Homemade Wi-Fi routers are giving refugee camps a lifeline.
Refugees can often find themselves disconnected from the online world, so a group of activists are hacking together Wi-Fi in camps across Europe and Africa.
In 2015, a 15-year-old Eritrean boy made his way to the UK clinging to the bottom of a Eurostar train. He was taken in by a family near Tunbridge Wells, and when his foster siblings, Nils and Jaz O’Hara, heard the story of his terrifying journey, they wanted to do something to help other refugees. The seed for Jāṅgala was planted
The pair visited the Calais Jungle, the French camp notorious for its squalid conditions, and Jaz posted a call for donations to help the people living there on Facebook. It went viral and, £250,000 and eight storage units full of supplies later, she and Nils, now 28 and 26, left their jobs to set up charitable organisation The Worldwide Tribe.
The O’Haras soon realised that internet access was a key concern for people living and working in refugee camps. Many refugees had smartphones, but poor signal and expensive data packages meant that few of them were able to use them to let their family members know they were safe. “Connectivity is very important in camps,” Nils says.
They teamed up with Samson Rinaldi, a fabricator, and Richard Thanki, a PhD student, to start Jāṅgala, which makes portable Wi-Fi systems. The group operates out of a busy warehouse-unit-cum-indoor-climbing-centre in Walthamstow, east London.
Jāṅgala built its first Wi-Fi connection in the Calais Jungle in December 2015. Starting with a 4G connection that later rolled into Wi-Fi, it could support 500 connections simultaneously and up to 5,000 in total a week. Early systems were held together with gaffer tape and flowerpot lids, meaning that parts broke off easily in the rough and ready camp environments, so Jāṅgala started packaging the systems in 3D-printed boxes instead. “In Calais, when we had more traditional networks, people were charging their phones on them and bits would go missing and batteries would go walkabout,” Nils says. “That’s why we decided to make our systems more mobile and in a box.”
Jāṅgala is now on its third generation of the kit, with two versions of the box available depending on the amount of data required. Its Small Box (the size of a child’s lunchbox) is for smaller teams working in the field, while its Big Box (the size of a briefcase) can provide Wi-Fi for between 50 and 1,000 people. “The first thing people do when they get online is make voice calls to their families to tell them they’re safe, so when it’s going well you’re the most popular person in the camp,” Samson says. “But when the Wi-Fi stops working, you become very unpopular very quickly.”
The Jāṅgala team prides itself on stretching limited resources. Ad blocking makes data stretch twice as far, and YouTube video is capped at 240 pixels. “You shape the traffic to each user to make the most of the data you’ve got,” Thanki explains. “It is possible to provide a service to hundreds of people on a narrow capability if you manage it properly.” No sites are blocked as standard, but the software can be tailored if necessary. In a camp for vulnerable people in Greece, for example, organisers asked for adult content to be made off-limits.
Jāṅgala aims to have 100 new boxes up and running in camps in France, Greece, Bosnia and Kenya over the next 12 months. The team is also testing a Wet Box system, designed to connect emergency teams on the water without the crackle and hiss of marine VHF radio. “We want very high-definition communication so lots of people can converse at once, which you can’t do on normal radio systems,” Nils says. “We’re designing it so people who are on small dinghies or big NGO vessels can hear what’s going on on the other boats in any situation.” The Wet Box package includes body cams for lifeboat workers, so medical professionals on the main boat can offer assistance remotely.
As for Nils and Jaz’s Eritrean foster brother, he’s settled into life in the home counties. “He rides around on a little moped and has a proper Kent accent now,” Jaz says. From one connection, came thousands more.
The above article by Helen Nianias wired.co.uk in Oct, 2018.