Grey-Box is a social innovation startup that aims to provide wireless access to digital resources in remote areas where internet access is unreliable, so individuals and organizations can access vital resources offline. Our main project right now is UNI, a low-cost portable hotspot that allows WIFI access to digital resources (like copies of websites, pdfs, videos, Moodle, Wikipedia, and much more) offline in areas without reliable access to the internet! Through UNI, instead of having to deal with slow internet speeds and unreliable connection, you can ~~could~~ stream content from the device in real time.
Mission: To build accessible digital tools that promote autonomy and empowerment within communities located in remote areas—where the internet and electricity are unreliable.
Vision: Everyone should have access to the same tools and resources in order to empower themselves and their community.
Tell us about yourself?
I spent 10 years doing video production before moving to manage projects – usually in the non-profit space. This led me to do and teach video production in fairly remote areas of the world: in the Sahel desert with kids in a displaced village or in the hills of Bolivia with young Aboriginals using video as a powerful way to tell their stories. As you can guess, internet in those areas is a huge issue… and it slowed us down in our ability to have more impact.
I founded Grey-Box.ca, a social innovation startup that provides free WiFi access to free educational resources in remote areas where access to internet and electricity is inconsistent.
If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
I think we are sometimes our worst critic. I would probably tell myself to enjoy the ride a bit more. It’s a great feeling to drive a car. Enjoy the view, and trust yourself to be able to tackle the roadblocks along the way.
What problem does your business solve?
Is internet a human right? Should it be? In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations stated one of their key action plans was to ‘provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’. But, according to the UN Broadband Commission, almost half the world’s population still does not have access to the internet. While the other half has access to knowledge and content that comes from having Internet access, the disconnected are deprived from its potentials. Thus, socio-economic inequalities prevail in our increasingly digitized world.
Even in developed countries like Canada, more than 45 per cent of the rural communities do not have access to the standard internet connection. Grey-Box helps ensure that everyone can receive universal and affordable access to the Internet.
What is the inspiration behind your business?
I experienced the reality of not having reliable internet and electricity access throughout my years of working in non-profit educational projects in West-Africa and Latin America. That concern sparked a question: Is it possible to build an accessible tool that promotes empowerment and autonomy in the field?
In 2012, I was on an educational mission trip in West Africa. While working in a cyber-coffee shop, I thought: how would my students be able to complete online research for their projects without easy and fast access to the Internet? A few years later, while on a Bolivian mission with OXFAM, a similar question arose. What about the communities located in remote areas where access to the Internet and electricity are unreliable? Is it possible to build a tool that promotes empowerment and autonomy in the field? Grey-Box was created to address this specific social and technical issue. Our product UNI offers offline educational resources and digital classrooms in a tiny box.
What is your magic sauce?
Our magic sauce is that UNI was made in mind to be able to work in the most adverse situation from the start. It is not a project that was built to work in the middle of the city. It was built to work in the middle of the desert. And when you deploy something in such an environment, it has to be small, portable, weather resistant, inexpensive, easy to use, and work on portable power or solar.
It has to work autonomously – in case the user doesn’t have access to internet or that we don’t exist anymore. Yep, we even planned our own obsolescence. Our goal, ultimately, is to become replicable.
We cannot presuppose that the user is tech savvy. 99 per cent of the population is not, so why would we optimize for that? I often had to remind our IT team that we should aim at doing most things in one step, not three. It takes a surprising amount of time to create simple things, but it’s worth it.
I mean, UNI is even compatible with those older Nokia phones that come with an FM radio, a flashlight, and a basic WIFI Connection. It works with that without even requiring you to install an app.
What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?
Grey-Box’s UNI will create enduring impacts for communities in remote and isolated locations through working with organizations that focus on improving accessibility to educational tools. We hope to continue deploying UNI all across the globe in remote areas to provide access to educational tools.
What they will do with all those tools, that is up to them. That is where autonomy comes in and our role is to step down and only support the change.
For the next five years, we also hope to expand our training service offered to ensure that social impact organizations have all the tools they need to succeed. Grey-Box also hopes to grow our team to 50 plus employees, interns, and volunteers. I would love to have a team of passionate people that work remote, manage their own schedule, learn from the world, and share what they learn from that journey.
Our crazy project list includes, but is not limited to:
- Project Symmetry: a project to speed up the translation efforts on Wikipedia by using Machine Learning to propose content that is missing between various languages.
- Project Blockchain: a project to allow a donor to view in how their money is spent and measure their impact in the field.
- Project Mesh: a project to provide offline connectivity between android devices within WiFi and Bluetooth range.
- Project Web Scraper: a chrome extension that can be used to make an offline copy of a single web page – or the whole site.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced so far is reaching people who are in remote areas that need stronger internet connectivity. Due to a lack of internet and electricity, these individuals rarely use platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and others that allow for messaging and building connections. So, it’s sometimes quite tough to connect and contact with these individuals.
Bringing innovation to the non-profit sector requires a new mindset that involves a mix of radical transparency and a desire to modernize the tools that are used but also improve on the management practices.
How can people get involved?