The Bee: UNICEF's Portable Infrastructure for Emergency Communications

Emerging Topics, Mobile
Location: Ballroom A7
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 1 rating)

Communication tools play a vital role in UNICEF’s emergency responses. For such responses to be successful, it is essential that UNICEF and other relief organizations have access to reliable information both during and immediately after crisis situations. Development of the Bee system began as an effort by UNICEF to answer questions such as:

  • How can field workers quickly and effectively register children in emergencies?
  • How can educational materials be provided to 40 or more children at a time, even in the most harsh conditions?
  • What type of set-up would allow community radio to dispense information and local content to regular FM radios, and to share that content globally?
  • How can SMS text messaging be used to monitor an emergency?

After analysing internal UNICEF needs and looking at available options, UNICEF created the Bee: a mobile communication system that allows communication, connectivity and data access in field conditions where such technologies are often difficult or impossible to use.

As access to both power and connectivity are limiting factors in many emergency and field settings, the Bee has been built in a modular fashion, allowing it to be charged with solar power (with a run time of 38 hours), a car battery, or a conventional power source. Two varieties of Bees, Worker Bees and Queen Bees, are deployed together to form a peer-to-peer communication network. In addition to a low-power computer terminal, each Worker Bee is equipped with a webcam, projector, speakers, GSM modem, FM transmitter (50km range), and directional WiFi (5km range). Queen Bees also boast satellite links and higher-powered directional WiFi, allowing the Queen to push and pull data to and from the internet, and to aggregate and distribute information among Workers. Custom administration software, known as Beehive, coordinates data automatically among the Bees, such as names and photos for connecting displaced families. Each Bee acts as a community radio station, WiFi access point, school, and internet kiosk.

The Bee hardware designs are freely available and can be constructed entirely with off-the-shelf consumer components, save for the casing. These components are powered by open-source software designed to support the efforts of field workers and partners, and to be locally adapted for ongoing use. The Bees are ruggedized, able to withstand extreme temperature variations, rain, and dust. Furthermore, the Bee is light enough to be transported by one person and can be checked on commercial airlines.

The system is designed to work within UNICEF’s ‘build back better’ policy of helping families and communities recover from emergencies. While the components of the Bee are intended initially to facilitate crisis-response operations, they will become integrated into the community’s ongoing monitoring, evaluation, education and health programmes. The Bee is also designed to be flexible enough to be used by organizations outside of UNICEF; currently several use-cases are being developed in coordination with news agencies and NGOs.

Our presentation includes hardware and software demonstrations, as well as a review of the Bee in action including testing in South Africa and initial deployments in the DRC.

Seth Herr


As head engineer at UNICEF in the Division of Communications, Seth Herr designed and fabricated the initial Bee prototypes. He then worked with CSIR in South Africa to further develop the Bee system, and create a production model for distribution.

Photo of Merrick Schaefer

Merrick Schaefer


Merrick Schaefer is a Technical Project Coordinator in UNICEF’s Innovation Team based out of the UN’s New York Headquarters. He both develops strategies for innovative uses of technology in UNICEF’s work and coordinates the UI design, software development and field implementations of technical projects. His projects cover a wide spectrum of UNICEF’s work, ranging from developing Speak Africa, a social network connecting youth in eight African nations to discuss their most pressing issues on the web and with SMS, to using SMS to gather real-time data tracking food distribution during a famine in Ethiopia.

Merrick started working as a web developer in 1995, having a front row seat to the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. He has worked on enterprise level systems while consulting at Accenture, as well as creating websites for small businesses and non-profits while running a web development consultancy. He graduated from the University of Chicago where he earned a B.A. in Medical Ethics, when not hacking on web projects. Merrick is also an avid rock climber of 17 years, and often can be found dangling off cliffs in far flung corners of the world.

  • Intel
  • Microsoft
  • Google
  • Sun Microsystems
  • Facebook
  • Gear6
  • Kaltura
  • Liferay
  • MindTouch
  • Novell, Inc.
  • Open Invention Network
  • Rackspace Cloud
  • Schooner Information Technology
  • Silicon Mechanics
  • Symbian Foundation
  • Twilio
  • WSO2
  • Yabarana Corporation

Sponsorship Opportunities

For information on exhibition and sponsorship opportunities at the conference, contact Sharon Cordesse at

Download the OSCON Sponsor/Exhibitor Prospectus

Media Partner Opportunities

Download the Media & Promotional Partner Brochure (PDF) for information on trade opportunities with O'Reilly conferences or contact mediapartners@

Press and Media

For media-related inquiries, contact Maureen Jennings at

OSCON Newsletter

To stay abreast of conference news and to receive email notification when registration opens, please sign up for the OSCON newsletter (login required)

Contact Us

View a complete list of OSCON contacts