BRCK Expedition 2014 -- Exploring Edtech on the WaterNovember 2 2014
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Over the past three months we have received a huge amount of interest from educators about the BRCK. This has been a real eye opener for us. Because of this we planned an expedition to visit Johnny Long, a long time member of the BRCK community, who runs Hackers For Charity in Jinja, Uganda. He supports local charities and schools with technical support, tools, and trainings. About a year ago he hacked together a bunch of connectivity equipment in a pelican case to get a few schools he works with online. After significant effort he came across BRCK and had a eureka moment. He reached out and has been a huge inspiration to us, and an incredibly helpful community member.
The real take away from our time with Johnny is that there is a massive need to get information, that educational content, into the hands of teachers and students at the edge of the network. Most of these places have a signal for an hour a day or so, at best. So the key is to deliver content locally offline, and then have it update and sync to the greater web during those moments of connectivity. The BRCK can improve that quality of connectivity and increase the amount of time they are online, but with content directly on the BRCK, it can even deliver offline educational content such as school books, Wikipedia, and Khan Academy videos even when there is no connection.
Johnny took us out to a school he works with on Lingira island, which is about 1.5 hour boat ride into Lake Victoria. Some of the teachers at the school had reception on their phones, but the school itself had no connectivity. We spent the day working on getting the school set up. We tested out antennae and different mobile carriers. The latest version of BRCK software worked like a champ.
The most important part was the time we spent with the teachers. This direct user research was invaluable. The teachers have to spend huge amounts of money on textbooks and transporting them to the school. They are out of date and when new ones come out, they can’t procure or afford them. They know how that an internet connection gives affordable access to the entirety of the modern world, a virtual Library of Alexandria.
Access to information is an equalizer. Access to information in its purist form is fuel for education. It shortens the gap between the haves and the have nots, and gives people real opportunity.
It’s that time of year in Kenya again – the “short rains” are coming, there’s a slight chill in the air, and every now and then, the sky opens up for a brief deluge of water. It’s hard to avoid getting wet during the rainy season here, something we’ve designed the BRCK to handle (in small doses, at least) and are eager to test.
It just so happens that one of our key partners, Hackers for Charity – who help schools and nonprofits solve technology related problems so they can get on with their jobs – has some interesting problems they are trying to solve in their work with schools around Jinja, Uganda, at the source of the White Nile and on the shores of the largest body of water in Africa, Lake Victoria. Time for an expedition, methinks.
Going into the wild to test our products in some of the most remote and challenging environments we can find is a core principle behind how we design in Africa, for Africa; to eat our own dog food, so to speak. Last year we took a trip to the barren shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya to live stream one of the best views in the world of a hybrid solar eclipse. Despite having that view blocked by a massive dust storm, the BRCK performed admirably, and we learned a lot about how to design for reliability in extreme weather. You can watch the video here:
This year, we’re taking a slightly different tack. When we started making the BRCK, we found some of the greatest need for affordable, reliable connectivity is in schools. We’ve been pushing hard for solutions in the edtech scene ever since, working with partners such as eLimu, Mozilla, and Sugata Mitra’s “School in the Cloud” TED prize wish to develop projects around innovative caching solutions to cut down the costs for data, a Raspberry Pi MRTR to turn your BRCK into a remote server, and testing connectivity solutions in schools from India to Ghana.
When Johnny Long, the founder of Hackers for Charity, first contacted BRCK back in June, he showed us his own attempts to build a rugged and reliable remote connectivity device.
It looked remarkably like some early BRCK prototypes. It was clear we were trying to solve the same problems, and that by working together we could make a dent in the challenges facing students in rural Uganda. We set Johnny up with a BRCK and gave him free reign to hack it however he needed to build the solutions that worked for the schools he and Hackers for Charity supports.
At last, we have the chance to work with him directly. On Sunday, six of us will load up the Land Rover and make the 12-hour journey from Nairobi to Jinja. Johnny has graciously offered to host us at the bed and breakfast he and his wife run while we set about training up the Hackers for Charity staff on the technical aspects of the BRCK, testing antennas and signal amplifiers, and ultimately working to get several local schools online.
One of these schools is on an island in Lake Victoria, an hour and a half journey from Jinja by boat. Seeing an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, we decided to bring an OpenROV with us. We’re hoping we can work out a way to control the ROV through the Ethernet port on a BRCK, meaning we could “wirelessly” pilot the ROV through the waters of Lake Victoria. Since Ushahidi, our parent company, partnered with OpenROV to create OpenExplorer.com you’ll be able to follow the progress of the entire expedition here and on the BRCK blog:
As if this wasn’t enough, Jinja also happens to be at the headwaters of the White Nile, with some of the best high-volume whitewater in the world. A BRCK expedition can’t be all bed and breakfasts, so we looked up Pete Meredith, one of the leading explorers of the Nile (he’s ran it from the furthest source in Rwanda all the way to the Mediterranean), and Nalubale Rafting to help us spend a couple days exploring the river.
In addition to the edtech sphere, some of the primary use cases that are emerging for BRCK’s technology are around conservation. We’ve been talking to people who are monitoring the effects of hippo feces and wildebeest carcasses on water quality in the Maasai Mara and streaming live data on animal sightings and pH levels (and much more) in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. You can read all about the Mara Project and Into the Okavango here and here:
Both of these projects have very kindly shared info about their open-source sensor package designs with us. We’ve put together our own package to test pH and water temperature, and will attempt to stream data from the river as we go. This will be a fantastic learning experience as we further develop IoT use cases for the BRCK, and we hope will prove a valuable source of insights for how we can better enable our conservation partners to inform the wider public about the amazing work they’re doing, and the importance of these fragile ecosystems.
So, with a very full docket, our soldering irons packed, and our heads and hearts full of excitement, the BRCK team is once again setting out into the wild blue yonder. Get ready to follow along – BRCK Expedition 2014 begins tomorrow!