By Lovish Gidwani:
On March 29th this year, incessant rains returned to the Kashmir Valley. As water levels in Jhelum quickly rose above danger marks, the worst seemed inevitable. Still shaken by the horrors of flash floods and landslides from last September, local Kashmiris braced themselves for the now-so-familiar scenes of death and devastation. Well aware of the limitations of traditional communication infrastructure in the region, residents quickly mobilized online and started using major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread flood information pertaining to various areas in the valley. It was then, when a set of users started encouraging people to download FireChat – a messaging app that doesn’t require the internet or telecom networks.
— Jaamil (@ja_amilf) March 29, 2015
As the cellular networks became strained and unreliable, FireChat swiftly came in to become a lifeline and provide a platform for users to share real time information about rains all over the valley. What strikes out is the ability of this mesh-networking medium with which it systematically enhanced the on-ground coordination. Community users also reached out to other information suppliers, for example the local media, to gather and relay information. Additionally, local media platforms like The Kashmir Dispatch also played their part in spreading word about the app during peak hours of the crisis. Gradually in a span of two days, more and more people joined in and the network grew stronger which enabled volunteers to expedite the disaster relief process.
FireChat, or mesh networking in general, is trying to address a rather complex yet critical need for reliable and efficient communication in crisis management during disasters. Recent tragic events in Kashmir, Assam and Uttrakhand clearly demonstrate inadequacy and limitations of the current first-responders communication technology which relies heavily on the existent cellular telephony infrastructure. The existing infrastructure is either damaged or overloaded in the aftermath of such events, exposing a clear void in the relief efforts. That’s where peer to peer networking can play a potent role and channelize communication in disaster zones.
The government on its part needs to start engaging with platforms like FireChat and use them adequately for reliable flow of information, especially in times of crises. Active participation of public bodies is critical for attaining a complete solution to the problem. On the other hand, mesh networks and other alternative forms of communication systems have to address some core issues like security and reliability. Accurate and verified flow of information still continues to be a primary concern while switching over to these mediums.
As the range of FireChat is limited to 200 feet, Open Garden – the organization behind the app, has an interesting answer to the scalability part of the problem. It is currently working on a new hardware prototype called the GreenStone. Designed to work as an extension to the app, this device contains an accelerometer, light sensors, Bluetooth LTE, lithium based battery and a memory, and serves two primary purposes. First, it increases the range of peer to peer networks. Second, it can pick and store up to one thousand messages in its memory, from a FireChat installed phone. When someone else with FireChat walks by in the vicinity of the device, they can then receive those messages. This essentially allows GreenStone to deliver messages in places where phones cannot go. Marina Azcarate, from Open Garden, calls this as a “pragmatic and a cost efficient way to eliminate dependencies on tower infrastructure as opposed to the balloons and drones that Google and Facebook want to send in the air”.
The solutions that Open Garden is providing at least try to address the problem that nobody has a clear remedy for. It has started a dialogue around the same. We need to pick up on the narrative and start building on the base that FireChat has provided us, and be part of the conversation that has a lot riding on it.
Visit this link to download the FireChat app – http://firech.at/