Will the World Bank go all “Wikipedia”?


The World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, Shantayanan Devarajan, writes about using mobile phones for monitoring and transparency. It’s good to see the World Bank looking seriously at the principles of open development.

He continues:

Each year, the World Bank produces a World Development Report. While there is an extensive consultation process with the draft, the Report is essentially written by a core team of Bank staff. Why not produce the report like Wikipedia, and invite the whole world to write it? As one of my colleagues put it, “Then it will be the World’s Development Report.”

And a fitting symbol of Development 3.0.

via Development 3.0 | End Poverty.

That would be exciting to see. The World Bank has recently opened its data to public use, but Devarajan’s idea is several steps beyond that.

Here’s a submission for the next step, that might take us a bit closer to Wiki World Development Reports: Open licenses on all World Bank content, scrapping the current restrictions on all past and future World Bank publications. Those restrictions may seem mild (no commercial use and no mention of permissions for derivatives) but they are not compatible with open licenses, meaning they do not support wider collaborative work, and have no place in Development 3.0. It’s time to open up.

Enabling the Windmill Bills

Curtposts, English

I had the good fortune to meet William Kamkwamba last Friday night as he and his co-author Bryan Mealer stopped in San Francisco at a private residence as part of their book tour for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. As the two took a few minutes to share a bit about William’s life, Bryan referred to William as “Windmill Bill.”  Fair enough, except that we soon learned there’s a lot more to William than windmills.  For example, he also built crude but effective power switches and even a circuit breaker to protect his home from risk due to the bare metal wiring he had used.

I’ve only just begun reading the book, and yet I’ve already been struck by several ways in which William’s story highlights the power of Appropedia’s vision.  William used available materials, mostly from a local junkyard, combined with insight from a high school physics text and a book on windmills, to construct his first windmill a few years ago.  William could not then read English, but painstakingly translated some sections of these books with some help from a local library. With his windmills, William has generated power to light his household, and pumped well water to supply his village of Wimbe, Malawi.  In the first chapter, William talks about how learning about science displaced a pattern of magical thinking.

The power of ideas and knowledge is immense.  William’s initiative and perseverance have fittingly won him a rare opportunity at the African Leadership Academy, where 200 other young Africans have the opportunity to get a phenomenal education.  Ideas and knowledge.  William certainly had limited educational resources when he first built his windmill.  100’s of  millions of others in developing nations, both school-aged and older, have even less. Many are working to expand access to libraries, but the task is huge and hard to scale. However, just as the developing world has been able to bypass the huge investment in landline phone technology, they may have alternatives to physical libraries.

In the coming 4 years, half a billion new Internet users will come online, a great many in developing countries. In the past year, shipments of data-enabled phones outnumbered simple SMS phones in Africa.  In ten years, even those in the developing world will begin to gain some access to the internet. That puts a library within reach of every inquisitive mind. Imagine what will happen when all the world’s Windmill Bills can read about useful ideas in their own language.

That is what the Appropedia community is working toward.

Reporting on BarCampAfrica


I just made a guest post on Akvo’s blog. Mark introduces the post…

Picture 3.png

I wrote recently about the New Participants in the development process and I’m pleased to introduce one here, for our first Akvo guest blog. Chris Watkins of Appropedia was able to attend the BarCampAfrica event, hosted a few weeks ago on the Google Campus in San Jose. None of the Akvo team could be there but Chris was kind enough to offer his take on what it was about. Over to Chris…

I have a confession: I love BarCamps – the free structure, the inclusive nature, and loads of interesting people. And I’m passionate about international development. So when I heard of BarCampAfrica, I knew I had to go.

To set the tone, during the opening session, we were asked to stand up if we were from Africa or had ever been to Africa – I was surprised to see the majority of the room standing. It soon become clear that this was by and large a group of action takers – people who care, who had gone out and done it, learnt the lessons, and were taking action now.

Read the full post…

Innovation in Africa tips


The Design in Africa blog has compiled tips on Innovation in Africa from thought leaders in development:

From Ethan Zuckerman’s post ‘Innovating from constraint‘:

  1. Innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
  2. Don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
  3. Embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
  4. Innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
  5. Problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
  6. What you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
  7. Infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa.)

And Amy Smith on rules for design in the developing world:

  1. Try living for a week on $2 a day.
    That’s what my students and I do when I teach my class about international development. It helps them begin to understand the trade-offs that must be made when you have only very limited resources. More broadly, it was in the Peace Corps in Botswana that I learned to carry water on my head, and noticed how heavy the bucket was; and I learned to pound sorghum in to flour and felt the ache in my back. As a designer, I came to understand the importance of technologies that can transport water or grind grain.
  2. Listen to the right people. Okay, so you probably don’t know what it’s like to carry fifty pounds of firewood on your head. Well, don’t pretend that you do. Talk to someone who has done it. I believe that the key to innovation in international development is truly understanding the problem, and using your imagination is not good enough.
  3. Do the hard work needed to find a simple solution. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”—and it is the key to this type of design work.
  4. Create “transparent” technologies, ones that are easily understood by the users, and promote local innovation.
  5. Make it inexpensive. My friend Paul Polak has adapted a famous quote to the following: “Affordability isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and there’s a lot of truth in that. When you are designing for people who are earning just one or two dollars a day, you need to keep things as cheap as you can and then make it even cheaper!
  6. If you want to make something 10 times cheaper, remove 90 percent of the material.
  7. Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution,
    rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.

And Paul Polak via Nextbillion;

  1. go to where the action is
  2. talk to the people who have the problem – and LISTEN to what they have to say
  3. learn everything there is to know about the specific context
  4. think and act big – don’t do anything that can’t reach a million people
  5. think like a child – children have no limit to their thinking
  6. see and do the obvious
  7. if somebody already invented it, you don’t have to
  8. design to critical price targets
  9. design for measurable improvement in the lives of more than a million people
  10. work to practical, three-year plans
  11. keep learning from your customers
  12. stay positive – don’t be distracted by what other people think (if there
    were a need for it, the market would have already created it)

So here are my 7 hints/tips/rules;

  1. Understand by observing the environment, infrastructure, culture and lives of people by being there.
  2. Think creatively: start big, use constraints as a filter and find the simplest solutions.
  3. Increase user acceptance; build on existing platforms, lower costs and beware of radically different ways of doing things.
  4. Deliver value; what are the benefits for people using the end product, does it improve a persons life?
  5. Economic sustainability; provide financial motivation for continued growth over time. Empower people by improving their economic or social status.
  6. Share knowledge and skills to continue the innovative process both to and from people and communities.
  7. Peripheral vision; keep a look out for other challenges or new solutions all the time.

Stay tuned – we plan to have more on this theme.

Subsidies hurting Africa


BarCampAfrica – The OLPC (laptop) project is another form of harmful subsidy, says one critic. It was a gentle critique – even the critic is a fan of the OLPC project in many ways (as am I – extremely cool tech and great educational ideas).

But it’s clear to anyone familiar with development issues that subsidies really are harmful, much of the time – and the speaker had examples of his own. Like the big headaches for ISPs in Africa when international aid organizations come in and dropping free connections on schools or communities. Such subsidies take out a whole chunk of the market that businesses no longer have access to – then when the aid organization leaves and goes somewhere else, the locals are left with local businesses that are weakened and less able to serve the community.

Now, I still see the OLPC as doing much more good than harm. Sure, they’re taking out a huge chunk of the market… but that market mostly didn’t exist before OLPC’s innovations made it possible to serve these people.

So, I like the suggestions: Open source the design*, let anyone build them, and keep the margin local.

On the other hand, I wonder if there is any possibility of a market-based solution that achieves OLPC’s aims, especially saturation. But if a no-subsidy model leads to more effective markets and institutions, then that may be a more important achievement. It also leaves space for more innovation – e.g. variations on the Educational Television Computer (a.k.a. the $10 computer).

* Actually, isn’t it already open source…? Help me out here...

As with all posts in this blog, the views expressed here are those of the poster, and don’t necessarily represent the Appropedia community.



I love a BarCamp, but BarCampAfrica will be way more exciting. A BarCamp is a semi-structured gathering of mostly geeky people, and a great place to pick up new ideas. This one will be for people who are passionate about doing something positive for Africa – much closer to my own passions.

It’s about “technology, mobility, art, social justice, sustainability, micro-finance – and all things Africa-esque.”