Anyone who has worked in the field -- or anyplace far from the world’s most wired urban areas -- knows how hard it can be to get connected and stay online. And yet the equipment used to connect in Kenya, or India, or the rest of the developing world is the same as that used in New York and London, even though the conditions are completely different.
At Ushahidi, we face this problem all the time. We realized that what we really needed was a smart, rugged device that could connect to the internet any way it could, hop from one network to another, create a hotspot for multiple devices, while plugged in or running on battery power.
The idea behind BRCK is that all kinds of jobs require steady connectivity, even when infrastructure is spotty due to wireless connections that come and go, intermittent power, or devices that can’t share connections. Seeing this, we set out to redesign connectivity for the world we live in - Africa. As we laid out what such a device would look like -- physically robust, able to connect to multiple networks, a hub for all local devices, enough backup power to survive a blackout -- we realized that the way the entire world is connecting to the web is changing. We no longer only get online via desktops in our office, we have multiple devices, and we are all constantly on the move. So we designed the BRCK for the changing way we connect to the web around the world, from cafe-hoppers in San Francisco to struggling coders in Nairobi .
The BRCK is like a backup generator for the internet.
It works when the electricity goes out and it works when the internet goes down.
- Portable and easy to set up,
- It supports up to 20 devices,
- WiFi powerful enough to cover multiple rooms,
- 8 Hour battery backup,
- 16 GB harddrive,
- 8 GPIO pins to connect sensors,
- Software infused allows for apps, remote management, and data collection,
- Documented API.
Our motto has always been “if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.”
Our aim is to move the BRCK from its current prototype phase into a field-ready product. We need your help to achieve this goal of taking the prototype to production.
Who are we?
Ushahidi, is a non-profit technology company that builds open source software, tools that democratize information for ordinary people. The word “Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili, and came out of the crowdsourced mapping platform we built during the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008. Founders David Kobia, Juliana Rotich, and Erik Hersman have focused on building tools that improve the way information flows in the world, and the BRCK is a natural extension of this.
As a company of engineers working in places with poor infrastructure, we simply cannot get connected as reliably as our peers in the developed world. Since our software came out of a crisis situation, the tools we build are aimed at helping people communicate in the toughest of situations, and helping collect information in the most difficult places. Our software has been used for blizzards in Washington DC, hurricanes in the US, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and election monitoring around the world. BRCK is our answer to a fundamental problem that arises during these situations and during the daily life of much of the world: the need for reliable connections in unpredictable environments.
Innovation comes from the edges, from solving real problems with constrained resources. Change happens at the frontier.
The Technology Behind The BRCK
We hosted the first of our public Google Hangouts with The BRCK team to answer questions about the BRCK. You can watch the video here.
The BRCK works much the way your cell phone does, by intelligently and seamlessly switching between Ethernet, Wifi, and 3G or 4G mobile phone networks. By plugging in a SIM card or connecting to a wired or wireless ethernet connection the BRCK will automatically get online. Power is also redundant; if your AC power fails, BRCK falls back on its 8-hour battery without needing to be told.
The BRCK is a software infused device, operating seamlessly with the BRCK Cloud, our website that you can access from anywhere to check how network connections and electricity are performing on your device. You can also manage alerts and applications remotely from your phone or computer, as well as gather data reported from attached sensors or computers.
There's a darn smart backend to the BRCK as well, a cloud-based system that syncs your BRCK with current data from cellular providers in your country. This backend provides a dashboard of metrics to monitor your connectivity and devices over time, and a way to install new services like VPN, Dropbox or any other app that you might create.
Our goal of $125K is enough for us to get manufacturing started on the basic BRCK, but there are some other cool things we would like to do. The more we raise, the more fun stuff we'll be able to offer!
- We will release the BRCK in three different lid colors, red, blue, yellow. Purchasers of all BRCKs will be able to choose their color! ($250,000)
- Earlier release of scripting "SDK" documentation. An SDK is the documentation and example code for interfacing with the BRCK from your own software applications. ($300,000)
- GPIO Port Breakout/Dev Board for all BRCKs. GPIO break out lets you easily connect external hardware projects to the BRCK. ($400,000)
- Pre-installed cloud-service apps such as VPN and Dropbox on all $300+ reward packages ($500,000)
- All BRCKS get a smart AC power supply, ($600,000)
- Raspberry Pi integration model option for all $300+ reward packages. We will build out a version of the BRCK that fits the Pi, with a style and design that brings the two together. When connected to the BRCK with 16Gb of storage space, this gives you a highly portable mini-server that’s always connected. ($750,000)
How do I set it up?
Out of the box, the only thing that needs to be done with the BRCK hardware itself is to secure an internet connection. Once connected, the BRCK is registered and secured ensuring that only you and any other users you authorize have access to its information and capabilities.
After registering, you can configure your BRCK to serve a variety of critical functions.
How does the BRCK Cloud Work?
We wanted BRCK to be more than a hardware hack, we wanted it to be a useful device with ever-evolving functionality. To make that happen, BRCK’s software has a documented API so anyone can develop apps for it. It can also hold 16 GB of memory and you can sync your data directly to your Dropbox, other connected devices, or other applications.
How does the BRCK work anywhere?
If a BRCK can survive in the Kenyan bush it can certainly survive in the urban jungle of New York or the colorful chaos of New Delhi. As part of the BRCK Cloud we have incorporated a global database of cellular data providers that is automatically synced to the BRCK. This ensures that maintaining connectivity anywhere in the world is accomplished with nothing more than a change of SIM card. Further, with the power of a cloud-based hardware platform, a BRCK device that is deployed in rural Indonesia can be fully managed from an office in Paris - or vice versa.
Configuration Capabilities of the BRCK Cloud
- WiFi connectivity including bridged, access point, and router capabilities
- Ethernet monitoring of both connectivity and bandwidth
- Failover paths for data connectivity (e.g. Ethernet->3G->Ethernet, WiFi->3G->Ethernet)
- Access control security
- Network routing configuration
- Port forwarding and NAT
- DHCP settings
- Bandwidth throttling and load balancing
- Notification settings
- Mobile topup
- Serial outputs
- GPIO state
How is the BRCK a data collection tool?
The flexibility of the BRCK isn't limited to just network connectivity and software. We developed the BRCK to also provide hardware expansion capabilities that allow it to be used to connect with field hardware from sensors to robots. Through different data port connections the BRCK can be used to monitor security sensors or communicate with other electronic devices - including other BRCKs. Securely managed entirely from the BRCK Cloud, the expansion ports can be programmed to periodically relay values from analog sensors or to provide an immediate notification when a monitored switch is activated. With the ability to manage an unlimited number of BRCK devices from the same Cloud interface, the BRCK can serve to enable enterprises both big and small with remote connectivity and field data collection from a single, unified portal.
We’ve pinned out 8 GPIO pins from the processor to an easily accessible breakout along with 5 volts out and Serial pins, so you can program your BRCK to act as a bridge between your web-based project and an external hardware project. In short, you can add sensors to your BRCK and send live data up to a server. Or you could connect a BRCK to a RasberryPi to make a portable mini-server. The BRCK can keep a sensor operating and plugged into the internet.
We wanted to share with you all a visual demonstration of how we envision the BRCK as an onramp for the Internet of Things. It’s like a bridge between the cloud and the internet of things, which are other sensor and devices what you can plug into it, kind of like Lego bricks.
There is huge potential for this, and we’ve been brainstorming use cases. Here are some of our favorites:
- Remote Camera - we can add a standard USB webcam and then relay either stills or video to the Cloud. Wildlife monitoring. Facility monitoring. Children monitoring.
- Water Quality Monitoring - we can add a water quality sensor that monitors borehole water in villages and tracks the data in the Cloud. We can then use this as a correlation factor with crowd sourced health information.
- Security System - we can integrate the BRCK to one of the standard security modules (e.g. Inovonics) that supports door switches, window switches, motion detectors, and then send alerts to the Cloud.
- Weather Station - we can integrate the BRCK to a standard weather station and then relay the full compliment of meteorological data to the Cloud.
Monitoring that can be performed from the BRCK Cloud
- Mobile balance and usage
- Battery status and usage
- Broadband uptime statistics
- Power uptime statistics
- Connected users
- BRCK heartbeat
- Analog inputs
- GPIO status
- Serial inputs
What makes the BRCK so much better?
In these vast expanses of the real world we demand a ruggedness, reliability, and usefulness from our equipment - because our lives and livelihoods depend on it. When we buy new equipment we value simplicity of usage and resourceful flexibility over slick packaging and gimmicky features. It is why we will chose an old Land Rover over a new Lexus. Practical beats pretty everyday when you live beyond the edge of the concrete jungle.
We build software tools ools like the Ushahidi platform itself, Crowdmap, SwiftRiver and SMSsync. So we're excited to bring you the newest version of Crowdmap (public beta available on May 6th), and offer the premium service "Crowdmap Plus" for our supporters.
One of the rewards you'll get as part of the BRCK is premium level access to our newly rebuilt Crowdmap platform, called Crowdmap Plus.
Crowdmap is the easiest way to map anything.
- Publish text, photos and multimedia to any map, from any web-browsing device
- Create immersive maps. Quickly pin new or existing posts, then dive into your interactive, full-screen map.
- Follow maps you like. Keep up with the latest posts from maps and people you’re interested in.
- Search the crowd. Find real-time information from anywhere in the world, about any topic.
Juliana Rotich - Executive Director
Juliana Rotich is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Ushahidi, Inc, a non-profit tech company, born in Africa, which specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, interactive mapping and data curation. Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. Through Crowdmap.com, Swiftapp.com and accompanying mobile applications, Ushahidi is expanding its global footprint and making crowdsourcing tools available and useful, and catalyzing entrepreneurial initiatives like iHub in Kenya.
Juliana has worked in the telecommunications and data warehousing industry for over ten years. She has a Computer Science degree from the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She is a Technologist, MIT Fellow, TED Senior Fellow and currently serves as Vice Chair of World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Data Driven Development.
Jon Shuler - R&D Manager
Jonathan is self described polymath with a background in multimedia journalist and a penchant for taking things apart to make new things. Like all hardware hackers, Jonathan’s experience has come out of necessity and frustrations. His improvised creations have ranged from a remote trigger systems to sync sound and multiple cameras for multi-cam interviews, to hot-wiring a hard drive to a car battery in order to file a story from the DRC .
Jonathan has been collaborating with Ushahidi since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, creating videos which highlighted the impact of Ushahidi Platform has on real people’s lives. As R&D Manager for Ushahidi, Jonathan leads a team of engineers and designers developing hardware that we hope will change the way we experience internet connectivity.
Erik Hersman - Director of Ops and Strategy
Erik Hersman is an international technology influencer with a keen eye on the impact of web and mobile technology innovation across Africa. Raised in Sudan and Kenya, Erik brings unique energy and insight to the world of technology and innovation – bridging the gap between Africa and the West. As part of the Ushahidi strategy he built the iHub (Nairobi's innovation hub) in 2010, a place that has grown to 10,000+ Kenyan developers, designers, and entrepreneurs with connections in the corporate, academic and investor sectors.
An avid blogger, Erik writes two different technology-related blogs - AfriGadget and WhiteAfrican. He is frequently a speaker at meetings and conferences dealing with technology in Africa, including; TED, PopTech, DEMO, Picnic, SXSW and re:publica (this week). He is a TED Senior Fellow, a PopTech Faculty Fellow, and is a founding organizer of Maker Faire Africa.
David Kobia - Director of Technology Development
David is a co-founder and technology lead at Ushahidi and brings more than 10 years of product development experience and a multidisciplinary background to his work, with a focus on social and emerging technologies. He works in a variety of roles, from designer and coder to strategist. After pursuing a BS in Computer Science at the University of Alabama, he has been a professional software developer and has worked with almost every web technology in use today. In 2010, he was a recipient of MIT Technology Review’s TR35 award (35 top innovators under 35) and the Humanitarian of the Year award.
Nathaniel Manning - Director of Business
Nathaniel’s work orbits around the theme of developing technology that makes the world a better place. As a former Presidential Innovation Fellow and the Chief Data Coordinator at USAID he was responsible for developing strategies for liberating data to fuel innovation for development. As an alumnus of Singularity University he co-founded 9th Sense Robotics, a telepresence robotics platform that allows for customization with sensors and software. He is a TEDed speaker and holds a BA and MA from Brown University.
He is currently attempting to build a 3D printer and scanner in his basement.
Reg Orton - Director of Hardware
Reg is product designer engineer, originally from Auckland, New Zealand, and currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Reg has worked his way across the globe over the last 10 years designing high tech solutions for a range of problems ranging from single photon counting microscopes to field ready emergency medicine tools. In particular Reg's background in life saving medical devices has given him a real appreciation of the importance of getting products right the first time around and the real negative impact that poorly engineered devices can have in peoples lives. Reg has extensive experience bringing highly technical products all the way from concept and design, through to full blown mass production.
Philip Walton - Director of Software
Raised in Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, Philip has a unique perspective on global culture and business that has allowed him to seamlessly engage with companies and governments in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Philip is a systems architect and technology innovator with a diverse portfolio of experience in designing and building both software and hardware systems for industries ranging from supply chain to biometrics. As a serial, international entrepreneur, he has worked on 6 different continents using his mix of business strategy skills combined with a deep technical knowledge to successfully bridge the gap between the needs of business stakeholders and the constraints of their technology resources. Currently involved in multiple entrepreneurial projects from his home base in Nairobi, Kenya, Philip’s long term focus is to assemble a diverse team of African technologists and business resources who can focus on building innovative systems and solutions that are uniquely suited to the broad needs of the African continent.
A special thanks to Brian Muita who was instrumental in the firmware development in the early days, helping with the proof of concept prototypes so that we knew it could happen.
Huge thanks to Taylor Martyn and David Sekiguchi for volunteering their time to take the awesome pictures and video in Nairobi, in exchange for BRCK t-shirts and a bottle of double-oaked Woodford Reserve. :)
One of our favorite bands "Just A Band" has allowed us to use their music for the video. They're an amazing blend of World, Electronica and Hiphop a style as energetic and diverse as the city they are from; Nairobi. They will also be playing at TED Global in Edinburgh this June.
The Full Ushahidi Team (who have been a huge support along this hardware journey)
You’ve got questions, we want to answer them
Even after reading all this, you’ve likely got a question or two, please ask it. You can do so here on Kickstarter so that others can also benefit from your question and our response. However, if you’d like to email us privately, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll answer straight away. You can also ping us on Twitter at @BRCKnet.
Risks and challenges
Like any hardware project the challenges involve high upfront costs for manufacturing and prototyping. This is a challenge because there is upfront cash flow needed to build the product. Ushahidi has incubated this project by bootstrapping the development of a hardware prototype and writing the code over the past year. As an organization used to working with scarce resources, we know how to be scrappy to get something done.
We also face regulatory challenges in each country we operate. Ushahidi staff are spread around the world, and our community spans the globe. Our software has been used in over 158 countries, in 30 different languages. We have tackled country-level regulatory complications before, and have the brainpower of thousands of volunteers to address issues as they arise.
We have built a team focused specifically on this product. This team brings together experienced entrepreneurs, coders, and engineers who have taken a product from prototype to manufacturing scale.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)