The purpose of this proposal is to enable engineers, agronomists and others in both richer and poorer parts of the world (i) to cooperate to develop technical designs and (ii) to rank them by quality. If successful, a growing body of ‘open-design’ technical information would become available. The concept may be of interest to developing countries or NGOs working in the third world on south-south links.
For example one UK charity supported the work of a Peruvian potato farmer who found that he could eliminate viruses by growing new seed potatoes from the tips of shoots. But how will that information be made available to others globally? Search on Google for details of how to construct a solar water heater, a hand pump or an improved stove: you’ll find lots of references but few with detailed plans. Also you’ll have no way to judge the quality of the competing designs. Try to find details of electronic circuits for basic medical equipment suitable for small-scale fabrication (as I did once) and you’ll probably draw a complete blank.
The solution proposed is to create a website containing a database a little bit like that used by the e-bay second hand market, but for the purpose of sharing and evaluating technology. The website would have the following characteristics:
A basic framework that allows technologies to be organised into appropriate categories and searched.
The content of the database would be provided collectively by users. After a simple registration process, users can add their ideas to it (just as e-bay sellers list their items for sale).
Users can give feedback on the usefulness of each item allowing the most popular designs to be readily located. E.g. a star rating summarises comments about the usefulness of an idea and the individual comments made by users may be browsed.
At present, possible ways in which a technology can be shared widely usually involve some powerful organisation, such as a corporation, publisher, development agency or government, that is able to collect together ideas, assess them and disseminate them. This is a hierarchical way of sharing with the intermediary organisation in control. The effort required from the intermediary may be a bottleneck that limits participation.
Limitations to this hierarchical way of sharing are:
Such an organisation operating globally is expensive.
Commercial organisations are interested only in saleable technologies, not in promoting technologies and techniques that can easily be copied by potential customers instead of purchased.
Access for 3rd world innovators with an idea to offer is not likely to be easy and direct.
Access for users of the technical ideas may also be costly. Even if the information is put on a website, there is a plethora of websites and the prospective enquirer my struggle to search for and find the information they really want. They also may find it hard to distinguish the good from the bad.
New possibilities are however opened up by Internet technologies that allow collective contributions to the content of websites. For example, the world’s largest encyclopaedia is now wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page):
Wikipedia is a Web-based, multi-lingual, "copyleft" encyclopedia designed to be read and changed by anyone. It is collaboratively edited and maintained by thousands of users via the wiki software, an opensource program.
Similarly the second-hand Internet marketplace ebay establishes a framework that allows sellers to contribute their advertising copy and buyers to bid on goods without any human intervention by ebay staff. Untrustworthy buyers or sellers are identified by allowing both parties to each transaction to leave feedback on the other, e.g. whether payment was sent promptly, whether goods were as described.
Thus we could envisage a less hierarchical way of sharing in which innovators directly contribute to a global database with users themselves assessing the information supplied. This collaborative approach to providing content and assessing its value may promote greater participation and more south-south links.
Setting up such a website and database is technically non-trivial. Wikipedia was founded by two individuals, one of whom is said to have spent about $500,000 on his various Internet projects. The great benefit of the idea is that the cost in incurred in setting up a framework but the content comes free.
The framework must provide:
A searchable database capable of holding all the entries, possibly with links to more detailed information that could be hosted by other organisations (e.g. development agencies, universities, etc).
A classification system for the entries, ideally capable of being extended and refined by contributions of users. The categories might include say: Agriculture -> Crops -> Potatoes. Entries could also be classified by climate where they are applicable, location of the developer, language(s) in which the entry is available. Thus a user could search for information on a maize crop, applicable to a tropical climate and available in Spanish.
A method of registering as a contributor.
A method of registering as a reader/user able to give feedback.
A method by which an entry can be enhanced by information supplied by other contributors.
A method by which translations of a entries can supplied by the original or other contributors, and associated with the entry. This would allow the site to operate in multiple languages
A method by which a reader/user can give feedback and comments on an entry. The feedback left by all users commenting on an entry would be used to generate a rating for it. This rating allows users to identify the most popular designs. Feedback would be dated allowing users to identify designs that are newly popular or have ceased to be popular. Feedback could include: the user’s view on the quality of the idea (perhaps a star rating) and a relevant measure of how much the user has applied the idea (e.g. number of units built, area planted, number of growing seasons, etc); all users must use the same measures for a given category of items to allow comparison. Users could also optionally leave their location and contact details if willing to assist others interested who live nearby.
The aim is to maximise the contributions without allowing abuse of the system (e.g. contribution of malicious entries or feedback.
The founding organisation would not be expected to review all the entries.
The founding organisation could delegate the ability to review entries to responsible partner organisations around the world, e.g. government departments, development agencies, universities. Alternatively it could allow users to directly review entries or have a mixture of user and trusted-partner reviews.
Creation of this website and database may be of interest to people involved in the world social forum as a step to world government – after all there would be little sense in having such a government without a way of forming a policy and technical consensus that it could use provided democratically, not just by lobbyists for big corporations. Aid agencies, development ministries, some universities and the UN could also be interested.