In the wake of the massive earthquake in Nepal, as power went out, cell towers crumbled, and internet connections disappeared, a few people turned to ham radio to send messages about missing victims.
A team of Danish designers argue that they have a better solution for communication in disasters: A simple solar-powered device that uses a mesh network to send signals person to person even if phone lines and power are cut.
“Nepal is another tragic example of how natural disasters often damage the regular communication lines and power lines, affecting the response and relief coordination,” say designers Pernille Skjødt and Ida Stougaard, whose device, called Reachi, was a finalist in this year’s Global Social Venture Competition. “Once the regular communication lines and power lines are damaged, it is difficult to establish an overview of a disaster. Early information can improve the planning and prioritization of relief for a more effective response, and potentially save lives.”
Their gadget uses the same technology that underlies FireChat, the app that protesters have used in places like Hong Kong and Iraq to communicate when governments limit connectivity. By sending signals person to person, mesh networking can avoid the need for working cell towers.
Though FireChat is a smartphone app, the designers wanted to create a single-function device that was sturdier than a phone–the new gadget can survive immersion in a flood or storm surge–and that doesn’t need to be plugged in to work.
Their first test market will be the Philippines, a notoriously disaster-prone place that often suffers 30 natural disasters in a single year, from volcano eruptions to earthquakes to landslides and tropical storms. “We conducted field research in the Philippines just three months after a super typhoon had struck, and thereby experienced first hand what happens to a community in the aftermath of a disaster,” the designers say. “This has made us own the problem of the missing communication link that arises.”
The Philippines has a network of 1.8 million Red Cross volunteers across the country. The problem is that in a disaster they usually can’t talk to each other. With the new gadget, they’ll be able to instantly connect, using the natural distribution of the volunteers to build a net of coverage over the whole country.
“Each volunteer will own and carry his or her own device,” the designers explain. “As each device creates a link, the volunteers are able to communicate through each other. This way, a signal is guaranteed, without the need of vulnerable, physical structures.”
A simple interface on Reachi asks volunteers to enter basic information, like how many families need food, or how many injured victims need medical care. All of that data is instantly sent to a central headquarters, where it’s displayed visually on a map and planners can make better decisions about where to send aid first.
The designers are currently finishing their final proof of concept and coordinating with the Philippines Red Cross to plan a rollout across the country. Eventually, they hope to bring it to other countries as well. It’s something that could be useful anywhere; even the most-connected places on Earth can’t easily communicate when standard infrastructure breaks.