Part I

Innovations in Mobile Technology for Disaster Response Part II

Innovations in Mobile Technology for Disaster Response Part III