Rob Ryan-Silva

From the 1977 zine Sideburns

The rise of punk in the 1970s and 1980s had at its core the idea that expensive equipment or years of training need not be prerequisites to making meaningful culture. New tools enabled a more democratized approach to media. If you knew three chords and had something to say, cheap 8-track recorders could get your music to those ready to hear it. A photocopier in every library and drugstore meant you didn't need a publisher in order to get zines in the hands of readers. If you had something worth hearing, reading, or seeing, the traditional gatekeepers -- and conventional standards -- could no longer stand between you and an audience. 

Today, emerging tools are democratizing the design and fabrication of electronic and mechanical hardware. Some call it the maker movement. You can call it punk engineering.

The traditional gatekeepers of hardware have done a poor job of meeting the needs of people in developing countries. What happens when those people grab a soldering iron, learn three chords, and storm the gates?

Let's find out.


Rob Ryan-Silva builds devices and capacity in support of international development projects around the world. Devices like:

Tepmachcha uses sonar to determine water levels in Cambodian rivers and sends flood warnings via an interactive voice response (IVR) system, so thousands of people in affected communities can get a voice phone call within minutes. SMS is not good enough; many phones do not render the Khmer character set correctly. Nobody manufactures sonar stream gauges that play nicely with the RapidPro IVR API to meet the needs of rural communities in Cambodia -- it's not an attractive market -- but that's OK, because you can build one for US$305 in parts. Learn all the chords here.

Maytal was Rob's proof-of-concept prototype of a water pressure telemetry unit for small utilities in Indonesia. Teams from Jakarta's Makedonia makerspace are building and testing their own designs, and USAID's IUWASH Plus project will fund the first commercial deployments at utilities around the country in 2018. (He named it Maytal on the grounds that Toots and the Maytals originally sang "Pressure Drop" -- even if he does prefer the version by the Clash.)

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, can it make a phone call? It can if it's fitted with Rokhakdevata, Rob's proof-of-concept illegal logging tracker. Using an inexpensive accelerometer to determine its position, Rokhakdevata can send real-time alerts when the tree it is attached to is felled -- in most cases before it even hits the ground. If it stays attached, it can send GPS tracking information so you can trace the tree through the illicit loggers' value chain.

There's more -- rainfall monitoring for hydrological data in Nepal, smoke detection for forest fires -- and improving governance around forest fires -- in Indonesia, makerspaces for equipping a new generation of punk engineers in El Salvador -- so stay tuned. Zines are still a thing, but the library doesn't have a photocopier anymore, so you should just follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Github.