Here’s technology from Africa that ensures the cloud works when your connection doesn’t

A BRCK. Mobility comes in many guises.
A BRCK. Mobility comes in many guises.
Image: Ushahidi
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The “cloud” is great for places that enjoy uninterrupted power and internet connections. But for large swathes of the world, where blackouts are common and connections unreliable, accessing files stored remotely on the internet is a massive hassle. Forget about downloading Adobe Creative Suite. Simply working on a Google doc can be aggravating.

That’s why the people behind Ushahidi, open disaster-mapping software, built BRCK (pronounced “brick.”) BRCK is a wi-fi router and mobile modem in one, with eight hours of battery life to keep it going when the power runs out. It can sit in an office connected by ethernet and switch seamlessly to a 3G or 4G connection if the line goes down. It can also support up to 20 wireless connections and has 16 gigabytes of storage so it can work as a back-up network drive. Connect it to some processing power, such as a Raspberry Pi cheap computer, and you have yourself a mini-server.

Erik Hersman, an Ushahidi co-founder, dreamed up BRCK more than a year ago as a solution to connectivity problems at the iHub, Nairobi’s best-known space for hackers to congregate. The result is a working prototype and a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that’s raised more than a third of the $125,000 target in less than five days. What makes BRCK stand out from Kickstarter’s clutter is that it solves a very real need: the iHub, for instance, currently has four internet providers to ensure connectivity, and a BRCK could lessen the need for so much redundancy.

Philip Walton, who heads software for BRCK, says there is more to the device than back-up internet for offices. It can work anywhere there is a mobile connection and can also be plugged into solar power chargers, making it well-suited for field work. Unlike similar devices like the MiFi, it is designed to handle the heat and dust typical of the developing world.

Ushahidi is making 2,000 devices for the initial, Kickstarter run. Once the team has mass-produced the first version, it aims to bring the price down from the present $200 (early funders get it for $150) so that the price-sensitive market at which it is aimed can afford to buy it.

The idea, according to Walton, is for the BRCK to function as one component of a larger ecosystem of development. “A brick is component of a structure. It’s not the end thing itself. So this idea that together with other bricks and mortar, it can form something is much greater than itself,” he said over the phone from Nairobi.

The device is made to work with third-party hardware and applications; it has an application programming interface to make it easier for people to write software around it. Walton sees it being used as a remote monitoring device for climate-data collection or anything else people can think of, and not just in Kenya. “In building a solution for Africa, you have to take into account that just getting across town requires a four-wheel-drive,” says Walton. “So if I build something that survives in these conditions here in Africa, it’s going to survive anywhere.”