"I'm five years too early with everything. I don't know if that's a bug, or a feature, but it is what it is," says Aaron Huslage with a laugh. He's explaining to me how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he came up with the idea for tethr, a shoebox-sized set of hardware designed to help anyone get internet and phone connections from any spot on the planet.
At the time of the disaster, Huslage helped a group of volunteers build a working wireless network from Gulfport, Mississippi, to the Louisiana border. Using donated equipment, expertise and time, the group managed to create a network that provided free internet and phone service to between 70,000 and 80,000 people for half a year following the hurricane. Huslage did most of his work on the project remotely as he was living at the other end of the country in Portland, Oregon at the time. "I was mostly just wrangling things," he says. "Making sure people were going where they were supposed to go and that things were delivered to the right place at the right time." But he did eventually go down to the Gulf Coast for a week to work the project.
"The whole thing was crazy," he remembers. "We were building infrastructure, and I remember thinking, 'This is really, really hard stuff.'" Networks could include servers, multiples routers and various layers of software to configure. He started considering ways he might be able to miniaturize the hardware needed to make such connectivity possible. But the hardware, he discovered, really didn't exist, or at least not in forms small enough to work together efficiently, and affordably, in one small package."So, I shelved the idea," he tells me.
From 2005 to 2010, Huslage spent a lot of volunteer time working with, and helping develop, some of the incredibly powerful software that is now available to people working in crisis and post-crisis situations. For example, there's Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced reporting platform which has provided real-time data on everything from elections in Nigeria to "Snowmageddon" in New York City. Then there is Open Street Map, an open-source mapping project which provided some of the first truly accurate maps of Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
It was in the aftermath of that quake, when Huslage was doing some volunteer work helping to build wireless mesh networks with a group called Inveneo, that he was once again struck by how far the hardware lagged behind the software when it came to assisting in post-crisis situations."It's great to have great software," Huslage says. "Ushahidi and Open Street Map, all that stuff can change the world," he tells me. "But it is all useless if the hardware can't get the users connected." Aid groups need to share information quickly in a crisis to ensure aid and assistance is distributed as effectively as possible. But too many times, he says, he saw humanitarian groups take nothing but a PC and a satellite modem into a crisis area, only to be hampered by poor connections and a lack of knowledge about how the technology works. "Aid workers and first responders, they're being asked to do IT," he says. "But they don't want to have to worry about that stuff."
‘Geeks and rebels’
There are organisations dedicated to helping out in these situations, such as Telecoms sans Frontieres, but limited resources means they cannot go to every crisis and help out every aid group that has communication problems. So, Huslage started looking around, pricing different pieces of gear, and found that hardware had shrunk, both in size and price, and the tools he needed were available off the shelf.