Isolated Communities Connect Amid a Pandemic

Kevin Zawacki

By Kevin Zawacki | Aug. 27, 2020 | Fellowships & Awards

An update on HERMES, the grand-prize winner of Mozilla’s 2018 WINS Challenge

Most people have spent recent months hunkered down at home, working, shopping, and connecting with family over the internet. But this isn’t an option for those in remote areas with limited connectivity — a demographic that is now even more isolated and vulnerable than before.

It’s a problem that HERMES is working to fix. HERMES (short for High-frequency Emergency and Rural Multimedia Exchange System) won Mozilla’s WINS Challenge in 2018. It uses a collection of unexpected protocols, like short-wave radio and GSM, to enable local calling, SMS, and basic OTT messaging — and an entire HERMES system can fit in just two suitcases. HERMES is a creation of Rhizomatica, an organization helping communities build their own telecommunications infrastructure.

Currently, HERMES is deployed at 12 remote locations across Brazil — some so remote that they can only be accessed by small aircraft. Mozilla recently spoke with Peter Bloom, Rhizomatica’s founder, about the technology’s impact in Brazil and its ambitions for the future.

A HERMES deployment A HERMES deployment

“In Brazil, communities are using HERMES in a few different ways,” Bloom explains. Residents leverage the tool to coordinate rural commerce along a series of trading posts in the Amazon rainforest. With limited connectivity, the trade route was often beset by supply chain errors and robberies. Now, with HERMES, residents are able to communicate through a reliable, encrypted channel.

The system is also being used to protect a fragile region of the forest devastated by fires and illicit logging. “The secondary use of the system is as a way to monitor and report on illegal activities,” Bloom explains.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, residents found a third — and vital — use for HERMES: “Coordinating food and logistical support,” Bloom says. The system has helped orchestrate the delivery of hundreds of aid packages across the region. Just as importantly, it has also allowed people to stay put, and avoid contracting COVID and bringing it back to small communities.

Francinaldo Lima provides support to riverine communities in the area, and notes that the connectivity HERMES provides has become indispensable. “It was fundamental to have this system working in the period of the pandemic,” he says. “There is no mobile phone, no landline in the communities.” Lima is Technical Advisor to the Association of Residents of the Iriri Extractive Reserve, which serves a swath of public and protected land in northern Brazil.

It was fundamental to have this system working in the period of the pandemic.

Francinaldo Lima

HERMES users in Brazil HERMES users in Brazil

Despite these successes, the team behind HERMES isn’t resting on laurels. Bloom and his colleagues are currently retooling the software and hardware that make HERMES tick.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve been installing the software on Raspberry Pis, and then attaching those to HF radios,” Bloom explains. While this set up works, it’s not perfect. “Your normal HF radio isn’t built to pass large amounts of data. It puts a lot of strain on the transistors.” The HERMES team hasn’t experienced any equipment failures yet, but “over time if people start using them quite a bit, it will shorten the life of the radio,” Bloom explains.

The solution? “We’re looking to release our own radio by the end of the year, which will be purpose-built for sending digital information,” Bloom says. The custom device will still use a Raspberry Pi, but also a combination of off-the-shelf components and customized circuitry. And in addition to being more efficient, “it will also be cheaper than what’s out there,” Bloom notes. A traditional HF radio rig can cost up to $2,000; the new HERMES device will cost about $250.

The team has been enhancing the HERMES user interface, too. “There’s been quite a few software improvements and iterations since we won the prize,” Bloom says. (Find the GitHub repo here.) Currently, users interact with the device using a web page, from which they can send messages, encrypt communications, and more. Bloom and team are “trying to make that graphical interface more intuitive, and as accessible as possible for people.” In many of the regions where HERMES operates, literacy rates are low.

“The last couple years were version one of HERMES,” Bloom adds. “Now it’s on to version two.”

Lima is equally optimistic. “I think that the potential of this system can be replicated and expanded in the Amazon as a whole,” he says. “The challenge is very big, but with partnerships and external support, it is possible to increase connectivity in the Amazon.”