Design for UNICEF student project: Open source cellular network #2

UNICEF Innovation staff co-teach the Design for UNICEF class at New York University’s (NYU) Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) with Jorge Just, Adjunct Professor at NYU. Each year students take a particular challenge area in a particular geography, and work closely with end-users in UNICEF Country Offices to develop solutions to pressing developmental and humanitarian issues. The 2012 course concentrated on emergencies and was open to all students at ITP. While it has already finished the work continues as some of the students develop their projects further. This is the second success story of the team that is developing an open source cellular network for emergency situations.

Continued Development and Discovery of User Scenario

Following our initial success of deploying an open source cellular network, our continued development has led to other successes and the discovery of a user scenario which has helped frame our development. In the first tests of the network, we were able to connect phones to the network as well as send basic SMS messages through the network from one phone to another. Though this was an huge initial success, the network was still filled with error messages and basic connectivity problems. After several weeks of continued development, we have been able to eliminate those issues to have a functioning network which has successfully connected not only SMS messages, but also audio calls.

We have now begun to move into the final stage of developing our SMS broadcast emergency network. Currently, the network is configured as any typical GSM network, meaning, any phone registered and connected to the network, can make calls and send SMS messages to any other phone connected to the network. We are now in the stage of development in which we aim to provide a user interface to the entire network allowing one person to send SMS messages to all users on the network. This type of ‘broadcast SMS’ has tremendous power when coupled with an easily deployed cellular network. A user can simply deploy the network and begin to send information via text messages to everyone who is connected.

User Scenarios from the Philippines

During the development process, our team was fortunate to hear a first hand experience about disaster response after the typhoon in the Philippines. The communication with someone who was on-the-ground gave us great insight into understanding how our stand-alone cellular network could actually be used during a disaster situation. Until this point, the idea was only a hypothesis without a clearly identified user scenario. This information following the typhoon gave us the direction and understanding of how to continue with our disaster response cellular network.

One of the key components in understanding for whom our network is being developed came from the realization that there are teams of telecommunications engineers who have millions of dollars worth of equipment deployed during these disasters. Their role is to establish cellular communication on a massive scale providing communication capabilities to emergency responders and a crucial link to the outside world. These teams however, arrive several days (if not weeks) after the disaster and need several weeks to establish communication. This leaves a small period of time immediately following the disaster where communication is still not present. It is this period of time that is most critical and has the potential to benefit from our cellular network capabilities.

New York, The US, 2014. The hardware needed to run the cellular network.  On top, an Asus Eeebox running Ubuntu 12.04 and on bottom the USRP 2 from Ettus Research. Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson
New York, The US, 2014. The hardware needed to run the cellular network. On top, an Asus Eeebox running Ubuntu 12.04 and on bottom the USRP 2 from Ettus Research. Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson

It is important to note that our research and development of a cellular network does not operate on the same scale as the established organizations who are currently deployed to provide cellular communication. This is both a drawback as well as a benefit. The drawback is that our network has a much smaller range with a much lower communication bandwidth prohibiting any type of massive communications network. However, our network can be setup and deployed in a fraction of the time it takes the traditional organizations providing affected communications emergency communication in the hours following a disaster, not days or weeks.

We propose to continue to develop a low-cost, easily deployed network that could be given to key people in local communities before a disaster takes place. This type of preemptive network protection would allow users to deploy a network immediately following the collapse of traditional infrastructure and provide communication to a local community. The real benefit of this network is the ability to immediately provide communications to the key players in a local community following a disaster. This enables local communities to begin working together to provide aid instead of waiting for outside aid which could take days.

Focusing our network development on local communities gives our team direction and understanding in how to continue development. Designing a system that is easily deployed and used are keys to our development. With this focus, we are beginning to spend more time on the user experience of deploying the network as well as the ease with which one could begin to send information over the network.

Nicholas Johnson

Student of the NUY Design for UNICEF class 2012

For more details about the project visit Nicholas’ website

Read also:

Design for UNICEF student project: Open source cellular network #1

Design for UNICEF student project: PowerClip

Design for UNICEF student project: Amplifying light in Burundi

Academia: Design for UNICEF

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