07/30/2013 12:36 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

The Serval Project: Reclaiming Your Phone

I still remember when I heard the first news about the earthquake in Haiti in early 2010. I knew that when a society loses the ability to communicate for more than a few days, lawlessness rapidly develops. People realize that no one can call the police, and even if they could, the police aren't going to show up.

Haiti was already a stretched society before the earthquake, and it was apparent to me that the massive loss of life and government capacity, combined with damaged communications infrastructure, was likely to result in chaos. Sadly this hunch proved right, with stories of militia road blocks, rape gangs and other atrocities emerging as the situation in Haiti degenerated.

I still recall the emotional rawness that resulted, and the overwhelming feeling that something needed to change. People living in disaster zones, in areas of conflict and unrest, and those simply too far from help needed to keep connected with one another, and so in some way reduce their suffering.

The then-recent proliferation of mobile phone ownership in poorer countries was not lost on me, and with my digital communications background I began to think of ways to restore, or better, to sustain mobile telecommunications in these difficult situations.

My search for solutions led me to consider air-droppable self-erecting mobile phone towers, balloon-lofted repeaters and other ideas before I finally realized that there was no need to deploy any additional equipment: the mobile phones themselves had the ability to form local networks without relying on any cellular infrastructure.

It was a watershed moment as I realized that I could make an infrastructure-independent mobile mesh telephony system. I spent the next five months working on a prototype using secondhand Google G1 Android phones, and we unveiled the system to the world in July 2010 under an open-source license - just six months after the earthquake in Haiti. Making it open-source was non-negotiable, to ensure that the technology would be available for those who need it most.

In the process we had to create a number of innovations to make sure that it would be useful during disasters, when support from local carriers and delivery of new equipment is not possible. We needed a solution that would allow people to use their existing phone numbers on the mesh, so that they could still contact one another. We also needed a way to allow the software to be copied from phone to phone in the field, so that if even just one phone had our software, it could be used to equip all other phones in the affected area, without relying on an Internet connection or anything else. It was also important to encrypt communications so that adversaries could not listen in to or tamper with people's exchanges.

Turning the prototype into a secure, scalable and robust solution is an ongoing endeavor. This is partly because it is a lot of work to replicate the major functions of a modern cellular network without relying on the cellular network. There are also roadblocks that have either been accidentally or purposely left in the path of anyone who tries to make mobile phones communicate directly with one another. Our dedication to keeping the technology free and open has also limited the sources of funding available to us.

While these roadblocks slow us down, so far we have always been able to find a way to engineer around them. In this particular instance, we have come up with our last-resort "MacGyver solution," where we use things like duct-tape or a pair of socks to acoustically couple two mobile phones together and combine them with our software to create an imperfect, but surprisingly effective, connection between a mesh and the cellular network that can be built in five minutes, using only the kinds of materials that people are likely to be able to find in a disaster or crisis zone. We have already called New Zealand from our Australian lab using this approach, and we have plans for additional testing.

When we heard about The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, hosted by Humanity United and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), it struck a real chord, and it was tremendously encouraging for us when we heard that we had won first place in the Communications category. The prize has already elevated our visibility and resulted in a number of conversations with organizations focused on humanitarian communications. As a non-profit, we are dependent on donations and philanthropic support to continue our work, and this challenge has not only provided us with prize money to help our efforts, but also momentum to take us to the next step with the launch of our crowd-funding campaign .

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Humanity United and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in recognition of the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, click here