How 4 College Freshmen Are Connecting Refugees – Without Wifi or Data

Ever complained about not having wifi or signal on your phone?

What might be a minor inconvenience for us posts a life-or-death situation for refugees on the move. As of January 2017, there are close to 5 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War flooding out of Syria in search for asylum. While close to 87% of refugees in Europe own a smartphone, the lack of reliable wireless communication infrastructure makes it hard for aid workers and other refugees to communicate.

Enter Mesh – a mobile app that allows refugees to communicate on their smartphones without the need for Wifi or Cellular Data internet access. A startup team that came out of UPenn’s chapter of the Hult Prize, an accelerator for young social entrepreneurs, Mesh is founded by freshmen Dan Truong, Connor Chong, Victor Chien and Chris Lin. The team has built a custom framework for an internet- and cellular-free communications network in the form of a mobile application.medmedmemed2.png

Through their app, refugees canmessage each other and access a map that features real time updates on nearby threats and resources, such as recent bombings and UN food depots – all without the need for Wifi or Cellular Data internet access


How does it work?

The application relies on Bluetooth and WiFi bands to create wireless ad-hoc networks. If that means nothing to you, don’t worry. The technology is not as esoteric as it sounds. In fact, ad-hoc networks have been around since the 1990s when they were primarily used for military purposes.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 11.38.03 AM.pngThe network relies on decentralized and mobile devices to maintain itself. Instead of relying on a wifi router to propagate information, devices in the network rely on each other to transmit their messages.

Imagine your smartphone as a having a 90-foot radius of connectivity. Other smartphones within this radius can rely on that connectivity to communicate with you, and vice versa. Now imagine more phones within that radius that also generate their own radii of connectivity, essentially creating a full network. A person on one end of the network can communicate with a person on the far end by relaying their message through all the other devices connecting the two. That’s the underlying technology of Mesh.

How do refugees get the app?

But if at any point of this article you asked yourself, “how are refugees supposed to download the app in the first place if they never had data or wifi access to the internet?”, worry not – the team has that figured out too.

Team Mesh has designed the MeshBox, a device that has the app pre-loaded. The team aims to  distribute the MeshBox through existing aid channels, after which refugees can then download the app without ever needing an internet connection.Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 11.38.56 AM.png

In addition, the MeshBox also doubles as a signal amplifier, which allows smartphones to broadcast their messages further.

To top it off, the weatherproof box also allows refugees to charge their smartphones, and powers itself through solar panels.

The team has successfully built out a $60 prototype, and expects to reach a total cost of $10 per MeshBox once the product is in production.

Moving forward, the team wishes to explore alternative applications in disaster relief as well. For now, the four are hard at work perfecting the product and bringing it to scale.

Curious about technology in social impact? Subscribe here to get your monthly dose of career opportunities, stories, and insight from people within the tech x impact field.

Jason Choi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s