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Raspberry Pi Tackles the Great Firewall and Peruvian Amazon

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, November 13 2013

The low-cost computer has inspired a number of projects for social good (GijsbertPeijs/flickr)

When Eben Upton created the Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer the size of a credit card, he had no inkling its reach would extend beyond England’s borders and do more than inspire UK’s youth to program. A little went a long way. Thousands of miles, in fact, to places as far from the UK as China, India and as remote as the Peruvian Amazon. The Raspberry Pi, first conceived by Upton in 2006 and released in February of last year, is produced by the non-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. Since then, it has sold 1.2 million units worldwide and was named the top 100 most inspiring social tech innovations by the Nominet Trust, which has noted its use in developing countries as a low-budget tool or computer.

The simple, low-cost computer offers basics like a SD card reader, audio and video outlets, and gives users the option to download an operating system called Raspbian. It has become a tool for hobbyists and activists alike. Upton tells techPresident at being pleasantly surprised “at its range of uses.”

In China, Internet users who want to access censored sites must download virtual private network or VPN software to do so. It allows users to tap the network of an uncensored country, like in France, for example. But a VPN often does not work as well on a phone. One reddit user who goes by the handle, JaiPasInternet, was frustrated by his difficulty in using a VPN on his mobile phone in China, so he used the Raspberry Pi to create a portable WiFi hotspot that circumvents the Great Firewall while on the go. As an electrical engineer, he is a bit more tech savvy than most, but he used a number of online resources, including a blog post on Hostapd to turn his Raspberry Pi into a WiFi hotspot that automatically connects to his VPN. JaiPasInternet writes, "...wherever I go, I just bring my Raspberry, [...] and after a few minutes, I have my censor-free Wi-Fi hotspot."

At $35 per board, the Raspberry Pi is the cheapest of its kind. “The largest tech company couldn’t make it cheaper than we are making it,” says Upton. His hope is that this device will allow for a “democratization of innovation” and of hardware. “Creating a device to counteract the firewall of China, those people aren’t penalized anymore for being the little guy.”

Thirty years ago, someone like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs could purchase cheap hardware and build a computer in their garage, explains Upton. Now, hardware companies, taking advantage of the economies of scale, favor large purchases by big tech companies, closing off access for “the little guy” to affordable hardware. “I suffered from it, not having the hardware, because of what I couldn’t buy as an individual compared to an organization that is 100 times as powerful,” says Upton. “Raspberry Pi means a guy who's got $10,000 is on same level with someone who’s got $1 billion.”

While sales of Raspberry Pi in the UK and US seem to have flattened, in countries like India, the growth is “massive,” says Upton. “It’s just up and up and up per month.”

Dr. Ajith Kumar is a nuclear physicist at the Inter-University Accelerator Centre in New Delhi who has been working on a way to allow students in developing countries to conduct science experiments. Raspberry Pi featured in one of his projects, expEYES (“experiments for Young Engineers and Scientists”), to help provide a low cost portable science and electronics laboratory that can be used for those in high school all the way to the post-graduate level.

“Most of the Indian schools do not have modern facilities for experiments,” Kumar wrote in an e-mail to techPresident. “They use ordinary thermometers, voltmeters, ammeters etc. to perform experiments. Modern experimental tools are not affordable to developing countries.” For example, an oscilloscope is a tool used for the study of electricity that can be found in high school physics classes, at least in the developed countries. A basic oscilloscope costs around US$200 to US$300 and a more advanced one can cost upwards of US$20,000. The latest version of expEYES costs around US$30. The device is now being adopted across a number of Indian universities.

Along with a number of additional accessories and the expEYES software, the device allows students to conduct a large number of experiments, such as studying electromagnetics and measuring gravity.

ExpEYES (image: Ajith Kumar)

“In developing countries, science education at school level is done without the experiment part, only theory is taught. A low cost tool will change this scenario,” says Kumar.

While the Raspberry Pi played a role in the first model of expEYES, Kumar and his team has since replaced it with low-cost netbooks, since expEYES can be used on any PC with a USB port and Python.

The Raspberry Pi has also found its way over to a remote, Internet-less region of the Peruvian Amazon. There, the indigenous Quecha and Achuar peoples have suffered for years from increased rates of cancer and pollution-inflicted health problems as a result of oil contamination of their water sources. According to a recent government report, about 90 percent of the indigenous children in this region are suffering from unsafe exposures to lead and other dangerous metals, says Gregor MacLennan who leads Digital Democracy’s Remote Access initiative. He has worked on indigenous rights and environmental issues in the Peruvian Amazon for over a decade and co-founded the non-profit indigenous rights group Shinai.

Since 2006, MacLennan has been working with the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon, helping them track, geolocate and take photos of the pollution and demand greater accountability from the government for a problem that has been left unaddressed for nearly 40 years. The first oil company, Occidental Petroleum, began drilling in the region in 1971, and Pluspetrol, an Argentinian oil producer, took over in 2001.

Along with a number of local NGOs, MacLennan worked to train ten local monitors to use GPS trackers and cameras to document polluted areas. Despite the challenges of using such equipment in the high humidity and high heat of the Amazon, their efforts recently paid off, as the government declared an environmental emergency in May of this year, demanding that the oil companies responsible clean up in 90 days. Along with the declaration, Peru’s environmental ministry said that tests had found high levels of lead, chrome and petroleum-related compounds in the Pastaza River Basin.

A Google maps image reveals the oil pollution in the Peruvian Amazon.

Currently, the community is working on defining a clean up plan, says MacLennan. The process requires continued monitoring of the sites to ensure they are being cleaned up. But documentation continues to be incredibly difficult in such an isolated region. At first, in order to backup and keep track of all the information gathered by these monitors, they used laptops to upload videos, photos, and GPS points but this equipment was prone to breakdown in the extreme conditions of the Amazon.

“That’s where Raspberry Pi comes in,” says MacLennan. The monitors can use it to upload all of their data while they are out on the field. The Raspberry Pi can then be used to create a wifi network with a USB wifi card. Once plugged into a laptop, monitors can see what’s on the hard drive and also share data sets.

Eventually, MacLennan says he hopes to create a media hub to be used not only for activists but anyone who works with media in remote regions. The device will include a built-in battery and a robust case, as well as software such as automated scripts to gather data and browse photos. “There’s a limitless amount of tasks you can build into it,” says MacLennan.

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Editor's Note: This article has been revised to reflect a correction made on November 13, 2013. The original version of this article misspelled Gregor MacLennan's name as Gregor MacLennon.