For those of us living in first world cities, it’s hard to imagine how we would get on if we couldn’t communicate easily with our mobile phones. Yes, some of us might recall the days of pay phones and landlines, and just how irritating all of that was, but the concept of having no working telecommunications at all seems so unlikely that we forget to plan for it.
But that’s exactly what we should be doing – planning ahead for emergencies. Those people who have lived through floods, earthquakes, cyclones, fires, tsunamis and other major catastrophes will no doubt agree that having working phones after the disaster struck would have made an incredible difference.
Using mesh technology, the Serval Project has created a way for mobile phone users to stay connected to each other even when the infrastructure of the regular phone network is not working. This means users of the smartphone application will have the ability to communicate amongst themselves in the midst of a disaster when they need it most. At the moment the free mobile chat app is available for Android only, but will eventually be made available on other platforms.
About The Serval Project
The Serval Project is the brainchild of Paul Gardner-Stephen, who is determined to make the world a better place by ensuring people have the communication tools they need when they really need it most. Paul figured that it’s a shame mobile networks so often fail during disasters, and that the mobiles could easily be used to communicate directly to one another instead. Since almost everyone carries around a mobile phone today, this is an ideal set-up.
Hear more about Paul’s thoughts on the Serval Project in his TedxAdelaide speech.
Quick disclaimer from me: I know Paul and other members of the Serval Project team. However, this is an open-source humanitarian project with a huge scope to do some good in the world and I’m sure you can see why I’m keen to share it with you.
Here’s a brief talk about the Serval Project, why it’s been made and how it works:
There are two parts to the Serval Project (which can be combined):
- One which will create a disaster communications network between mobile phones, using small phone towers dropped in by air.
- Another which aims to provide permanent mobile communications in remote areas directly between Wi-Fi enabled phones.
Get The Serval Mesh Android Application
Here’s where you can get the Serval Mesh Android application for free [Android 2.2+]. The first thing you should acknowledge is that this application is still in development and has only just been released on the Google Play store. You are warned not to expect this application to replace your current phone service and that it may still be buggy. If you are interested in the technology and want to help improve the application, by all means download it and give it a go.
A little warning: If you grant Serval root access, Serval Mesh will take over your phone’s Wi-Fi, so you will need to log out of Serval in order to return to your normal Wi-Fi connections. Serval Mesh may also put your phone into Access Point mode (creating a personal hotspot), which would give nearby phones on Serval Mesh access to your phone’s data plan. Since this could cost you money, you should be aware of this before you use Serval Mesh.
Check out the current Serval Mesh app (Serval Mesh 0.90) in action.
Try Out Serval Mesh
Obviously, in order to actually use the Serval Mesh you’ll need at least one friend locally who also has the application. Convince someone to try it out with you – preferably someone you’d like to be in contact with if you ever need it for real.
To aid distribution in a crisis situation, it’s possible to share the Serval Mesh app to a nearby phone using bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
In order to quickly identify who you’re talking to using Serval Mesh, the creators have developed a Distributed Numbering Architecture (‘DNA’) which lets you be known by your regular phone number.
The Serval Mesh allows you to communicate by voice call, text message or file transfer, meaning you can also share photos or maps with other members on the mesh. When communicating by text, you can broadcasting to everyone in the network if you need to share something important. When placing a voice call, you can search for people in your Android contacts or simply view the list of people in the Serval Mesh network.
Currently in development is a Serval map service which can also let you pin your broadcasted updates to a map. This will be useful to note dangerous locations and problems with travel.
What Else Can I Use?
There is no other project quite like Serval Mesh. The most similar application I can find is the Open Garden, which tethers your mobile device and laptop using mesh technology. However, there are plenty of complementary smartphone applications you should check out: Ushahidi’s CrowdMap of disaster areas, 3 Android apps which will alert you of natural disasters and 8 Hurricane tracking websites. You may also want to add a few good survival blogs to your RSS feeds in advance so you know how to get by in an emergency.
Now all you need to worry about is keeping your phone charged!
So, download the free mobile chat app and have a go with a friend. What do you think? How could it be improved? What other uses can you see for an app like this?