Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic


Blogger on global health issues, Christine Gorman, was researching patent issues around “Plumpy’nut,” an easy-to-make peanut-based food used to effectively treat malnutrition. (In brief, there are concerns about whether the patent is preventing some who need it from getting it, and even questions about whether the patent is valid.)

Gorman decided to try a collaborative approach – but as many others have found, getting concrete contributions is a challenge:

Online collaboration may be the wave of the future but it’s not so easy to convince people to do it…

This was not the instantaneous burst of community magic that I had hoped for. But a kind of long-amplitude wave eventually did materialize. My old Plumpy’Nut posts kept getting traffic. Maybe I had brought a fast-food mentality to a slow-cooking world.

And indeed, a year after the blog went up (and many months after I stopped posting anything new), I received an e-mail from Martin Enserink at Science, who was working on a story about Plumpy’Nut and wanted to include a sidebar on the patent controversy.

via Global Health Report: What Plumpy’Nut Taught Me.

The biggest part of online collaboration is making a start, putting it out there, and making it open for people to use. It’s hard to say when results will come – but sharing and practicing openness creates the possibility.

Blogs on tech for global health


Three good blogs on global health – the first two with a tech focus (including open source and open hardware):

  1. Global Health Ideas. Posts include this one on 7 steps for building open hardware for global health.
  2. David Van Sickle – solid, serious stuff.
  3.’s Global Health blog – by Alanna Shaikh, who also blogs on “Examining international development” (Blood and Milk), through whose Twitter account I found the first two on development.

A real reason for eating local


I’m ambivalent about the “100 mile diet” and other approaches to “eating local”, when it’s seen as a panacea. The problem is that:

  1. Transport distance is only one factor in the carbon impact from transport (cargo ships being far cleaner than trucks, for example)
  2. The carbon impact from transport is only one component of total carbon impact
  3. Carbon impact is one component of environmental impact (though the evidence says it’s an extremely important component, at this time in history).

So it’s not surprising that food from the other side of the world can be cleaner than local food, in some cases. Heated, artifically lit greenhouses can be worse than shipping costs.

An argument for growing locally that I find more compelling is that when you grow local food in season, and it travels a minimum distance to your plate, you experience a freshness that doesn’t survive a long international trip, at least for some foods. The nicest strawberries that you can grow in full sun and rich soil will never be challenged by strawberries shipped all the way across the Pacific. The right varieties of tomatoes ripened on the vine (especially heirloom tomatoes) can be amazing – tomatoes shipped long distances can never compete.

Just stick to suitable crops for the season, and simple tech (like greenhouses, mulch and simple plastic cover suspended over seedlings). Grow a variety of the foods that are  or even better, grow a small number of crops and trade with your neighbors! On that note, check the yardsharing resource below.

Check these resources:

Ending slavery: the first step


Aaron Cohen is a slave hunter. He travels abroad, pretends to be a sex tourist, and rescues women as young as eight from bondage and forced prostitution.  – Aaron Cohen, 21st Century Emancipator.

That slavery goes on today shocks and offends me, and I’ve wondered what I can do. But my attention has been elsewhere, and apart from fruitlessly trying to contact an Indonesian NGO some years ago after seeing a documentary, I’ve done nothing.

So – what can I do? The first step is always to become informed.

Cohen and Buckley take the reader on a dangerous, emotionally-draining trip to Cambodia, where we are introduced to his work… he meets three young sisters, all of whom claim to be 18, but whom Cohen knows are younger (the youngest one, he thinks, is eight or nine). He chooses the youngest girl and takes her to a room. He says he just wants to talk and gets some pictures, a process the girl looks accustomed to. At the end of his investigation, he asks for a massage, to convince her that nothing is wrong. She looks relieved.

That very young girls are forced and tricked into prostitution (with or without their parents knowledge) is well known. The rarer, encouraging part of this story is when the police are involved, raids carried out on multiple brothels, and slaves freed.

The destructive effects of trafficking have an impact on all of us. Trafficking weakens legitimate economies, breaks up families, fuels violence, threatens public health and safety, and shreds the social fabric that is necessary for progress. It undermines our long-term efforts to promote peace and prosperity worldwide. And it is an affront to our values and our commitment to human rights.

I was a little surprised by the arguments of economics, violence and social fabric. Slavery is so offensive, so disgusting, that any other reason seem superfluous. And yet clearly, this is not enough. So yes, let’s spell out every reason to end slavery – so that the awareness of this horror spreads into our economic and development discussions, and we don’t (as I have done) let it slip to the back of our mind.

Slavery occurs in every country, including developed countries like United States, Australia, and European countries. There may be slaves closer to you than you would ever have imagined.

What next? Beyond becoming informed (which I’m only beginning to do) I honestly don’t know – I can’t tell you where you should volunteer, or the best people to donate to. So let’s all get informed, and share our insights. As you learn, please leave comments here.

All quotes above are via Aaron Cohen, 21st Century Emancipator.

Looking for cookers that work


Of the actions we can take to reduce greenhouse impact, the ones that deserve the most attention are those with major side-benefits. Of the side-benefits that matter, the most compelling are those that benefit the poor.

Cooking and lighting, still done with open flames in much of the world, are contenders for the most important areas of action – not only is there an opportunity to reduce greenhouse impact, but there are substantial economic gains for the poor, and even bigger health gains – household fires cause respiratory disease, eye disease, and death for the poor on a huge scale. So why haven’t the problems been fixed?

There are lots of stove technologies – rocket stoves, solar cookers and the like – out there that can do the job better and use cleaner fuels, but the capital costs are higher and the distribution models are complex. Incentives from the carbon markets may be part of the solution, but they have not provided enough benefit to drive the adoption of clean cooking products on their own. Even more, getting certified through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol is a long and complicated process, a real barrier for start-ups interested in attacking the stove problem.

We are committed to finding a solution here, and welcome any suggestions or thoughts as we move forward.  These stoves, along with the lack of lighting, are really the two biggest energy issues faced by the poor today.Acumen Fund Blog.

The post also states that “this is not simply a technological issue.” That’s the thing with appropriate technology – it’s never simply a technological issue.

Hat tip: Changed by Design.

Honest aid


Recipients of aid are often suspicious of the motives of the giver. This is not surprising, given the history of colonialism, including paternalistic ethical policies that existed alongside policies of systematic exploitation, and sometimes shocking stories of interventions by powerful countries in the affairs of the less powerful, even after they gained independence. (The point of this blog post is not to argue which stories are true and which are false – the point is that people believe them, and some societies are inclined to believe the most inflated versions of them.)

Alanna Shaikh argues that in this context, it doesn’t make sense to claim that we are giving aid out of the pure goodness of our heart. It not only puts us in a superior position which we may not deserve, but it’s likely to be disbelieved. So how about we tell the truth?

“We want your kids to grow up strong and healthy so that they work hard, get rich, buy American products and don’t become terrorists.” That’s an ulterior motive that makes sense.

(Replace “American” with your own nationality, if you’re from a donor country.)

Much more at Alanna Shaikh’s original post.

Community public relations


A few things in this post by fairsnape struck a chord, especially:

  • Think vision not project – Keep pushing the vision and objectives – why are we doing this

Something a few of us have talked about in Appropedia is our commitment to our vision – that if someone else comes along who does it better and gets more traction, then we’re happy to throw our weight behind them, and not be attached to having things go our way.

But it’s so easy to get in the mindset that our project is the one that’s solving the world’s problems, so “the vision” equals “our project,” and everyone should therefore support us. It’s good to listen – a lot – and support good projects, expecting to learn rather than evangelize.

  • Make the message come from the community, from the children NOT the committee

Do we do this? I’m not sure – one frustration is that although there are many contributors to Appropedia, relatively few take ownership or engage with the Appropedia project, as opposed to a few pages on the wiki.  So if it isn’t the same few people doing publicity work, it doesn’t get done. That’s okay, but it’s not the community-driven ideal we’d like to see. (If you’d like to be more engaged, check out the discussion lists.)

A future for conferences


Mark Charmer of Akvo, the innovative water knowledge organization, gives a scathing assessment of big conferences attended by important people.

Mark recalls watching a member of royalty

tell an audience of several thousand water experts, under the watchful eye of the media, that access to clean water was vital to everyone, rich and poor. The air of resonance chamber was overwhelming – two hours x 2,000 people is 4,000 hours of expert time wasted on a series of statements that everyone in the room already knew.

Mark then gives a generous interpretation of this, and a cynical one.

He goes on to talk about the near-complete lack of innovation at these events:

In a session on innovation, I was asked for my impressions. I was scathing. As intimidating as it was impersonal, apart from the presence of mobile phones, I didn’t see anything happening around me that couldn’t have happened here in 1969. Where was the innovation? … Worse was what I didn’t see – there were not many people demonstrating new, low cost technologies, one of the things we care most about at Akvo.

Of course, there are better, more open ways of doing things, including the BarCamp approach to conferences, and Mark gives some specific ideas in his post. Read the whole post on the Akvo blog.