By using the Portal device, users are able to access data on a Wi-Fi-enabled device in regions where an internet shutdown is being enforced by the government. (Image Credit: Qifan Zhao, The Fallback Project)


Humans have a right to access information, especially if it’s on the internet, but sometimes that’s restricted due to government-enforced shutdowns.  Students at London’s Royal College of Art and Imperial College have developed a system, called Fallback, which grants users access to real-time news coverage through a portable device whenever there’s an internet shutdown. The service was created by Khulood Alawadi, Yi-fan Hsieh, Bahareh Sboktakin and Qifan Zhao.


The Fallback system uses varying technologies for social good and to bring normalcy when it comes to accessing information. It’s a great back-up option when it’s needed the most. It uses a powerful predicting algorithm, which is done by evaluating numerous metrics such as the frequency of which certain keywords appear in online platforms. The team used Google custom search API to collect a database of keywords and their frequency of appearance in platforms, such as websites, forums, etc. Additionally, the team used BeautifulSoup and NewsAPI to collect a large amount of this data. However, the results were inaccurate or expensive for what they were trying to achieve. Instead, the team decided to use Google custom search APIs and trend analysis. The system’s forecasting algorithm is also capable of predicting which countries or regions are at risk of an internet shutdown.


The systems uses a satellite to transmit data to the users’ Portal device, which is then sent to a Wi-Fi enabled device. (Image Credit: Qifan Zhao, The Fallback Project)


Fallback members can access a dashboard on the Fallback website where they’ll be able to place orders for Portal devices and subscribe to preferred news sources based on their region or interest.


Once the algorithm detects a high-risk of a shutdown, it scrapes the articles published by news platforms that have been selected by the user. Afterward, the articles are encrypted and sent over to the satellite. The Portal Fallback device (Raspberry Pi Zero W with E-ink Module) then receives the data from the satellite, decrypts it using a private key, and formats it into text-only news articles that fit the Fallback UI screen. Transmitting text-based data using satellite radio has been prototyped on a frequency that doesn’t need a broadcasting license. To achieve this, they prototyped a receiver using a Lo-Ra radio module and an Arduino. The text needs to be grouped into 114 characters in the transmitter before its sent to the receiver since there are bandwidth limitations. These groups of text were integrated together to create paragraphs. This would not have been possible if the team hadn’t developed a communication protocol between receiver and transmitter.


Users are able to anonymously connect any Wi-Fi enabled device to the Portal module to access the received data. This can be achieved without downloading any special software or apps since the data isn’t stored on either device.  When the device is connected to the hotspot through the Portal, the UI loads up on the chosen device, despite the operating system, software or apps it’s running on. The UI has been designed to maintain some level of normalcy when browsing online news. Transmission continues until the internet shutdown ceases or risk levels decrease.



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