The BRCK: Kenyan-Developed Solution to Boost Internet Access 

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

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SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Using the Internet in Africa has its challenges, as anyone who has worked there knows. Issues can include weak Wi-Fi signals, slow Internet service providers, electricity outages and power surges that can damage or destroy sensitive electronic devices.

Power surges (http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/everyday-tech/surge-protector3.htm) can occur for a variety of reasons but are usually a sudden surge in the current flowing to the wall outlet from the power mains. They are common in developing countries, and can be tragic for electronic devices.
Most electronic devices are designed for use in developed countries where people can take the power supply, and ubiquitous Internet access, for granted. This affects the way devices are made. Designers will assume many things are available to users and build the electronic devices accordingly. But for users in Africa and across the global South, what seems easy in the developed world is fraught with frustration and wasted time.

This is a big obstacle to economic development and places people in Africa at a disadvantage in the modern world of fast communications.

One initiative is out to transform this experience for the better with a made-in-Africa solution that is being modified based on real-world experience and user feedback.

The BRCK (brck.com) bills itself as “your backup generator for the Internet” and is intended to address the problems of finding a reliable Internet connection, staying online in a power blackout and saving devices from destruction when there is a power surge.

Anyone who has tried to use a laptop computer to upload some photographs in Africa will know the frustration felt when the Wi-Fi signal drops away. The BRCK hunts around for the strongest signal and grabs it so the user can carry on working.

Built to be robust and take knocks and bruises, it is a sleek, black plastic brick-shaped device with the letters BRCK elegantly embossed on the side.
The BRCK can function as a hub for up to 20 devices, with a built-in Wi-Fi signal able to cover multiple rooms (so a team can work off a single Internet connection), a battery that can last eight hours, a 16-gigabyte on board memory hard drive, and software to allow for remote management  by apps on other devices such as smartphones. While it is not able to speed up an already poor connection or increase low bandwidth, it can “scavenge” around to find the strongest signal and hop to it right away. It can work with Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and 3G and 4G networks.

If a blackout occurs, it quickly switches to the onboard battery without forcing a re-boot of the computer.

It has been developed in Nairobi, Kenya and the first plastic prototype of the BRCK device was milled at the Fab Lab Nairobi (http://fablab.uonbi.or.ke/) using a 3D fabricator machine.

The BRCK’s makers describe it as a tool “trying to create ubiquitous Internet” and an “enabler of the Internet of things.” The BRCK is designed around the changing way people work and access the Internet, frequently moving from place to place. People now don’t just rely on one device but have many – a mobile phone or smartphone, a laptop, a tablet, an iPod or other device.

A Kickstarter fundraising campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1776324009/brck-your-backup-generator-for-the-internet) gives more details on the origins of the project and offers many ways to support the different stages of development, right up to mass manufacturing of the BRCK.

One application of the BRCK is for research. It could be deployed to gather data at a field site, then connect via the Cloud (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing) to pass data back to a lab at a university in another country for analysis.

The BRCK is being built by Ushahidi (ushahidi.com), a non-profit technology company that makes open source software and made its name with the crowdsourced mapping platform it built during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. The Ushahidi platform has been deployed around the world since in many crisis situations.

Founded by David Kobia, Juliana Rotich and Erik Hersman, the Ushahidi team is focused on “building tools that improve the way information flows in the world.” It is about making tools to help people communicate in the most difficult places.

BRCK comes with a visually appealing website that makes excellent use of the BRCK’s ebony good looks.

The website boasts: “If it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere”.

The ongoing development of the BRCK can be followed on the website’s blog: http://www.brck.com/2014/01/they-case-for-engineering-brck-in-africa-part-1/.

“The idea is to build a company around the product rather than just do a one-off product – and to gradually improve the product through new versions,” said BRCKs chief technology officer Reg Orton.

“Our engineers are based in Kenya now – we are not based in China, we are not based in the (Silicon) Valley. What that means for us we are able to go out there and (be) able to see the problems directly.”

The BRCK can be ordered online and will be available for sale soon, according to the website.

Resources

1) Momax iPower Milk External Battery:  Inspired from daily life, the creative iPower Milk looks like a cute and fresh milk carton. It fulfills your daily energy need just as pure milk. iPower Milk comes in a variety of cheerful candy colors, so choose one which suits your taste. The tiny and delicate iPower Milk has 1.5A USB output, which is compatible with most digital devices, including tablets. Website: http://shop.brando.com/Momax-iPower-Milk-External-Battery-2600mAh_p09700c1595d003.html

2) Southern Innovator Issue 1: Mobile Phones and Information Technology: Pioneering and innovative ways to deploy mobile phones and information technology to tackle poverty. Website: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Magazine-Issue-1 and here: http://tinyurl.com/q6bfnpz
3) iHub Nairobi: Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community is an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs (venture capitalists) and part incubator. Website: ihub.co.ke

4) Fab Lab Nairobi: Fablab (fabrication laboratory or “fabulous laboratory”) is a workshop with an array of computer controlled tools with the aim to make “almost anything”. Fab labs provide widespread access to modern means for invention. They began as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). CBA assembled millions of dollars in machines for research in digital fabrication, ultimately aiming at developing programmable molecular assemblers that will be able to make almost anything. Fab labs fall between these extremes, comprising roughly fifty thousand dollars in equipment and materials that can be used today to do what will be possible with tomorrow’s personal fabricators. Website: http://fablab.uonbi.or.ke/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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