In the software space we've been able to think up, prototype, build and take to market ideas much faster than anywhere else. As the consumerization of hardware picks up steam, we'll see the same thing happen with devices. There's a very cool company that's been started by Aaron Huslage, an acquaintance of mine, who I know through his heavy involvement as a volunteer developer and deployer on Ushahidi. He's been involved is a few customizations of the platform, and dealt with some of the issues surrounding communications in difficult situations. It's from this background that his new project, tethr, comes from. You can read more about it on their Knight News Challenge entry.

What is Tethr?

tethr builds products and services that connect people to the world, enabling the collection and distribution of critical data. The tethr Platform supports the open integration of crisis response applications. Ultimately, tethr establishes a robust communications ecosystem, deployable instantaneously, anywhere on Earth.
The device is a lightweight, portable prototype that runs off of DC power, provides local Wi-Fi, uses a 3G network for Internet access, and integrates with satellite or any other ethernet-based connection. They have integrated the open source GSM base station OpenBTS allowing us to send text messages directly into platforms like Ushahidi, and it even has a local installation of OpenStreetMap on it.

Funding tethr

Software products are easier to get going, there are lower barriers to entry and people can see and play with them quite quickly. Funding of hardware projects like tethr is a little more challenging. The good news is you can prototype cheaper and faster than ever, even with more complicated projects like this one. However, it's still difficult. You can show someone a prototype, but it's not until you get to the finished product and see it running that you really find out what it can do. They also cost more, as you need certain economies of scale on component parts before the price becomes attractive. tethr is a for-profit startup, looking to raise a $750k seed round. As a fan of hardware projects, and as someone who sees the need of this type of communication in post-disaster scenarios, I hope they're able to raise that and keep going. I don't doubt they'll find a ready market for the product.

Thinking Hardware

I've been a fan of hardware hacking for a while, since I was a kid really (more on this here, here and here). The disaster and crisis response space is ripe for upheaval in this as well. We've had some major changes, that many are still getting used to, just based on mobile phones and the internet - but that's only the beginning. We started to see what can happen when geeks and rebels get into hardware and communications in places like Libya and Brazil. This can only continue to accelerate.


Aaron received some BBC coverage: Communicating in a Crisis (BBC online (April 19, 2012)