Friends at the UNCIEF NYHQ, who have been developing also the MobilED audio wiki, just announced a prototype of solar powered communication hub than can be used to provide communications, education, connectivity and emergency support in places lacking electricity, Internet, telephone, radio and other connections. I think this is a great idea.
The communication hub is a suite case size luggage one can take to areas of emergency to set-up a temporary school and communication center. The suite case contains (James Bond-like) equipment for emergency and educational communications.
In a way, the solar powered communication hub is also an extension of UNICEF’s great “school in a box” initiative. School in a box is a kit of school supplies and materials such as exercise books, pencils, eraser and scissors for a teacher and up to 80 students (taught in double shift classes of 40). Each year UNICEF sends millions of these kits for teachers and children affected by emergencies whether natural disasters or man made. The school in a box is UNICEF’s standard response in emergencies.
The communication hub runs for 38 hours solar power array.
The core of the unit is a PC hardware running Linux with various network connections. With access to satellite (e.g. Worldspace) and mobile networks one can pull content, such as educational materials and news.
The kit comes with a projector and speakers for watching and listening educational content, and a webcam and microphone, for instance, to register children in disaster situations, and to communicate the situation in the site for the rest of the world.
With Linux-based radio-station software one can create radio programs and transmit them for the people with the FM transmitter (5 km), also coming with the kit.
The unit comes with “ultimate network connectivity” (something I have asked from the school laptop providers), including 50km WiFi range, GSM, GPRS and thuraya network connections. Different units can also share data (with the WiFi) and they can be used for making telephone calls between the kits.
In addition to these features I would definitely include to the kit a simple printer. The printer could be used to print school work sheets and reading materials and with it UNICEF could provide people with a piece of paper (ID) showing that they have been registered by UNICEF. In a case of emergency a simple piece of paper may save your life.
The design of the kit will be released under creative commons and the software used is open source.
How the distribution and use of the units will then take place?
In a case of emergency UNICEF is locating field workers in the actual place, to help children affected by the disaster. The idea is that they will travel to the place with the kit and will help the local people to set-up the school. The digital communication hubs will then be part of the emergency infrastructure, build to relief the people effected. This way it can be compared to attempts to provide clean water, food and shelter.
I believe that this kind of communication hub may have a huge impact to the situation of the people living in the middle of emergencies. For children and young people the best possible relief is to get back to the world of learning as soon as possible. It will also be a relief for the parents. I hope the digital school in a box and the communication hub can do exactly this.