An Internet That Fits on Your Keychain

Project Lantern provides citizens with a decentralized network and accompanying apps in the aftermath of natural disasters

This is a spotlight on Project Lantern, an initiative that recently won a first-place prize in our WINS Off-the-Grid Networks challenge. Learn more about the WINS competition here.

Jonah Model spends his days looking into the future.

As a principal at the Brooklyn-based design and technology firm Paper & Equator, Model and his colleagues explore “what mobile technology looks like in the year 2030,” with a focus on digital health and digital learning. They craft products that leverage the mobile web for good, and work with communities around the world on issues like education, healthcare and disaster recovery.

One of the team’s current initiatives is Project Lantern. Project Lantern was just awarded a first-place prize in the WINS Off-the-Grid Wireless challenge hosted by the National Science Foundation and Mozilla.

Project Lantern

In the wake of recent natural disasters — hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico, forest fires in California — Model and his team set out to create a network that could withstand even the most devastating blows. Their goal: Create a way to keep citizens and first-responders online during response and recovery, even if traditional connectivity and cellular service is down.

Model elaborates: “It’s a new approach to build and distribute mobile applications at a regional level, with bottom-up participation from citizens.”

A Lantern is a keychain-sized device built from widespread hardware like a Raspberry Pi and LoRa Module. Its cost is less than $50, and it can be assembled without prior physical computing experience. “Our goal was to make the hardware as affordable and approachable as possible,” Model explains. “Any citizen should be able to build a Lantern.”

A Project Lantern schematic

Lanterns broadcast a Wi-Fi network that smartphones and tablets can connect to, not unlike the hotspots you might encounter at airports and coffee houses. “As soon as you connect to that Wi-Fi network, you gain access to new applications and data that is tailored to your region,” Model says.

Potential apps delivered via a Lantern

These apps, delivered through a web browser, might include a map tool to guide users to shelters, fresh water and fuel. And, they might allow users to request help from first responders or neighbors. Users can also develop their own software for the platform: “You can extend and add additional applications into a Lantern,” Model says.

While a Lantern can function by itself, Model says there is strength in numbers. “Lanterns work best when there are a few others around town.” Each one uses long-range radio to find other nearby Lanterns. From there, they form a decentralized network, and users can swap news and updates when they’re most needed. Model envisions first responders carrying Lanterns with them, or public officials installing them at town halls. Residents can then travel to gathering points to download the Lanterns apps.

Lanterns draws strength from their decentralized nature, Model says. “Most digital services and apps deliver on business goals first and foremost,” he explains. As a result, user feedback is often at the mercy of a small development team. And apps have fewer variations among geographic regions, cultures, and communities.

Conversely, Project Lantern is shaped by users, from its use cases to the software available.

“We’re more interested in bottom-up software. We want active participation from citizens,” Model says. “This way, communities can respond to emerging needs. And Lanterns can take on different forms in different cities.”