Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Serval Project - Reflections Two Years In

It is now almost exactly two years since we made the first public demonstration of the Serval Project's vision for keeping mobile phones working without cellular networks or infrastructure, and it seems right to recap where we have come in the past year.

A year ago, the software was still more or less the same as was demonstrated in the video linked above in mid-2010.


Support for the project consisted of initial seed funding from the Awesome Foundation, and a generous research fellowship from Flinders University, that freed up the majority of my time to focus on the project.  The project then received a further significant boost with my being granted a Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship.
Dr. Paul Gardner-Stephen in South Africa, while meeting with the Shuttleworth Foundation.
This combination of University and foundation support has proved to be amazingly effective.  The University has provided facilities to accommodate the project, and access to a variety of expertise and relevant research interests, especially in the disaster research space, where Flinders University is particularly active and well respected internationally.  The Shuttleworth Foundation has provided the financial means to free up all of my time to focus on the project, as well as employ developers and other resources to allow the project to drive forward much more quickly than would otherwise have been possible, and to enable me to keep some focus on the big picture, instead of having to do all the technical work myself.  Both organisations have the public interest at heart, and have been particularly accommodating of the unusual nature of the project, and so the relationship has worked much better than I had even hoped.  This is something of which I am continually grateful.


Further resources were added due to support by the Open Technology Initiative's Commotion Project, which is focussed around resilient communications systems to protect against human rights violations and what might be generally called "politically induced disasters" as compared to natural disasters.

Using these resources, the Serval Project has set about transforming the proof-of-concept demonstration software of 2010 into a production quality system.  This has resulted in near complete replacement of every component.

Instead of using Asterisk and SIPdroid for voice calls we have implemented our own mesh-oriented voice protocol and programs, resulting in a much smaller, faster program.

The underlying mesh network that allows the phones to communicate directly with one another, and to relay calls and data for one another has been redesigned and reimplemented from the ground up, with high-grade security baked right in.

The Rhizome store-and-forward data service has been created, and then rewritten to take advantage of the new mesh implementation.  MeshMS (Mesh-based SMS) has in turn be reimplemented to make use of Rhizome, and has been demonstrated delivering a message between Africa and Australia, using nothing more than three mobile telephones.

The user interface has been completely redesigned and reimplemented, to give a much more integrated user experience.
Screen-shot from a nightly build of the next planned release of the Serval Mesh, featuring redesigned user interface.

Increasing Recognition

This year has also seen a continuing increase in recognition of what we are doing, both locally and internationally.  Either myself or the Serval Project has been short-listed or awarded in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise (short-listed), South Australian Tall Poppy Awards (short-listed, announcement of winners pending), South Australian Science Excellence Awards (short-listed, announcement of winners pending), Flinders University Early Career Researcher Awards (awarded), Anthill Smart 100 (awarded), NexExplo Top 100 (awarded), and Ashoka Change Maker's Competition (short-listed).
The Serval Project was one of 11 finalists in the Ashoka Change Makers Citizen Media competition.
The Serval Project was one of the top-100 innovations named in the Netexplo list of 2012.

The Serval Mesh software has now been downloaded more than 13,000 from the Android Market.  More than half of the downloads have been from France, we presume the result of our appearing in high-profile news service La Monde, and the involvement of exchange students from INSA Lyon in the Serval Project.

Increasing Collaboration & Impact

But perhaps most exciting has been the increase in collaboration and impact as we begin to reach sufficient technology maturity for our software to be used in trials, and hopefully in the next 12 months in operational deployments.  

Collaborations with researchers in South Africa and Israel have already resulted in one journal paper being published, and another two are in preparation.  Perhaps most importantly, these collaborations are a clear marker of the Serval Project becoming international in its endeavour and undertaking, so that in the long term it will not fall upon our shoulders alone to develop and maintain the technology.

But most exciting of all has been the two trial deployments, one in Nigeria as part of a human rights/citizen journalism project, and the other in New Zealand with the New Zealand Red Cross IT&T Emergency Response Unit by trialling our technology at their week-long KiwiEx'12 training exercise.
Members of a community in Nigeria familiarise themselves with the Serval Mesh software.

The relationship we have developed with the New Zealand Red Cross ERU has been tremendously helpful in a number of ways.  It has given us the opportunity to understand, first hand, what the needs of an operational deployment in a disaster zone are, and this has directly shaped the development of the technology, and continues to do so.  It has also opened the doors to other NGOs and even UN agencies to discuss our technology and how it might be able to be used by those organisations.  
Emergency Operations Centre at KiwiEx'12, where Serval Mesh technology was trialled.

A recent outcome of this is that along with the NZ Red Cross and other partners who trialled technology at KiwiEx'12, we have been invited by the UN WHO to put together a proposal for a standardised resilient field data collection capability for their consideration.


So overall it has been a year of getting ready and making tentative first steps of engagement with the international community.  Together with the software development progress that has been made the feeling is that this year has been one of preparation for broader engagement and increased impact in the year to come.  By continuing to focus on the humanitarian/disaster response use-case for the Serval Mesh technology, and the relationships that we have already begun to create in that space, we are confident that the coming year will be an exciting one, and one where it is our goal that by mid-2013 at least one emergency service or disaster response organisation will have some aspect of Serval technology ready for deployment to support them in their future operational exercises.

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