A second life for old smartphones

Broken or unwanted smartphones will be given a new lease of life, thanks to the efforts of Flinders digital blacksmith Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen and his team.

In the wake of the devastating super typhoon Haiyan, which killed nearly 4,000 people when it ripped through the Philippines on November 8, Dr Gardner-Stephen (pictured) has launched a public appeal for smartphone donations which will be refurbished for humanitarian deployment.

Enlisting the help of students from Flinders School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, Dr Gardner-Stephen will repair and refurbish the phones before liaising with the New Zealand Red Cross to send the phones to developing countries.

Ultimately, Dr Gardner-Stephen aims to provide phones to the New Zealand Red Cross that have been fitted with his revolutionary Serval software, which allows mobile phones to communicate during a disaster, even in the absence of cellular network infrastructure.

Rather than relying on conventional phone towers, the Serval system creates a virtual network enabling people to make calls by “bouncing” off other devices within a WI-FI range of about 100 metres, providing they share the same software.

Only two phones are needed to start a network, thereby eliminating any start-up or operating costs, and the technology can be downloaded from phone to phone at any time.

“In the first instance we’ll refurbish as many of the donated phones as practicable, and make them immediately available to the New Zealand Red Cross for deployment, but our long-term goal is to send out phones that have been fitted with the Serval software,” Dr Gardner-Stephen, a Research Fellow (Rural, Remote and Humanitarian Telecommunications) in the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, said.

“It will be great to repair and deploy as many smartphones as we can to places like the Philippines and other areas of need but without the Serval software, the local phone networks still need to be working,” he said.

“Four days into the Philippines disaster, some areas had just 15 per cent of networks operating so while any phone is useful in an emergency situation, if we can make them work without the networks it could potentially be life-saving.”

In addition to making free calls, the software can also share files, maps and data – information that could be crucial in times of disaster.

“If there was an earthquake, for instance, you could use the map to record the location of a collapsed building, food and water or people who need help and that information would basically start appearing on maps of everyone’s phone who is running the software,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said.

“The software can also provide people in poverty with the means to make calls, send text messages and transfer files without being on a phone plan or buying phone cards. This will hopefully improve their economic situation and quality of life.”

Dr Gardner-Stephen said he urged anyone with an unwanted smart phone, whether it is an Android, Blackberry, Apple or Nokia device, to donate to the cause.

“Recycling programs like MobileMuster are great because they keep phones out of landfill but what’s even better is if these phones can get a second life helping people less fortunate than ourselves.”

Red Cross New Zealand emergency telecommunications manager Matthew Lloyd said:  “I am already aware of unmet need for donated smartphones in the Philippine Islands to assist in disaster assessment and coordination.

“This initiative is timely and has the potential to be replicated all over the world.”

To comply with Australia Post safety guidelines, unwanted smartphones, with batteries still inside the phone, and no more than two batteries per package, should be wrapped and packaged in a parcel not less than 2cm thick, clearly marked “FOR ROAD TRANSPORT ONLY”, then posted to the Serval Project, Flinders University, PO Box 2100, Adelaide 5001.

Alternatively, donated phones can be delivered in person to Engineering Deliveries in the south eastern corner of the Engineering Building, Flinders University. 

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One thought on “A second life for old smartphones

  1. A brilliant and compassionate initiative! I for one will promote this in Uniting Church and beyond, as since our human rights exposure tour of the Luzon area of the Philippines this year, we now have a firm partnership – and we know just how hard this disaster has hit and continues to reverberate… This has the potential to transform disaster recovery efforts.

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