BBC Future

World-Changing Ideas

Phone-powered mesh networks to connect in a crisis

When an emergency strikes, communications systems often go down at the time people need them the most. In the third of our World Changing Ideas, Jonathan Zittrain asks whether we can devise a way to make phones more useful in crisis situations.

As the Boston Marathon attack demonstrated, cellphone services go down city-wide in times of crisis. It becomes much more difficult to reach one another and ask “Are you OK?” If phone systems go down, people no longer have communication devices in their hands, they have a brick.

Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Internet Law at Harvard University, thinks that one solution would be to create a new type of “mesh network” – where phones find a way to connect to each other when regular connections go down. Apps could be built in these networks, which allow civilians with resources that connect with and help others.

After the Boston marathon attacks, people set up shared documents online, so that those who had housing could offer it to runners who were stranded in town. This type of service could become more routine, easier to do and vetted appropriately. There is a strong civic interest in times of crisis, and this willingness to help others is an untapped resource that really could be put to work through modern networking technologies.

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