How Wi-Fi is giving people in humanitarian aid situations a lifeline
We spoke to 2019 Tech4Good award winners Jangala about how their Big Box technology is bringing cheap, reliable connectivity for people in crisis and in remote situations around the world.
Being connected to the internet is no longer just a luxury. Communication is a basic need, and having access to the internet can be a lifeline for people in refugee situations.
An estimated 70.8 million people worldwide were displaced in 2018 due to war, violence, persecution or natural disasters. People in refugee situations are vulnerable and isolated from their families and communities while dealing with psychological trauma, often with long and stressful periods of waiting. The ability to contact family just to let them know they are safe, or to get online to process applications for asylum, organise travel or simply stay ahead of news at home, can make an enormous difference to people’s lives.
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This is why digital connectivity has become a core part of any humanitarian aid response. But these kinds of environments are often remote and can present a complex challenge in setting up reliable, cost-effective internet in parts of the world that are not connected. Existing approaches use a range of repurposed technologies that often require expert knowledge to set up and run.
Charitable organisation Jangala developed its Big Box as a cost-effective solution to this need – and they walked away with a winners’ trophy for their work at the 2019 Tech4Good awards.
Beyond the jungle
The Jangala team came about as a collaboration between siblings Nils and Jaz O’Hara, design expert Samson Rinaldi, and Rich Thanki, an economist working in Sub-Saharan Africa on Wi-Fi solutions.
As co-founder Nils O’Hara explains: “Myself and my sister quit our jobs to start a charity called the Worldwide Tribe. Our family were looking to foster a refugee and we wanted to learn a lot more about the people living in the Calais Jungle. While helping people out giving them food and clothes, we quickly found out there were other needs there weren’t being fulfilled, and connectivity and communiciation were a really big part of that.”
“We had no idea how to do that, but were put in touch with (Jangala co-founder) Richard Thanki. At the end of 2015 we had put a Wi-Fi solution in place. It was incredible – straight away we saw people using the system, calling their families for the first time, speaking to loved ones they hadn’t spoken to in years.”
The original solution was a homemade WiFi system running from a single 4G SIM card, that was connecting 5,000 people a week at the Calais refugee camp.
“When we first set up in the Calais jungle it was set up in quite a traditional way, and we spent a lot of time fixing problems,” says O’Hara. “We didn’t find it a very time efficient way of working or sophisticated. Then we lost a lot of equipment when the camp got bulldozed and trashed by police. Ultimately, the way to solve this problem was to build a solution into something more mobile, something we could just send out into anywhere in the world.”
A window to the world
Jangala’s final product, Big Box, is self-contained, maximising digital signals and increase realiability and the number of devices it can support. It has shrunk down to be almost the size of a laptop, able to fit into a backpack. Crucially it’s easy for anyone to deploy and maintain, without the need for specialist expertise on site.
The solution is now deployed to over 20 locations around the world, with many more planned. These include refugee camps in the Serbian border town of Šid, home to many refugees trying to make it to Croatia, and remote non-emergency environments such as a school in rural Kenya.
Those staying in refugee camps for long periods of time, affected by long-term conflicts, risk missing out on vital education while facing long periods of waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Jangala has partnered with Sky School to provide internet connectivity along with access to online courses can be studied online from anywhere in the world.
Big Box has also been deployed in the ECHO Refugee Library in Thessaloniki, which was operating from a van providing refugees with a peaceful space to learn, educational materials and books.
Co-founder Samson Rinaldi says: “Communication is really important for a variety of reasons – people need to reconnect with loved ones, family and friends, but also connectivity allows people access to educational materials they wouldn’t normally access. It gives people the same global opportunities that we all take for granted.”
Jangala’s efforts to date have connected over 25,000 people, with plans to deploy over 200 Big Box systems to grassroots aid groups over the next three years. Meanwhile they continue to develop the system to make it even easier and more flexible to use, so that eventually it can become a commercial product to help fuel the charity’s ability to deliver it to more sites throughout the world, including Sudan and Botswana.