Getting wifi networks up after disaster strikes
They also have started to work on an app that could be used to make access much easier to ad-hoc communications networks set up during disasters.
One problem, says Bopp, is that if the network is kept highly secure, with individual devices requiring validation, often the people who most need fast access, can’t get on it. On the other hand, if the network is left open, someone not involved with the relief effort might come online and scupper relief communications by sending or receiving bandwidth hogging photos or video.
To reach these goals, they set up a subsidiary to Haiti Connect called Disaster Tech Lab, not sure if this longer term project would come together at all. But within months, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, Disaster Tech Lab has become the main organisation.
“I didn’t think, if it would happen, that it would happen this quickly. This was really due to first, the amount of interest we got from other organisations to set this up, and second, when we got a call about Sandy.” The call came from a disaster relief organisation called Humanity Road, which Haiti Connect had worked with extensively.
“They said, ‘We have no telecoms out here, could you come build some networks?’ They called us on Sunday, and we had guys on the ground in New York on Tuesday.” They went to work building wifi networks which could use satellite connectivity, initially in three fire stations. Working with FEMA and the fire department, “we were quite flooded with demands”.
The group did extensive work in the Rockaway area of Queens, building out a network covering the whole area, on request from FEMA and the National Guard. Bopp says it was hard work, requiring lots of site surveys to find suitable locations and with constantly shifting demands from relief organisations.
Part of the problem, Bopp says, was that telecommunications companies were unwilling to share information on what parts of the network were down, an issue he resolved by walking the full length of the area with his mobile and laptop, checking to see where telecommunications and wifi networks came up or dropped out.
Another difficulty was that the telecommunications companies would send in emergency, portable wifi stations, but because the effort was uncoordinated, so many went in that the signals were interfering with each other, knocking out communications.
Disaster Tech Lab is still in New York, helping to maintain communications networks.
Then came the invitation in mid January, to join the FEMA Innovation Team, and come out to the White House for a meeting on February 6th.
“It’s a FEMA roundtable, for policy discussions. They invited a handful of people from private organisations – they liked the proposals I was putting in,” Bopp says.
The advantage of having FEMA support is “it puts a whole lot more resources behind what we do. But we still get the majority of stuff from private donations, from companies like Aruba.”
With Disaster Tech Lab’s fast growth, Bopp is now focused fully on disaster relief. The next goal will be to expand donor support, to help get their app and relief pallets ready for the next disaster, which will require basics such as insurance, transport costs and resources for volunteers.
“I’ve switched from doing it part-time to full-time,” he says – still amazed at how a one-off effort turned into a full-time, internationally recognised calling.