Blockchain and Mobile Connectivity for Refugees
Interview with Rakibul Islam and Ayesha Siddika (W3 Engineers)
Imagine you're a refugee arriving in a new country with no identity and separated from your family.
You don't exist officially and so you've new way of reaching out to your loved ones. You can't even get a SIM card without paying over the odds and without furnishing identity documents that you don't even have.
Surveys say that connectivity is now one of the biggest concerns for refugees in the world, but what can you do about it when you have no real starting point. Bangladesh has seen this happen to millions of people over the last few years, where Rohingya refugees have flooded in their millions to one of the many camps across the country - focusing on Coxbazaar.
One company W3 Engineers has been looking to use blockchain as a foundation layer to help connect refugees across Coxbazaar and across the country without necessarily needing a telephone network: helping refugees to connect to the outside world just simply by networking their phones more closely together.
Doing that, they’ve managed to address the connectivity point that's so pressing for so many refugees.
It’s a pleasure today to have and Rakib and Ayesha here from W3 Engineers in Bangladesh to talk us through the mobile connectivity projects that they've been championing for years now.
Raki, where and when did the idea for mobile connectivity for refugees come in?
As soon as we started our company in 2012 we found the internet was so expensive. We were paying a lot of money to connect to the internet but we were struggling to communicate back with our partner-companies in Canada and other parts of the world. Half of the office had to stop working because a conversation was going on online as it would consume a lot of our bandwidth.
So to solve our own problem back then we started to create an application that worked peer-to-peer without requiring the Internet. So within the office communication could go smoothly and at the same time the calls could still go on.
It was only afterwards when the Rohingya refugees began coming to the country, that we said “hang on a second, we have a much bigger problem to be solved here”. These people were fleeing their homes in fear of genocide and a lot of their people were getting killed every day. Arriving into Dhaka these refugees didn’t have official identities and we realized we should be doing something for them. We should be able to connect them. So then we sat with our team, we re-engineered our product and we're now still working on it.
So essentially you had the beginnings of the technology before the Rohingya crisis and it was a happy accident that you were able to apply the technology to that situation?
Absolutely. The problem was solved in our own house and then it just spread. There are more than 6 billion people in the planet. 1 billion people across the world are not connected or unbanked. And out of that, 25 million (or more) are refugees or displaced. These figures were really making us feel that we had to be doing something: and that was to create a prototype to help those people.
As you said Coxbazaar is a major center for Rohingya refugees. What was the problem as you found it when you were there in terms of connectivity?
The whole thing is a connection problem. The refugee family is disconnected. They don't have any kind of information about their new country, they're not getting any help in terms of learning or education and they don't have an easy way to buy a SIM card. They're missing their family members back home they have no idea how to find their friends or family across the 10-15 camps across Coxbazaar. A refugee might not know where their brothers are or where their parents are and they have no way to contact them.
So you have refugees arriving into the number of camps with no identity, first of all, no idea where their family members are and ultimately no way of connecting to any kind of network because of the fact that they can't get a SIM card because they have no ID. So fairly a helpless situation I guess. And then where, where did you get to for the answer for that?
We had to make a single of solution where everybody could be connected with each other. No single point of failure could be allowed – including no shutdowns with no internet connectivity. There should be one marketplace. Everybody should be connected to each other.
Working with the UNICEF Innovation Fund, we designed a product called Telemesh – which is essentially a platform that allows peer-to-peer communication without the existing telephone infrastructure or a traditional WIFI or internet connectivity.
So instead of using a mobile phone network, people can connect to each other in the same style as a Fire-chat (or one of the other established mechanisms). But you guys go beyond that, right?
Right. I'm glad that you would raise the question about Firechat – as those, more traditional applications – work differently from us.
The first thing we discovered was incentivization: people don’t want their phone to be used by others and they don't want to offer others their connection until they get a reward. For the refugees we realized that these people don't have an identity and so we created an identity layer (using the Ethereum blockchain): as soon as somebody joins the network they get assigned an Etherium wallet address.
The connectivity then comes on top of that in an application layer where the communication or transactions happen using the Bluetooth and Wifi and Wifi direct. There is a data-buying and selling mechanism built within that, so anybody can buy data from other sellers within the network in a very affordable way.
In a traditional system where you or I buy a data from a phone operator, they give you like 1GB and if you don't use the whole thing, then half of that is wasted. With this technology that’s no longer be the case.
Today refugees are having to spend money on buying air-time to speak to their families by buying an off-market SIM card – but those can end up costing double or triple the normal cost. Equally, they sometimes may not have internet connections because they live in a mountainous area.
But with this peer to peer communication system, it can pretty much cover the whole space: the system we have built goes from one person to another person, to another person until it finds the destination.
So you have moved from a helpless situation where where you have refugees coming in with no identity and no means of connecting to the world - to a new situation where they have a baseline identity (based on the Etherium ID); they can connect to all the phones around them; and then potentially even buy in data to be able to connect to the outside world as well?
So that’s a huge transformation really. And all of that without necessarily having to have identity papers or spend an awful lot of money paying over the odds for a SIM card.
So you've been building the solutions for a number of years. Where does the actual blockchain DLT piece come in then as a tool that you use?
We had been building this platform before all the blockchain hype came to the world.
In one of our hackathons in the office we realized that we needed to do something to solve this ID problem.
We could use an IMEI number in conjunction with a phone number – but then we figured out that we’d be tying ourselves to phone numbers and hence assuming that the person has a SIM card and valid ID – which is a contradiction in this case.
Then we found that the Etherium ID made sense because it's allows us to do the ID creation without even being connected to a central system. Because it’s a decentralized architecture we decided that this was the best way for us to go forward.
So blockchain’s value for us is (a) ID generation; and (b) keeping record of how much data each person owns – and beyond that we also have plans to create a marketplace where P2P transactions can happen.
Essentially, without a blockchain solution, we were facing a dead end that was preventing us from delivering on this project.
I think it's fascinating that you were trying before blockchain came along, but that you were hitting this wall around the identity piece – which the Etherium ID so conveniently resolved. And how are you actually managing the buying and selling of the data in the marketplace?
It's a phone app where you can take a picture, log it and then the transaction will get recorded in IPFS. The assets and everything will stored using the blockchain: and there is not going to be any single point or central servers.
The token, which the person then receives via the application, can be used to buy and sell items in the marketplace.
It’s going to be completely peer-to-peer but we’ll be running a number of servers to actually settle the payments across the network. The Ethereum node won’t actually be running on the person’s phone – we’ve chosen to use Amazon cloud to host the servers and settle all the payments in a secure way.
So you're using Ethereum tokens to be able to support a marketplace for buying and selling data – meaning that refugees can effectively transact in those tokens. But presumably they could also start to use those same tokens as a defacto fact currency within the campus for payments or other services as well?
Correct. Because it's an ERC20 token (which is the standard set by the community) people could use it in any marketplace and people will accept it.
So they could pay for teaching, for child care or for other things - in terms of real world services if you like?
And what about the NGO side? We've talked about the benefits to the refugee - but NGOs seem to be very interested in this as well – in terms of helping them to manage campaigns and information dissemination. Is that right?
Absolutely. I'm glad that you asked this question. Having just worked with a number of NGOs, we’ve found they struggle to distribute information from one location to another location. Their headquarters sometimes struggle to get survey reports (like for example vaccination reports); they may have announcements they want to make in camps; or if there is an emergency, they struggle to reach the right people.
So we’ve developed a dashboard for these NGOs for them to send broadcast messages to all refugees who have smart phones.
And so what experiences are you picking up as you go in terms of the specific kinds of case requirements that the NGOs have?
The first thing we are prioritizing are the things they do regularly and inefficiently. For example the announcements NGOs make in camps: where they use a traditional microphone. As you know a mic cannot reach every corner of the camp, nor can it stretch across multiple camps at the same time.
So we’ve created a broadcasting solution: a dashboard that helps them to broadcast messages they want to send out at the same time. Like when the food next food lot will be coming, where it will be distributed and so on. Equally there are educational elements that we can deliver.
The beauty of being off-grid and not bandwidth-centric is that we’re also talking with NGOs about pushing out video broadcasting messages. Multiple lines of texts can be worse than a five-second video: and so that is something we are also considering launching in the next year.
So by using traditional technology plus blockchain, you're able to connect refugees not only to other members of the camp but also to people outside - through buying and selling data. You're also able to provide a kind of information-backbone for the camp in terms of announcements and then – on the video side - education. And then with the currency or the tokens, you're also able to create a marketplace for kind of goods and services within the camp. And then beyond...
And I’d also add another new use-case that we have recently discovered. Until now, NGOs have been distributing small amounts of money mostly to women in camps. But the NGOs have started to reduce the cash they are handing out and replace it with goods instead. The problem is that the refugees often don’t need the goods that they are being given.
So to solve that problem we’ve suggested that our tokens can be used to replace the local currency entirely. So if there is a donation coming up and somebody from New York wants to donate something to Rohingya refugees, they could fund an ERC20 token at the NGO and then the NGO can then distribute that token within the camp. That way the current fiat currency would disappear. Also, because it's a digital economy, there is a ledger built-in, which can then ensure that the money is being spent only on things that it was supposed to be used for. Equally there is also the possibility of integrating smart contracts: for example “if you do X work you will get Y token,’ where the flow is completely digital.
This way corruption can be completely stopped within NGOs and amongst the refugees.
What are the biggest surprises that have happened to you so far?
One the biggest challenges for us has been making the connection autonomous. In the traditional model, only a Wifi router would act as a master node or a host – which everyone then connects to. We have had to work out how every phone can act as a host instead – at the same time as acting as a server and integrating the blockchain elements of ID generation and IP replacement. Normal networks work based on IP addresses but ours is designed in a way where it uses an Ethereum ID to connect to other nodes and send out messages.
Based on the UNICEF funding, you have your 12 month journey and then obviously the journey well beyond that. What does the future look like? Because from a business model perspective is this going to become a revenue-generating product in its own right eventually?
This is a 12 month pilot and after 12 months we will get a lot of market feedback and a lot of UI/UX requests – and so we will have to fine tune our product.
After that it will be ready for the rest of the world. So we will be announcing globally to the market saying: “Hey, newspaper company or content company or ad agency: here is a platform that you can use to reach all of those unconnected people: to distribute your content or advertisements and pay only a few tokens.”
So essentially the marketplace and the community that you build not only becomes a place for buying and selling data amongst users, but it also becomes a way of transacting and other goods and services. And then it can also be used to give connectivity to major advertisers and the media?
So what are the milestones that you set yourself in terms of connectivity and of how fast you expect this to grow out?
We are focusing only on 20 hubs at this point, but after the 12 month period we won’t set any limits on the number of hubs. It will be work like a traditional Internet system where you send a message and it just goes to the destination. So if I'm sending a message within a city, it should take the best and shortest path to the destination and acknowledge back to me that the message has been sent successful.
It's a fascinating story to be able to see and to follow. And I think there'll be many of us who are going to be watching with great interest to see ultimately the marketplace and the refugees that you really touch every day. So thank you so much for inspiring us.
Thank you so much as well and thanks to UNICEF Innovation Fund - through which we are getting a platform. I’m quite sure that there will be a lot of more conversation down the road and we are expecting the journey to be fascinating!
I’m Barney Nelson and thanks for listening to this week's #Goodstart episode. Next week there'll be another amazing story about how blockchain is being used for good, and so make sure to join us. In the meantime, if you'd like to get involved, look us up on thevalueexchange.co/goodstart or on Linkedin or Facebook.
Thanks and see you next week.