Q&A TED Fellows

Only connect!: Fellows Friday with Erik Hersman, on the rise of his go-anywhere modem BRCK

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Five years ago, the non-profit tech company Ushahidi exploited existing technology to create a powerful platform that allowed users to crowdsource crisis information sent over SMS. Now the Kenyan company is set to do the same with the BRCK, a wireless, rugged, battery-powered modem ready for any environment. As the BRCK’s Kickstarter campaign gathers steam, Ushahidi co-founder and TED Fellow Erik Hersman tells us his vision for the BRCK and how it could change how we connect — in Africa and beyond.

It sounds like the BRCK could be a pretty groundbreaking device.

Yes. It’s always hard for people in the West to understand, just the same as it was hard for technologist to understand Ushahidi. They looked at it and said, “Yeah, what’s special about that?” To be honest, technologically there’s nothing special, and there wasn’t even five years ago. It was that we were just using technology differently to solve a certain type of problem.

Same thing with the BRCK. It actually uses a 15-year-old technology. Modems and routers are not new — it’s the way we’re putting them together into a package that makes it really valuable. So sure, you can tether your phone. Sure, you could buy a wifi device. Those will each last two hours and can be shared with five people. Ours lasts 8 to 12 hours and can be shared with 20 people. Ours is made to deal with power on/power off all the time.

Then there’s a cloud backend. You can go to our site and get into your own devices from anywhere in the world, and write software for it from that level. There’s also a hardware side where you can basically plug anything into it, and the devices stack like bricks. So you can plug in extra batteries, maybe a water sensor. Maybe you want connect a Raspberry Pi CPU to it and make a little server. Fine — you can do all that and actually control that anywhere in the world. So layer two is how the BRCK becomes this bridge between the cloud and the internet of things.

Who are the intended users?
At the moment, I think there are two kinds of users for the BRCK. In Africa, it’s will be anybody who needs to connect to the Web often, and who feel the pain of power outages and the less-than-stellar ISP activity that we have in Kenya or in Nigeria or wherever you are. Small businesses across Africa will use it for connectivity.

In the West, I think the user type are the people who travel, who go camping, who go backpacking or hiking and want some type of internet connectivity in a rugged case. We’re happy if it gets picked up in the US and Europe, but we are much more interested in providing a device that works for people like us here in Africa.

But I’m guessing there are many other possible applications we haven’t even thought of yet.

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Where did the idea for the BRCK come from?

It came to mind as a product during a meeting with some colleagues in South Africa. On the plane back, I pulled out my notebook and started writing down the different things that would make a router/modem for Africa really work. At that time, it was just a fun idea.

It wasn’t until last summer that we got serious about it. We got a prototype level and said, “Oh, this might actually work.” We got a guy that came on part-time and would do the prototyping with us, and it kept accelerating. Rapid prototyping is very hard to do in Kenya, because you don’t have all the tools you would have elsewhere and you can’t overnight components that you might need, if you bought the wrong ones — which we did. But when we realized this was at a very serious point, we hired two people, one with expertise in actual product prototyping in manufacturing, and a firmware guy who’s really deep into the IO side of firmware design, which is difficult stuff.

Everybody says you can’t do hardware in Africa, and we’re like, well, let’s try before we just say you can’t. And what we’ve found is that they’re wrong. You can do it, it’s just harder.

Will the BRCK come with a network connection?

It’s made just like your normal everyday router. So you can plug an ethernet cord into it and just use it that way, or of course use it over a wifi network. We want it to come with a SIM card in it. We’re still trying to figure out who will be our global partner on that – we’re talking to various providers right now. Either way, you can just pop any SIM card into it for 3G connectivity. It’s unlocked, so you don’t have to worry about that. That automatically creates a wifi hotspot that you can move anywhere. And if you have more than 20 people, you can put more BRCKs around, and they automatically mesh, so it makes it easy to expand.

What about battery time?

Our minimum requirement is that, if the power goes out, you’ll still have a full eight-hour work day’s worth of connectivity. We’re trying to make sure that it can take almost any type of input as well. You can plug an extra battery pack, for example. It has this micro USB slot, but underneath it is also has a GPIO port, which allows you to plug in any type of sensor.

The BRCK can take anything from four to 15 volts, so you could plug in any solar kit. You can plug it into your car charger. If you want something seriously off-grid for a long time, then grab a car battery and that will last you, with full-time usage, probably 10 to 20 days. It doesn’t have a huge drawing power, but it does decrease depending on the amount of people on the device.

It has 16GB of on board storage as well, so you can make a DropBox sync right there if you want, or you can make the whole device into a BPN, that kind of thing.

I can imagine this will be a godsend for rural communities, boat communities, photojournalists, and other off-grid folks.

Yes, I think there will be many people we didn’t expect who will need what the BRCK will provide. In fact, what I want to know from the TED community is: What other circles of people or communities be interested in the BRCK and should know about the Kickstarter campaign? Are there other niche communities — or even big communities — that this would make sense for? I think we’re closing in on $90,000 of the $125,000 we need. We need at least that amount to get to our minimum production run to get our economies of scale on certain components.

How does the BRCK fit in with your vision at Ushahidi?

At Ushahidi, we believe that older technology is not fully utilized. Where in the West people move to a new technology really quickly, in Africa we don’t. So there’s a reason why USSD and SMS are still really big things on mobile phones here. It’s why we think Ushahidi worked — this idea that you don’t have to throw away the old right away, you can actually use it for other things. And sometimes the problem sets that you’re solving for aren’t going to come from places that look like Cambridge or Camden; they’re going to look more like Nairobi or New Delhi. And these neighborhoods and communities are sometimes using technology that isn’t made for them. They’re trying to shoehorn in a newer technology.

Part of our job at Ushahidi is taking a look at those things and questioning the very nature of where they are and why they stand there. And then if possible — if it has something to do with increasing information flow from ordinary people, we’ll look at it. That’s why the BRCK is something that Ushahidi is interested in doing as well.