A serval is an agile African wild cat with large ears and a keen sense of hearing. Servals use their ears to signal to family members from a distance. Appropriately, Serval is also the name given to a disruptive Australian startup based in the Disaster Research Centre at Flinders University that recent recently received an Honourable Mention at the 2013 Global Security Challenge Summit. Intrigued by this social enterprise which had captured the imagination of our judges, I spoke with founder Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen afterwardsServal Project was inspired by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. “I still remember first hearing about the earthquake on the way to work one morning, and realising that with the impairment of mobile communications that the already fragile society would be subject to further atrocities if reliable service could not be restored within a couple of days.” After realising that the destruction of the roads, airport and harbour would eliminate the normal routes to restoring service, Paul stumbled upon a problem: “While cell phones had the physical capacity to communicate directly with one another like CB-radio or walkie-talkies, the carrier-oriented mobile communications market meant that the network operators had a strong disincentive to allowing this to happen in the form of fear of dilution of their natural monopoly power.”
With extensive experience writing and selling software, and a few interesting projects already under his belt (including the creation of the world’s first real and wearable shoe phone!), Paul had the skills and experience necessary to tackle this challenge. Serval Project was born, with a clear aim in mind: to get cell phones communicating directly with one another when carrier networks fail, have never existed, are untrustworthy or insecure, or are too expensive for the poorest in our societies to use.
Specifically, Serval Project is developing secure, decentralised, mobile mesh telephony for use where standard mobile telecommunications have never been available or have failed (acutely or chronically). Serval Mesh has both a software component for installation onto smart-phones and a hardware component (a Mesh Extender) to improve the available range of the mesh. The Serval Mesh software allows off-the-shelf smart-phones to form self-organised mesh networks using Wi-Fi and a store-and-forward protocol.
Serval Project is one of the first social enterprises we’ve seen coming through the Global Security Challenge (along with mPedigree, 2010 winners). This status was important for its intention for the technology to help all people, not just the relatively wealthy. Serval releases its technology under open-source licenses, and Paul is particularly keen that the technology should live on even if the organisation fails, saying “from our perspective this is all about living our vision of resilience not only in our technology design, but also in the way we create it.”
The Global Security Challenge offered Serval Project further exposure, and there are other ways to help them further their mission. Anyone can donate to support their ongoing software and hardware development activities, and technically-skilled readers are welcome to participate in the actual software and hardware development activities. I look forward to seeing how Serval Project develops and grows!
Authored by Siobhán Gibney Gomis, Director of Business Development at InnoCentive