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Interactive and integrated on-line education, off the grid.

Enabling education during emergencies with infrastructure-independent telecommunications and integration with national education systems.

Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen
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What problem does your innovation solve?

Disasters can, in a just a few days, destroy years of progress: telecommunications infrastructure, entire school libraries, and years of paper records.
If education can be quickly restored following -- or better, sustained through -- disasters, it helps to restore a sense of normality, as well as helping future generations to be better prepared.
We are solving exactly this problem: How can education be sustained during disasters, even when communications infrastructure is unavailable?

Explain your innovation.

Our innovation is an on-line platform of several parts:
The Serval Mesh, which was designed specifically to enable communications during disasters, forms the foundation of our innovation, by enabling digital communications where normally it would be impossible.
Integration of the Serval Mesh with existing national education systems, in the case of our proposed pilot, the Vanuatu Education Management Information System (OpenVEMIS), so that national education systems are strengthened, rather than undermined, when education is provided during emergencies and disasters.
The digitisation of appropriate educational content, integrated with both the national educational systems and the Serval Mesh, so that education can continue in an integrated manner, and specifically, that “on-line” education can occur, even when getting on-line is impossible.
Together, what we are creating is a system that is used like an internet-enabled distance education platform, but that is able to operate in the complete absence of conventional communications, leveraging the Serval Mesh which is designed specifically for deployment in disasters. By enabling distance education, reliance on the local availability of teaching staff is also reduced. That is, we are creating the means for education not only to occur following, but to be sustained during disaster and emergency situations without interruption. The entire system is free and open-source, and leverages existing Serval Mesh trials in Vanuatu.

Who benefits?

First, national education systems, through the incorporation of new means of delivery and support of educational delivery. We consider it critical that national educational systems are engaged and strengthened, as only this ensures that emergency education is fully integrated with normal education.
Second, teachers, students and communities, through improved and resilient educational services, supporting the rapid restoration of normality following emergencies, and which ultimately results in improved capacity and resilience for the nation as a whole, through improved educational attainment. In this way can the cycle of destruction due to disaster be lessened.
For the pilot, we will work directly with remote communities in Vanuatu, and the Smart ICT Sistas, a young women’s ICT group, to drive the creation of gender-inclusive and appropriate content for hundreds of students, and which can be generalised to the tens of thousands of students Vanuatu-wide, and to other nations.

How is your innovation unique?

Our observation is that solutions suffer from:
Dependence on internet or other communications infrastructure. This ensures their unavailability when communications infrastructure is unavailable. Being based on the Serval Mesh, we completely avoid this limitation.
In this regard we believe we are uniquely placed globally to offer, for the first time, a resilient education delivery, that can withstand complete destruction of in-country communications infrastructure.
Lack of integration with relevant national educational systems. This results in an inability to appropriate record and track educational attainment achieved during an emergency, and may result in a sub-standard student experience for a variety of reasons.
Through relationship with the Vanuatu education ministry, and through meeting a felt need of that ministry, we are well placed to demonstrate that fully-integrated education during emergencies (and in remote locations) is possible.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

Serval is experimental technology, currently being piloted in Vanuatu. It has yet to be pushed to the necessary scale.
While we have strong relationships in the Vanuatu government, statutory bodies and local NGOs, there always remains the risk of obtaining sufficient buy-in from the appropriate departments.
Similarly, we are anxious to ensure that any intervention is culturally sensitive and appropriate. This is part of why we wish to involve the Smart ICT Sistas and similar in-country groups.
Essentially, our overall goal, and greatest concern, is whether we can demonstrate a model that allows in-country generation of useful and integrated educational materials and modalities, that can be replicated in other countries in the future.

Tell us more about you.

We are a cluster of parties interested in humanitarian advances, including: Paul Gardner-Stephen, leader of the Serval Project, faculty at Flinders University, Australian citizen, and technical lead. Alexis McCullen, past US Peace Corps volunteer, and primary in-country representative. New Zealand Red Cross, a regional leader in humanitarian telecommunications, and humanitarian lead. We have deep collective humanitarian experience, and are well respected in Vanuatu and abroad.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster
  • Armed conflict
  • Prolonged displacement
  • Extreme drought

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

Our primary implementation setting will be non-emergency-state remote villages in Vanuatu, that lack robust telecommunications service. Our rationale is that we can develop appropriate materials with these communities for use nationwide, in contexts that are similar to emergencies. We expect during this process, that the normal occurrence of cyclones in Vanuatu will also provide further response opportunities. It will also be applicable in any communications-deprived context.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

This system will first be tested in villages on Efate Island (Shefa Province) and Maewo Island (Penama Province), Vanuatu, as they are existing pilot sites for Serval Mesh. Ideally we would like to scale this to every school in Vanuatu. This can be done by installing a Serval Mesh extender at every school and utilising cellular network or satellite for backhaul and interconnection of mesh networks. Development work will occur primarily in Port Vila and Adelaide.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

We have extensive networks in-country, including The Radio Regulator, the Maewo Telecommunications Committee Inc (, the Education Ministry (MoET), the National Disaster Management Organisation, Vanuatu Red Cross, New Zealand Red Cross, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, faith-based organisations, among others. These networks have been strengthened through the existing pilot of the Serval Mesh in Vanuatu. Alexis is resident in Vanuatu >2 years.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

NZ Red Cross (NZRC) hosts one of only six IT & Telecommunications Emergency Response Units in the global Red Cross movement. NZRC and Dr. Gardner-Stephen have partnered over the past 7 years to create innovative resilient telecommunications solutions for the Pacific and beyond. Together, they are currently running a pilot of the Serval Mesh in Vanuatu, and jointly developing further humanitarian telecommunications technologies, and are well known to the UN WFP and UN WHO in this role.

Innovation Maturity

  • Existing Prototype or Pilot: I have tested a part of my solution with users and am iterating.

Organization Status

  • We are not formally registered but are a formal initiative through a school / university.

Organization Location

Adelaide (Australia), Wellington (New Zealand) and Port Vila (Vanuatu).


How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

We have not seen any significant changes to our idea. That said, in response to the expert feedback, we have made a number of small changes and refinements to our planned methodology, including clarifying a number of points both for them and for ourselves, for example, how we will manage our extensive partner networks in Vanuatu and the region, to avoid the potential for the project to be bogged down by conflicting priorities from the various stakeholders.

Who will implement this Idea?

The technical work would be done by staff and students from Flinders University, staff and volunteers from NZ Red Cross, and by our in-country associate in Vanuatu. We would prefer to have three to five staff at Flinders University dedicating the majority of their time to this project, with approximately 40% of the effort on technical development, 20% on testing, 20% liaison with the Vanuatu education department and other stakeholders, and the remaining 20% being in-country activity relating to the trialling of the technology as it is developed using a collaborative and agile methodology.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

Our end users face many challenges: For students, lack of access to telecommunications, mobile devices and literacy are among the most significant challenges.
However, this is just one dimension of the multi-faceted challenges facing places like Vanuatu. Social welfare and health care are limited, especially in more remote areas where transportation, communications and other logistical activities are especially difficult. Vanuatu ranks top in the global hazard index, due to cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, active volcanoes, floods, land-slips and fire.
Further challenges arise in remote areas where teachers may not always be at the school, e.g., it is not unknown for teachers to travel for one or more days per month to collect their salaries from a regional centre.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

This initiative sits within the activities of the Resilient Telecommmunications Laboratory at Flinders University, Australia, and is part of a long-term collaboration with New Zealand Red Cross and other NGOs and stakeholders. Our existing plan and approach is to seek funding for the research and development stage of initiatives, after which the value is available to stake-holders. If we realise our innovations correctly, they will typically be financially self-sustaining, by offering lower-cost as well as operationally superior alternatives to existing practices.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

IMPACT: By 2021, it is our vision that infrastructure-independent digital education will be the norm in a wide variety of challenging use-cases, such as remote regions in low-GDP-per-capita countries, in refugee camps and post-disaster, and that this will enrich and empower future generations so that they can help to further build their nations into the future.
QUESTION: The biggest hurdle is simply creating and proving the concept. Once it exists, we believe it will be self-propagating.

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

We measure outcomes against technical, social and other goals. For measuring progress in learning, we will work closely with the Ministry of Education, and collect data on the progress of students, such as work submitted, duration of learning, and leveraging their existing systems for assessing the progress of students in Vanuatu. That is, we purposely intend measurements to be made using their existing metrics, for ease of assessment.

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Stage 1: 6 months : Liaison with Vanuatu Ministry of Education, and co-design of proof-of-concept, and identification of pilot location.
Stage 2: 12 months : Construction of proof-of-concept and pre-pilot testing to validation functionality.
Stage 3; 12 months : Broader pilot, culminating in a detailed report and assessment.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Between $100,000 and $500,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • No paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are a registered entity, but not in the country in which we plan to implement our Idea.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • Less than 6 months

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Other

Attachments (1)


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Paul Gardner-Stephen

Hi Paul,

just fyi, you might be interested



Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen


Thank you for these links. It is certainly an interesting and potentially complementary project.


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Hi Serval Mesh Team!

We’re excited to share feedback and questions from our experts with you. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your Idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your Idea. Your Idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

Based on your knowledge and experience, is this a new approach or bold way of answering the Challenge question?
One expert stated: “The technology is currently being piloted but appears to be very innovative, and its application to education in crisis could be a novel one. As far as I am aware this technology does not exist widely, as most technology education solutions require internet or a pre-downloaded application/information.”
Another shared: “Serval Mesh it is a new way to maintain communications in emergency situations but there is insufficient detail about the educational aspects to address the challenge brief.”
Is this idea human-centered and how does this Idea consider user needs?
One reviewer stated: “Working with a national government to provide an integrated education that is recognised by the government is meeting a number of needs: it will ease the transition back to normality, it will mean that national teachers can continue teaching very similar curriculum content, and encourages students to continue attending school as it will be recognised. It also takes into account the need to communicate in times of crisis, and outside of education applications will meet a lot of these needs to find loved ones, assist humanitarian aid and reach rural areas.”
Another shared: “This Ideas seems desirable, feasible and viable from a communications perspective but requires more detail about how it will achieve educational outcomes.”

Expert Feedback on a model for sustainability long-term?
One reviewer stated: “It seems to rely heavily on the support of the national host government (Vanuatu in the pilot), and fostered by relationships with NGOs. If the pilot is successful there is potential to communicate with other national governments for on-going financing.”
Another shared: “A sustainable funding model has not been identified, though if proved viable it seems like the kind of infrastructure governments would want to invest in.”

Final thoughts and questions
One reviewer stated: “You have stated strong relationships with governments and NGOs, but what role do these other organisations play in Serval's design/implementation/financing? What systems do you have in place if there is no electricity to power the devices using Serval?”
Another shared: “How will students access the proposed digital education platform? Is the Vanuatu education system sufficiently developed to be able to integrate this kind of technology? DFAT has already provided some funding to Serval Mesh, how would funding from this challenge be used differently to facilitated education outcomes?”
One reviewer stated: “ Have you considered partnering with technology/communications companies to reduce the cost of technology design and manufacture. A partnership went through between Breast Cancer Australia and Telstra that resulted in BCA receiving the latest screening technology for minimal costs.”
Another shared: “Providing channels of communication in emergency situations offers tremendous potential to improve educational outcomes in emergency situations. It would be useful to think more about how it will be integrated with existing education in Vanuatu and how exactly it will facilitate the continuation of education in emergency situation.”

Looking ahead in the development of your Idea, the following are some questions that may be helpful to consider and integrate into your contribution.
What systems are in place to allow this offering to operate in the case of limited or no electricity?
How will this offering enroll stakeholders? How will beneficiary feedback be incorporated into the design process? What role will partners play and how might this team best leverage this partner network to aid in successful long-term implementation?

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an Idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - August 6 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your Idea on the OpenIDEO platform.

Have questions? Email us at

Looking forward to reading more!

Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen


Thank you for the detailed and insightful questions. We have emailed you a detailed response to each of the points you have raised in your comment.

Please do not hesitate to let us know if you have further question.


Photo of Buddha Burman

Hello Dr. Paul,

I love your concept! Would love to contribute to the project and help to do a pilot in a rural location in India but the legal RF frequency allowed is between CB 26.957 – 27.283 MHz with 5 Watt Effective Radiated Power and built-in antenna. We faced the similar problem of not reliable or Zero connectivity in rural and remote areas so decided to build a portable solar powered wi-fi grid which can connect to a 4G LTE network if there is no network then the grid works as standalone. What I like about your project, is the software controller and Mesh structure. Please look at somewhat similar solutions like, &


Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen

Apologies for not responding earlier -- I have had a problem logging into the site.

From a technical perspective, there is no reason why 26/27Mz Citizen Band radio could not be used as a transport. We would just need to have a different radio module.

Regarding the other projects, we have been in contact with those folks at various times. We are actively working with the folks at, with the objective of ensuring that our solutions are interoperable.


Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen

Hi Ashley,

It was our pleasure to contribute to the challenge.

We are now on our third generation of prototypes, which incorporate our past learnings in terms of maturing the hardware, as well as the past seven or so years of software work.

Among the many things that we have learnt, we know that allowing private authenticated communications is key for functioning communities, in particular, so that people who want to communicate can do so without being interrupted or harassed by others, and that this must continue to be possible when communications infrastructure fails.

Another key is that such systems must be entirely self-organising and distributed: If you have to have someone setup and look after a server or a network map, you are already set for failure in high-pressure and low-resource environments.

Finally, we find that this combination of factors leads to incredible interest and enthusiasm from folks that we speak with -- a recurring theme as we progress with our current pilot in Vanuatu, where we have already been propositioned by other nations in the region to run pilots there. Overall, we have learned to listen to the needs of the people we are trying to serve.

Behind the scenes, we have believed from the start that we need to create an off-grid communications platform, that can be used for a variety of purposes, not just a single use-case. This is exactly why we can now look at education during emergencies, because we purposely made our system flexible.

Our cluster is based around a kernel of Flinders University and New Zealand Red Cross, who have been combining their technical capacity and humanitarian field experience for the past seven years to create appropriate and effective innovations for the humanitarian telecommunications space. If resourcing were not a problem, our plan over the coming 2 - 3 years is to: (1) complete current pilot in Vanuatu; (2) refine our software and hardware in response to that pilot; (3) conduct broader pilots in Vanuatu and the region; (4) refine our software and hardware in response; (5) prepare fly-away kits ready for NZ Red Cross and other operational NGOs and government agencies to deploy during disasters; (6) simultaneous to the above, continue to develop additional capabilities, and set them on a similar path to operational use.

A strategic goal that Flinders and NZ Red Cross have, is to establish a stably funded capability to continue to drive this innovation, and then switch to operational support as required during emergencies and disasters, so that research is continually being translated into improved humanitarian outcomes. We see implementing education systems based on the foundation of the Serval Mesh as a logical part of this overall programme of activity.


Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Paul, thanks for contributing to the Challenge! Would love to learn a few more details about your pilot/prototype to date, what worked, what did you learn? What's your high level timeline for the next 2-3 years? Last question I promise you mentioned working as a cluster of organizations, would love to better understand your working relationship on this project?

Excited to learn more!