Don’t re-invent the wheel. Build a green knowledge base!


Students and professors: Don’t re-invent the wheel. Help build a green knowledge base for all

When students submit a project – even a very good one – it typically gets very little exposure. Another day, at another institution, another student or researcher works on the same question. How much more powerful would it be if each built on the work of the last?

Some teachers at universities – in languages as well as science and engineering – have been using Appropedia with their classes and getting great results. It’s inspiring to the students knowing that they’re creating work that will be used by others – including users of the XO-1 (the “$100 laptop”) – and they also learn more in the process.

We’d love to have much more of this, in English as well as other languages such as Spanish and Indonesian.

Can you suggest any courses or professors who would benefit from knowing about this option? Please let them know, and let the Appropedia community know!

I’ve just scratched the surface here – see our Service learning page for more info.

Looking forward to getting feedback, and hearing from interested academics and students.

I just posted this to the Green Group on LinkedIn – but you need to be logged in to view.

Education for the poorly connected


Innovative uses of the internet in education, in Mexico and India:

Universidad de la Tierra – Mexico

Located in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca de Juarez, the Universidad de la Tierra is an alternative learning initiative through which students learn from the world by doing. This process happens largely in communication with others, in the form of study/reading circles (“communities of practice”) and intercultural exchange. The NewWorkSpaces online community tool (Unitierra’s space here) enables learners to access “collaborative technology that will help [them]…convene conversations, co-create and publish documents, invite others into…learning experiences, and exchange…knowledge and resources.” Other means of sharing learning experiences include libraries, documentation centres, community radio, media campaigns, and publishing. These modes also provide dialogue opportunities around Unitierra activities such as those with indigenous communities engaged in cultural regeneration, technological and socio-political innovation, and social struggle (e.g. through workshops, videos, the creation of ecological dry toilets and solar arrays, organic agriculture, and alternative media). More.

Samvidha – India

This project is a response to the need to make relevant internet-based information accessible to all of India’s teachers and students at a low cost. Carried out by the non-profit Media Lab Asia in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, the Samvidha project is an effort to bridge the digital divide by providing off-line access to curriculum-related internet content using a query-based system. Individual variations among the different students can be captured by their user profile, which includes each student’s individual interests and capabilities. This idea of offering personalised content access and presentation is also reflected in the fact that navigation interfaces are offered in Bengali, Hindi, and English. Content which is appropriate for the user’s needs is then emailed to the user in the school; information located on the internet is provided to the user in English or, where available, in a given Indian language. More. See also the Samvidha page on Media Lab Asia’s website.

Thanks to The Communication Initiative Network for this news – “Where communication and media are central to social and economic development”.

Relevant Appropedia wiki pages:

Too little, too late?

Frank Aragona from Agroinnovations blogs on Open Source Appropriate Technology (or Open Design Appropriate Technology, if you prefer):

Since 2005 I have been a strong advocate for the development of open source appropriate technology (OSAT).  Since then much has happened on this front.  It was an idea that I can hardly take credit for, as this was something fermenting in the minds of innovators all around the world.  Chris Watkins of Appropedia has started to put together a rough history of OSAT, combined with a wikified index of web-based writings on the topic.

After reviewing this, it’s encouraging to realize the conceptual and practical advances that we have made as a community in the years past.  Just have a listen to the podcasts on this topic on the Agroinnovations Podcast.  Pioneers like Anil Gupta have made it their life’s work to move forward the OSAT agenda; and projects such as Full Belly and Appropedia are tackling the challenges of OSAT head-on.

But, with our economic reality unraveling and Peak Oil smashing our society in the teeth, I am starting to wonder if our movement will be able to move fast enough to respond to events.  Now more then ever do we need OSAT to rebuild an economy in collapse.  We can fill the void being left by the destruction of 20th century manufacturing models, but we have to move quickly and effectively while there is still time.

Now, there are more questions than answers.  Can we convince the world of the vital importance of our model?  Can we use the remaining infrastructure of a society in tailspin to build real business models that are more compatible with small, distributed, and community-based production?  Will we be able to mobilize the massive investment of resources required to move this agenda forward?

Let’s face it, we are a diffuse community, many of us working on OSAT either conceptually or practically as a secondary or tertiary project, while we all try to dedicate the necessary resources to maintaining our families.  We all have a stake in the world as it is, whether we believe in OSAT or not.  What comes next is anyone’s guess.  But, for now, we need to ask ourselves these all important question: what three things will move OSAT forward at the pace that economic collapse requires?  And, what do we have to do to implement those three things?  Let the conversation begin.

Join the conversation in the comments on the original post.

Which wiki?


I was asked about licenses and wiki software, by someone wanting to start a wiki on a sustainability-related subject area. Here is part of the response I wrote (adapted slightly):


Not all licenses are compatible, so unfortunately there are some limitations. We can each share, but we can’t mix the content together. The Some sites uses the CC-BY-NC-SA, and we, like Wikipedia, use CC-BY-SA*. We don’t use the NC or non-commercial clause, as we would actually like people to use our content commercially or any other way. I’ve made some notes on an Appropedia page: Which open license should you use? There is a place for the NC license, and I can understand someone with a business choosing this license, but for most purposes we’re strongly in favor of CC-BY-SA.

* Actually we use GFDL, which is different in some details, but you can expect both Wikipedia and Appropedia to change to CC-BY-SA in coming months, now that this has been allowed by the people that manage the GFDL.

We do both use the share-alike clause – which prevents someone adapting our work and then not sharing the adaptation.

Wiki software:

I can see the appeal of the subwiki system that PmWiki uses, to allow communities to have their own space in the wiki. It seems to me that there are just a few things that PmWiki does that MediaWiki does not – although they are very nice things. We can set up pages in just the same way if we want, but don’t have the ability to adjust the sidebar and don’t have the RecentChanges for just the subwiki. Though with “Related Changes” MediaWiki has something close. We do hope to have the options to do these things through MediaWiki extensions, but I don’t know when that will happen.

MediaWiki is the most established option, but certainly it’s not the only reasonable option. We’ve heard good things of TikiWiki too.

But we like MediaWiki for a few reasons:

  • It’s well-supported, with mailing lists and websites devoted to it, and there are many extensions written
  • Being so popular, we can be sure the format will be supported in future.
  • It’s well tested. Wikipedia: nuff said.
  • Appropedia is a bit more like Wikipedia but wider in content type, in aiming to be a large and comprehensive compendium of knowledge, projects, how-tos etc, on permaculture, passive solar, hybrid vehicle design – you name it. For such a large project, something proven to work on massive projects is preferred.
  • We know MediaWiki (I was active on Wikipedia before Appropedia), and collaborators from the wikisphere know MediaWiki. Easier to contribute, and to manage the site.

The major drawback to MediaWiki has been the lack of a WYSYWYG editor, but that’s changing now with the FCKeditor extension. This is usable now, but we’re waiting until they’ve resolved all the issues with tags (as we tend to use tags a lot, e.g. reference tags <ref>).

Now as for a wiki on your particular area of sustainability & resilience – that is right up our alley, and we’d love to have more about this on Appropedia. Check out Appropedia before you start up anything. You will probably find, as with Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt (flatpack emergency shelter) that running a wiki takes hours every month – he was glad to hand that over to someone else when he joined his wiki with Appropedia. Joining an existing wiki brings you into a network of like-minded people, and lets you work on the project you love, rather than pulling your hair out managing a website.

Or to put it another way, let us go bald on your behalf.

But regardless, keep in touch. Also check out Global Swadeshi – a very interesting forum site on open design and open technology for resilient communities, started by the same Vinay Gupta.

Related wiki pages:

Letter to Taiwanese geeks


I sent this to friends in Taiwan, but also want to share it more widely:

You may know already, but in Taiwan on Dec 10 is BarCampTaipei. Joy Tang will be there, talking about wifi (& Linux) for African villages.

Joy is part of the LXDE team – LXDE is an excellent light Linux desktop, made by a Taiwanese hacker, “PCMan” a.k.a. Hong Jen Yee. It works very well with existing Linux distros, and I think is a great step forward. I am supporting LXDE, e.g. helping with documentation, as I think it has great potential to make Linux more usable and make computers more accessible in poorer countries. PCMan won’t be at the BarCamp, but a few of the LXDE team will be.

So, I wanted to let you know, to be aware of this great development in Linux that comes from Taiwan, and to get in touch with each other, if you’re interested.

Btw, I really liked Taiwan, and I hope to visit next year, maybe in the middle of the year or earlier. Hope to catch you then!

The world needs lean code!


Efficient code is green code, code that will work better on old or “light” computers used in developing countries, better on the shiny new netbooks (such as the EEE) that are coming out these days – and that will make a fast computer even faster. Efficient code, it seems, has no downside.

Jim Gettys  of OLPC says in a July 2006 interview:

There seems to be a common fallacy among programmers that using memory is good: on current hardware it is often much faster to recompute values than to have to reference memory to get a precomputed value. A full cache miss can be hundreds of cycles, and hundreds of times the power consumption of an instruction that hits in the first level cache. Making things smaller almost always makes them faster (and lower power). Similarly, it can be much faster to redraw an area of the screen than to copy a saved image from RAM to a screen buffer. Many programmer’s presumptions are now completely incorrect and we need to reeducate ourselves…

A large part of this task is raising people’s consciousness that we’ve become very sloppy on memory usage, and often there is low hanging fruit making things use less memory (and execute faster and use less power as a result). Sometimes it is poor design of memory usage, and sometimes it is out and out bugs leaking memory. On our class of a system, leaks are of really serious concern: we don’t want to be paging to our limited size flash.

In fact, much of the performance unpredictability of today’s free desktop can be attributed to the fact that several of our major applications are wasting/leaking memory and driving even systems with half a gigabyte of memory or more to paging quite quickly…

X [the X window manager] does what its told: many applications seem to think that storing pixmaps in the X server (and often forgetting about them entirely) is a good strategy, whereas retransmitting or repainting the pixmap may be both faster and use less memory. Once in a while there is a memory leak in X (generally in the graphics drivers): but almost always the problem are leaks in applications, which often forget the pixmaps they were using.RAM in the X server is just as much RAM of your program, though it is in a different address space. People forget that the X Window System was developed on systems with 2 meg of RAM, and works today on 16 megabyte iPAQ handhelds.

We need better tools; some are beginning to appear. OLPC is sponsoring a Google Summer of Code student, Eduardo Silva, from Chile, who is working on a new tool called Memphis to help with this problem.

Work done on memory consumption will benefit everyone: not everyone in the world has a 2ghz laptop with a gig or two of RAM…

Nuff said.

Confession: I’m not a coder. I help with the development of Linux only by documenting the parts I know, and by reporting bugs. While I join Jim Getty in calling for more efficient code, even much of the bloated code still represents an enormous amount of good work – it just needs some cleaning up to become awesome code.

Next stop, West Africa!


For me, there’s always some stepping stone in the path to the future that, when I make that step, triggers excitement for me.  In this case, it was sending off for my visas to Sierra Leone, Ghana and Togo.  Did it today…Woohoo!

Why those three countries?  Why now? Glad you asked!  I’m going to Sierra Leone because I’m on the board of Village Hope, which is active there.  I’m going to Togo because I’m on the board of LeapingStone, which is active in that country.  I’m going to Ghana, well, cuz ya can’t get directly from Sierra Leone to Togo!

In answer to the “why now” question, there are two answers.  First, it’s a good time to go from the perspective of those two small NGOs, and also a good time for me personally to get a better sense of what small NGOs really need from Appropedia (yep, on the board there too).  Second, it’s a birthday gift to myself.  Which birthday?  One of those major decade birthdays.  Nuff said.

So, soon I’ll post some wiki pages and questions that readers can help with.  One of my assignments, for example, is to do a bunch of advance work related to peanut shellers (we’ll be taking a Full Belly UNS).  Find out which villages grow the most, maybe microfinance questions, when is their growing season, how do they wash them, can they store them long periods, is there a market…. Stuff like that.  Plus a bunch of other questions about earthen construction for schools and latrines.  Plus everything else.

Should be great!  Anybody been to SL, Ghana or Togo lately?  Drop a line!  Will you be there around New Year’s?  I’ll stop by and say hello!

Obama, transition and public domain

English, Obama’s transition team, adopts Creative Commons “By Attribution” License. Of course it’s good news when people free their content in this way. But it’s also worth pointing out that open content is not a brand new thing in US government.  US federal government information is public domain by default, so anything produced by someone in their work as a federal government official, on or elsewhere, is completely unrestricted in how it’s used.

This law is a fantastic thing – in terms of open knowledge, the US federal government has been by far the most progressive government worldwide, and have produced what must be the largest body of open knowledge by far. (As an Australian, praising the US government is not something I do as a habit, and I don’t want to get into a general discussion on its general merits or otherwise.)

I don’t know that this applies to, but it will certainly apply to their work once they’re sworn into office. This choice is a great one in two ways, though:

Firstly, it raises the profile of open licenses (as opposed to imprecise statements limiting reuse to educational and non-commercial purposes) and especially the use of open licenses by governments. Almost all governments around the world, other than the US federal government, claim a copyright on their work (at least as far as I’ve seen). This is not appropriate for work created with public funds. It is a government’s role to serve the people, and anything created with the people’s money should be free to use by the people. (I’m not going to get into politics, but I think this should be uncontroversial.)

Secondly, it’s the right thing to do, to ensure that all comments and contributions are open and require attribution. It’s one thing for government work to be public domain, but I see no downside in requiring a work by non-government individuals to be attributed

So, which other governments are moving in this direction? Local, state, or national, from any and all countries – let’s see a movement towards openness. Please, if you know a government that uses an open license or releases their work as public domain, tell us in the comments and provide a link – or even better, add it straight to our wiki page on Governments and knowledge sharing.

Relevant Appropedia wiki pages:Relevant Appropedia wiki pages:

  • Public Domain Search – an Appropedia project to make public domain content more accessible. (Currently on hold, but if you have skills with the details of custom search engines, please get involved!)

Solar hot water in the developing world – why so rare?


There’s a big need for low cost, effective solar hot water designs. This is not just a matter of saving money (and of course all the other benefits of saving energy, like saving the planet). Many people around the world do not have hot water on tap, and would benefit from easier washing of clothes and dishes, not to mention that it’s just much more pleasant with hot water (why should rich people have all the luxuries?)

We have some work detailed on Appropedia, which were built in Parras, Mexico. But we need much more, and we need super-simple how-tos. These are largely sunny places – even a black pipe lying in the sun will create hot water. But what is the most hot water, and the most straightforward, reliable product that someone can get for the money they spend?

One challenge that faces such countries is that they often have fossil fuel subsidies, especially those countries that are traditional oil-producers. Solar loses much of its economic advantage when dirty fuel gets a perverse subsidy. Changing someone’s thinking to save a very small amount of money is hard. But with other angles to complement the economic incentives, there is hope. Get kids involved – get the ideas taught in the schools. Emphasize the green side of things, the benefits for their children, and make the designs freely available in people’s own language. None of these are enough on their own, but add “and you save a little money” – and maybe it will all add up.

These thoughts triggered by:Why Isn’t Solar Energy being used in Egypt! by solarkent