Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat, accidents — the list of factors that can knock out power goes on and on. With backup generators for electricity so prevalent after a disaster, a nonprofit tech company in Kenya is making a backup device for Internet access.

How to Make Contact in an Emergency

The Nairobi-based company Ushahidi created a backup device called BRCK that’s a Wi-Fi router as well as a 3G and 4G modem with data settings for any cellular network worldwide, Technology Review’s David Talbot reported. Just change the SIM card. BRCK has software with a documented API so anyone can write apps for it.

Since BRCK also connects to a cloud-based server, that means a device deployed in rural Indonesia can be fully managed from an office in Paris — or vice versa, according to the company’s Kickstarter page. They’re currently trying to raise money to manufacture 1,000 devices.

You might be wondering, Who needs a backup generator for the Internet when the system is already so resilient? OK, lucky duck, maybe not you and your high-speed service but people living in areas where access is spotty or slow to begin with know how frustrating it can be to connect. Add a disaster, and getting online right now grows more challenging.

The folks at Ushahidi know this all too well, having first made a name for themselves with a software platform that keeps communication open after a crisis. Ushahidi, which means ”witness” or “testimony” in Swahili, helped Haitians crowd-source information through a cellular network after the 2010 earthquake. Discovery News covered that on our old site.

Disaster usually means problems with electricity, too. Fortunately each BRCK has eight hours of battery power that will automatically kick on if your AC power fails. I love that it packs so much functionality that you could program it to act as a bridge between a Web-based project and an external hardware project. Or you could add sensors and send live data up to a server, which would be handy for scientists and researchers in the field.

Even in the land of high-speed Internet, something as simple as maintenance or a big storm can impact your connection. I’ve seen that here in Colorado. Having a back-up device would have helped on those days, even just for a couple hours. While the final price hasn’t been set, early birds got BRCKs for $150 each on Kickstarter.

How to Build a Shadow Internet

The BRCK bills itself as the easiest, most reliable way to connect to the Internet anywhere in the world, even when there’s no electricity. It’s like a hand-crank emergency radio — we all hope that we never find ourselves needing it, but knowing we could is reassuring.

Photo: The BRCK device says it’s a backup generator for the Internet in areas where connectivity is unreliable. Credit: Ushahidi.