Rob Baker: Ushahidi is a software and initiatives company that was founded in Kenya back in January of 2008. In December of 2007 there was a Kenyan election and the result of that was violence in the streets and a media blackout from the government. Our four founders then got together, all prominent Kenyan bloggers at the time, and thought what can we do to help get the message out about what’s happening in the streets and our communities, to that community and to the rest of the world, so we created the first generation of the Ushahidi platform which remains an open source LAMP stack application now.
Timothy Lord: What does Ushahidi mean before we go any further?
Rob: Thank you. That’s a good question. Ushahidi is a Swahili word meaning testimony. So we created that first generation and we just put it out there, we put out the word that it was available, that people could text in what they were seeing to a short code and then we would take that information and geolocate it and translate it where necessary and categorize it and then put that information up on a map that would be publicly available to everyone.
Tim: So, they were reporting things like incidence of violence?
Rob: That’s correct.
Tim: Election corruption?
Rob: We’ve got everything from – yeah we got mostly reports of violence that were happening in the streets where the protests were, where they were going, as well as just what was interesting for us... the sentiment too of what people were feeling about the elections and their country and the violence that was occurring, all these things that we didn’t really even know what to expect that would come in. So not only did it happen with the friends and family that we just put the word out to, but in a matter of weeks we had reports coming in from the rural parts of Kenya as well where we didn’t even have any connections. But all told, we received hundreds of reports that we’re able to do all that work around, provide this, get a lot of media attention and thought by the end of it, maybe there’s something behind this. So we quickly rebuilt the system and put it out there in those iterations and looked towards other African countries where we could launch this system. And after a while started getting picked up by media, started getting picked by governments and NGOs and we’ve just been going from there.
Tim: Talk about what this system consists of, I mean, I should show our viewers that you have a box here and this has been crowd-funded?
Rob: This has been crowd funded.
Tim: It’s always good to see products that have been successfully crowd-funded. So how does the open source nature of this project influence what it is, what are we looking at?
Rob: We are looking at the BRCK which is our first foray into hardware, so after six-and-a-half years of software, well, I guess, at the time five years of software development, we saw another need, a hardware need and we went after it. We conceived the BRCK, so a year-and-a-half ago we just had an idea, we had a need, we had a need in our office, just power goes out, internet goes out as it often does all around in Kenya, around many African countries, and we thought what can we build here, how can we build a backup generator for the internet, how can we build a router for the modern age that’s necessary, especially in developing countries just for that need. So we built this system here that provides or you can plug into the Ethernet, it’s got the Ethernet port, so you can do that, so you can plug that in and you can plug into a wall and it will just put out a Wi-Fi hotspot. More importantly, though, up here we’ve got the SIM card port, this is a quad-band SIM, so you can just plug your SIM card in there and you’ve got a Wi-Fi hotspot coming off of the SIM card itself.
And more importantly in those cases where the power does go out it’s got an 8-hour battery life. So right when that fails, it kicks over to the battery, it kicks over to the SIM card and you’re not offline. Once we started doing that, we tried to shop the idea around, we started getting all of these great ideas from the network that we’ve built up over the six years, all of the activists and academics and government actors and INGO folks and just all of our partners who have been working in the mobile and mapping space who helped us think about what more can we do with this and so we started thinking about USB ports, so you could use to charge your devices.
Tim: All these points are nice to see.
Rob: Yes they are. This BRCK here represents several iterations worth, our first forays into – our first 3D prints just to kind of do the modeling, it’s about a 40% smaller form factor than what we originally thought, all of these ports that came in from these conversations, the USB, the antenna port to increase the range, so that’s something here where the built-in antenna gives us that usual kind of probably 200 meter range and so we can put an antenna here, increase that exponentially and even more fun, these GPIO ports down here that are going to allow us to really have fun with it, the part that we’ve been looking forward to for so long, that’s going to allow us to extend this product and kind of bring that open source nature of giving something that’s extensible to the public and while we may not have sensors and everything that are built with, again what we’ve seen over six-and-a-half years with the software is, we’re just always inspired and just so pleased to see how people use the software in ways in which we never even thought about when we started this.
Tim: Do people connect to this device here typically with a cell phone, with a laptop, what use cases do you see happen?
Rob: So I see use cases, I mean, right out of the box you’ve got something here that people are going to be able to do more with their laptops. I mean, Kenya, so many African countries in the Middle East and South America, they’ve been mobile first since before was a buzzword here in north America, and over in Europe. I mean they have had to be, when the power goes out and they don’t have connectivity for their laptops, they are on their phones and they are tethering from the phones and that gives only so much battery and only so much you can connect and do off of the phone here. So this is going to keep them on their laptops doing work and being more productive whether that’s business or whether that’s these open source projects that we are contributing from here as a volunteer.
Tim: You described this rather as a back-up generator for the internet.
Tim: Now by having a SIM slot, you can automatically fail over?
Tim: And so you typically have an ISP connection and fail over from that.
Rob: And it fails over from that, that was probably one of the hardest parts that we did, but as we like to say, “You can do hard things.”
That’s been our motto since we’ve been doing this and that was one of the things that we had to build into here that it would be a seamless transaction and a transition from having that high speed connectivity or the connectivity that’s available through the landlines that are available in the country and then kicking right over that 3G. So, it really is just a seamless transition. Additionally, we’ve built cloud-based software to manage this as well, so once you get your BRCK and you log in for the first time, you’re able to create an account online on my.BRCK.com and through that you’re able to do all the configuration remotely as well, so whether you are sitting right next to it or it’s long ways away, you can log into it, see that BRCK and kind of see how many connections are going, how much data is available.
Tim: How much connection is going to support at once?
Rob: 20. So, we can do up to 20 connections right now, so much more than a phone is able to do out of the box, so that’s one of the selling points.
Tim: Does that affect the overall battery life if you don’t have power at the time? How long does the BRCK run, and does it matter what it’s being used for?
Rob: Yeah. So, I mean, if you’re doing real high data transactions that might bring the battery down a little bit, if you’ve got a device plugged in and you’re using it to charge your phone or something else via that USB port, obviously that’s going to bring it down a little bit more as well, so somewhere in the 4-5 hour range.
Tim: Now can each BRCK communicate with other BRCKs to bridge a gap, an air gap?
Rob: So right now, I mean, there’s a Wi-Fi bridge in there, so we could get kind of a line of sight, rough mesh network going, so you could have these BRCKs communicate. That’s one of the things I think we’re leaning more in those GPIO ports and be able to do for us is to be able to build in and connect additional components to do much stronger mesh networking and have the antenna in there as well to increase the range. Additionally some of the things that we are looking forward to which is water and air quality sensing, being able to do remote sensing on this, plug in solar packs to increase the battery life. We’re already seeing a few of our partners that we’ve leaked these things out to early on to help us generate these used cases and then do a little bit of more field testing other than what we have already done to think about that and they send us back pictures of the solar panels and keeping it out there as they are out in the field for days on end and.
Tim: What about uneven voltage and voltage drop outs?
Rob: Yeah, so that’s one of the best things and one of the things we’re most proud about is the fact that all of our engineers are in Kenya and that was mandatory for us to get started because I think one of the things we are most proud about in incubating this particular product and the products and services that we have incubated in the past, such as everything from the data services, CrisisNET that we launched earlier this year to the iHub co-working space in Kenya that was originally something that came out of just the office space that we needed, is the fact that companies like ours, you’re not throwing money at the problem, you’re investing in the solution and that’s why it was important for us to have the engineers in Kenya and being next to the problems that others are going to be facing right away so that we could address those, know them upfront, know them intimately and address them exactly that. So you’ve got this AC/DC power supply in here that can take fluctuations and has been tested against that and has multiple voltages that are available too, so you could have it in North America, because our voltages have it in Europe and Africa for the voltages over there and it’s things where we really consider along the way, it takes a little longer in terms of development but we think it’s worth it.
Tim: How did you settle on an operating system and what is the operating system, does it have like its own name, is it custom to this device only?
Rob: So there’s no real OS within the system itself. We, I mean, as an open source software company, we built out the cloud system here and we wanted to have something that was more cloud-based, moving towards that, so that over time people could be able to not only just have these things placed remotely in the field but do all the interaction online through a cloud service, so that they could also get the data that these are collecting remotely as well.