Inhabitants of Rigolet, a tiny Inuit town on the north coast of Labrador, are helping researchers build a climate-change monitoring app that’s usable without a conventional internet connection—and the underlying technology that enables ISP-less browsing could be a model for internet-starved communities across the North.
The app, called eNuk, launched as a pilot in Rigolet in early 2017. It was conceived of by a Rigolet resident and built by a combination of community members, local government officials, and researchers at Newfoundland’s Memorial University and the University of Guelph in Ontario. Today, RightMesh, a Vancouver-based company, announced that it will help establish a mesh network—a decentralized internet network, in which devices act as not only receivers but transmitters—for the town to support the eNuk app.
The app—which allows residents to share and tag locations with text, pictures, or video—was designed to help residents cope with unpredictable conditions formed by rising ocean temperatures. Over the last 114 years, the waters around Newfoundland and Labrador have risen by 1.5 to 2 ℃, according to a recent provincial report on climate change. Stable, thick ice that once allowed residents to hunt and fish, or drive on ice highways between Rigolet and surrounding communities, is growing alarmingly, even dangerously, thin.
But another problem has potentially limited eNuk’s life-saving potential. In addition to its climate change-related troubles, internet access is painfully slow in Rigolet. When Dan Gillis, an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Computer Science, visits Rigolet to work on the app, he and his team often time their emails to send overnight so as not to crash their hosts’ internet, he told me.
"The connectivity is just so bad that we needed some other method of sharing information," he said in a phone interview.
The app is intended to preserve traditional Inuit knowledge
Enter RightMesh, billed as a mobile mesh networking platform that uses blockchain technology, a decentralized ledger that chronologically tracks information. RightMesh provides an on-platform token system—based on the Ethereum blockchain—that allows users with an internet connection to sell their bandwidth to mesh users who don’t, without a centralized authority mediating the trade. The company is handling the technical side of the project, while Rigolet residents—two of whom are employed as research associates—provide extensive feedback.
Bandwidth on a mesh network could be distributed as a charity, so why build a marketplace for data? RightMesh argues that the token system incentivizes users to share their internet access with the mesh, which is necessary for users hoping to access anything on the internet outside of the local mesh—say, Facebook or YouTube. Without that incentive, RightMesh argues, the mesh network won’t last very long.
“If you have your cell phone plan, you’re not going to just volunteer your data to somebody else for free,” RightMesh chief networking scientist Jason Ernst said in a phone interview.
By selling their internet connection to others on the mesh, Ernst explained, users can earn tokens, which can later be spent on buying access to the internet from another user. However, access to the mesh itself—as opposed to the outside internet, through the mesh—is free for community users.
A combination of the cryptocurrency boom and growing frustration with big telecom companies has led many tech startups to explore the possibility of using mesh networking and blockchain technology together. But there's an ongoing debate in the mesh net community about whether such a system will work both technologically and socially.
"The hardest things about building a typical community network are the social aspects and the topology of the network. These are incredibly difficult to solve and require more than a network protocol or a smart contract," Brian Hall, the founder of NYC Mesh, a community network in New York City, wrote in a recent blog post. "Earning a tiny amount in some obscure alt-coin isn’t going to motivate anything."
Rigolet may be a decent pilot to see if such a system could actually work. The local network for Rigolet is still being tested. Charlie Flowers, a Rigolet resident and research associate, said the town is looking forward to the RightMesh-enabled app.
“As for the mesh network aspect of the project, any mention of improved internet connectivity in a town with no cellphone service and subpar internet speeds is an exciting and welcome bit of news,” he said in an email.
Ernst said the platform should be capable of providing a decent local network. Mesh networks usually need highly dense clusters of users to work properly, but Ernst said the town (population 300) will do.
"The area there itself is fairly remote, but if you look at the density of the town itself, the houses are actually located pretty close together," Ernst said. He estimated that maintaining a decent network in Rigolet would require about 50 smartphones to be using the platform.
Ernst said that RightMesh even has a caching system for when users are too far from the network. An eNuk user will be able to take photos—of holes in an ice road, for example—if they're out of range, but have them automatically upload the moment they return to town without any dependence on a slow internet connection, thanks to the RightMesh platform.
Using eNuk to track changes to the environment, and warn other community members of potential dangers, could save someone's life.
"Local residents have been involved every step of the way"
"From their point of view, they see these tools and the mesh as an opportunity to protect themselves and to share knowledge," Gillis said of Rigolet's residents.
Should RightMesh be successful, there’s a chance other communities in northern Canada—and other parts of the world—might adopt similar systems. Ernst said the team has been in talks with rural community leaders in Russia, Norway, and Iqaluit in Nunavut.
The complete version of RightMesh isn't expected to launch in Rigolet until late spring or early summer. And input from town residents is driving the project in new, sometimes completely unexpected, directions.
“Many times in the past, researchers would come into our communities and conduct research without any consultation with community members,” Flowers said. “Fortunately, with this eNuk and mesh network project, local residents have been involved every step of the way.”
Recording the impact of climate change isn't the only idea on the table when it comes to eNuk. Flowers said the app is also intended to preserve traditional Inuit knowledge. As he explained, an elder who knows how to make a juniper poultice, a traditional healing remedy, could have a younger relative film them making it, then post the results on eNuk. The mesh network would share it quickly to everyone in the community, and keep that knowledge alive.
The project is still in its early stages: eNuk is to expand over the next 5 to 10 years to cover not only traditional knowledge, but also to help local governments collect census data for the region.
Gillis said he’s always blown away by ideas for the app every time he visits Rigolet to consult with the community.
"But we don't live there," Gillis said, by way of explanation. "So they've got knowledge about the land that I couldn't even dream of having."