Fallback – Alternative platform for real-time news during Internet shutdowns

Created by Khulood Alawadi, Yi-fan Hsieh, Bahareh Saboktakin and Qifan Zhao at the RCA (Design Engineering, Future Interaction, 2019), ‘Fallback’ is an alternative platform for providing access to real-time news during times of Internet shutdown.

Fallback is triggered by powerful forecasting algorithms providing a backup right when it is needed. “We constantly monitor the probability of Internet shutdowns worldwide” – Quifan tells CAN. The prediction is done by trend analysis of the appearance frequency of certain keywords in the online world. “We have used Google custom search API to gather a database of keywords and their frequency of appearance in different online platforms including news websites, forums, etc. We have also tried using BeautifulSoup and NewsAPI to gather this granular information. However, the results were proven to be inaccurate or expensive for our specific goal. As a result, the team continued using Google custom search APIs and trend analysis (see system diagram) which was verified on Sudan Internet shutdown in 2013 and 2019 (info).

Access to information is the epitome of freedom in our time, shaping the way we learn, think and act. The Internet is both a promise and a threat. How might we resist a government-imposed Internet shutdown? Intentional Internet Shutdowns have become one of the trending tools of government repression and information control in the 21st century. Authoritarian regimes have realised that this rudimentary technique is an efficient way to suppress people within a region and even an entire nation.

Khulood Alawadi, Yi-fan Hsieh, Bahareh Saboktakin, Qifan Zhao
Fallback – Early Prototype

Upon a high-risk prediction, the system scrapes headlines and articles from news platforms, encrypt it, and send it over satellite to the Portal devices (Raspberry Pi Zero W with E-ink Module). Portal receives data over satellite, decrypts it, formats it into news articles, and provides its own WiFi access point where no Internet is required. Sending text-based information using satellite radio has been prototyped on a frequency that does not require any broadcasting license. To achieve this goal, they have prototyped a receiver using a Lo-Ra radio module and an Arduino. For the Transmitter, we have used a RaspberryPi hooked up to a LoRa radio module. The test text had to be chunked up to 114 characters in the transmitter side before sending it to the receiver due to bandwidth limitations. On the receiver side, these chunks (packets) were concatenated together to form paragraphs. This was not possible without developing their own communication protocol between receiver and transmitter.

Users connect to the Portal device using any Wi-Fi enabled device via Fallback hotspot (see demo). Serving the website and providing a wifi hotspot was prototyped using an ESP8266 module which is capable of serving their formatted news platform shown as well as providing a wifi hotspot which upon connection, redirects the user to our news platform page. Upon connection, their UI pops up and users can access the news maintaining the experience of browsing online news. The transmission will continue until the Internet shutdown is over or the risk levels decrease.

Finally, Fallback members will be able to access a dashboard through the Fallback website. On the website, they are able to place orders for Portal devices and subscribe to customized sources of news based on their region or interest.

Project Page | Khulood Alawadi | Yi-fan Hsieh | Bahareh Saboktakin | Qifan Zhao

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