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This Box Keeps Information Flowing During a Crisis

The creators of Ushahidi, a crisis mapping platform, have developed hardware that keeps wireless communication going in the midst of chaos.

Connectivity and electricity can be unreliable in much of the world, especially during a crisis.

The people behind Ushahidi, a software platform for communicating information during a crisis, have now developed what they are dubbing a “backup generator for the Internet”—a device that can connect with any network in the world, provide eight hours of wireless connectivity battery life, and can be programmed for new applications, such as remote sensing.

Keep going: This prototype wireless communications device has eight hours of battery power.

Since 2007, the Ushahidi platform has served as a key communications technology during crises ranging from the 2010 Haiti earthquake to post-election violence in Kenya earlier this year, allowing people to send updates via text message or the Web that then appear on Web-based maps (see “Software That Helps Populations Deal with Crises”). But any Web-based system is only as good as the available connectivity.

“We’re scratching our own itch around Internet connectivity, because that’s the problem that comes up the most for us in Kenya,” says Erik Hersman, one of Ushahidi’s founders. He also heads iHub, a startup incubator in Nairobi (see “Kenya’s Startup Boom”). “It’s hard to be a Web-based company when you’ve got a lot of power outages or if the ISP you’re using gets unbearably slow.”

The gadget, dubbed BRCK—slated to be unveiled Monday at a conference in Berlin—is a Wi-Fi router that can serve as many as 20 devices when there is an Internet connection. In other contexts it can serve as a 3G and 4G modem that includes data settings that work on any network in the world—just swap in whatever prepaid Sim card you need.

The BRCK connects to a cloud-based server that lets any BRCK user monitor its performance remotely and manage alerts; leave one at home, for example, and it can send you a text message when the power goes out. The device is also programmable; apps can be written for it; and it comes with up to 16 gigabits of storage. Plug in a camera or other sensor and it’s a monitoring device.

The BRCK was prototyped over the past nine months. To fund the manufacture of the first 1,000 gadgets, it is planning a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

Ushahidi—also the name of the nonprofit tech company that made the software platform—says the goal was to build the world’s most simple, reliable, and rugged Internet connection device, but with sophisticated cloud-based features. “No other single device does these off-grid communications, software cloud access, and remote management of sensors connected to it,” Hersman says.

Ethan Zuckerman, an Ushahidi board member who directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT, says that just as Ushahidi’s mapping platform took inspiration from Kenya’s political situation, the BRCK hardware is taking on the frail Kenyan power grid. “Once you understand what the product does—provides a reliable connectivity backup in places where power and connectivity are spotty—it’s hard to understand why no one has built the tool before,” he says.

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