…but not every nail is part of a house

Thomas Bjelkeman, founder of Akvo, talks about what got Akvo started and some thoughts on how the open source collaboration process can change the water and sanitation community.

When we started telling people in the water and sanitation community that we would build a Wikipedia for water and sanitation as one of the corner stones for Akvo, one of the reactions we got was that “so-and-so is already using a wiki for water and/or sanitation”. But when we looked at what they were referring to it turned out that we were really talking about quite different things.

Wikipedia, and who would know better, defines a wiki as:

“A wiki is a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it.”

There are a number of wikis about water and sanitation that are not really editable by everyone, such as UNDP’s WaterWiki, where you essentially have to have an invitation to contribute or work at the UNDP. Now, there is nothing wrong with this. Of course there should be information resources where only some people have access to create content. But WaterWiki is not a wiki in the true sense of the word. It is the difference between Encyclopedia Britannica, with 120,000 entries, edited by handpicked authors and editors vs. Wikipedia, with 1,9 million entries in English (and a further 6 million entries in other languages) created by anyone who wants to lend a hand. The interesting thing is that entries in the Britannica aren’t necessarily of better quality than those in Wikipedia, even though Britannica has paid contributors. Just because a wiki is the tool used to build a web site doesn’t mean that every web site built using a wiki is truly collaborative at the same level or competing with every other wiki.

Thomas Bjelkeman

“The open source community engages exactly those who Prof. Biswas said we missed engaging within the water and sanitation community: the young, the people who know what the problem is in the first place, it has low barriers to entry and it uses the latest in technology to communicate the results to everyone involved. And the results have been astonishing.”

The recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize 2007, Professor Asit Biswas, said in a public interview that I attended, that there are a number of problems with the way the water and sanitation sector goes about its work trying to help people who have neither. Among other things the community is not good at including the people closest to the problem, it is not inclusive enough in its work. Just going to a conference like this, he said, you quickly see that we are just the same water and sanitation sector people as always, talking to ourselves. He also said that we do not engage young people in our work and we do not use the latest in technology to communicate with people.

Prof. Biswas receives the price from Princess Victoria

“Professor Asit Biswas, said […] the community is not good at including the people closest to the problem […] we do not engage young people in our work and we do not use the latest in technology to communicate with people.”

The last couple of points were what started the whole process of developing Akvo. It occurred to me when Prof. Biswas said this, that it dovetailed nicely into my recent thinking about open source project methods and how this could be used in many more areas than just computer software development and online encylopedias.
The open source method of collaborative development is without doubt one of the most exciting things going on in the area of human collaboration. Sourceforge, a project repository for open source computer software, has over 150 000 projects listed and 1,6 million registered users (you don’t have to register to download software). The open source community engages exactly those who Prof. Biswas said we missed engaging within the water and sanitation community: the young, the people who know what the problem is in the first place, it has low barriers to entry and it uses the latest in technology to communicate the results to everyone involved. And the results have been astonishing. A corporate document management system, which twenty years ago would have set you back several million dollars to purchase and then as much again for consultancy to get it up and running in your organisation, can now be downloaded for free from an open source software project, and there are dozens of candidate systems to choose from. At the same time computer software programmers are not out of work (which is easy to imagine when the software is given away for free), they are as busy as ever, working at a higher level of abstraction, getting things done.

This is what we want to achieve with the water and sanitation community. Get things done. We have a billion people without clean water and two and half billion people without proper sanitation. We clearly need to accelerate how we go about doing our business. We think that opening up the process is part of the solution, a way to allow the people who are working in NGOs and on development to get on with the task, with access to the right tools in an easy to use and open manner.

It was depressing to hear that the “bible” for water and sanitation solutions in the field are two little books, excellent as they are, which lists a couple of dozen simple and easy to implement technologies published by Netherlands Water Partnership and some of their partners. Depressing, because fifteen years into the internet information revolution, we have still not managed to go beyond the printed page for the most urgent and most critical information that we need to distribute around the world. But, it turns out that there is a grain of hope in this. Because these books are so small they cannot contain the full instructions on how to build or use the technologies which they describe. They have a short description and then a number of web sites listed where one can find more information. In other words, the people who use these books have internet access.

So what is stopping us from putting all the information online then? Well, nothing. Which is why Akvo’s wiki (or Akvopedia as we call it) is one of the corner stones for our effort.

So, come help us build the best water and sanitation information resource. With your help it will be easy!