• Written by Mark Charmer
    12 June 2008

We’ve wanted to connect for some time with the team at Appropedia, so it was great to be approached by Chris Watkins, who found me through my Wiser Earth profile (Peggy Duvette and her team in San Francisco will love to hear that). I met with Andrew Lamb, its UK-based director on Wednesday in London.

Appropedia is a pioneering wiki focused on appropriate technologies that promote sustainability, poverty reduction and international development. As with the best open source ventures, the vision and mission is both focused and evolving all the time:

“To build the infrastructure, and help make the connections and populate free content to effect that vision. One of our main goals is to be the living resource library of individuals and organizations working towards a sustainable, healthier future, so that efforts can be spent evolving instead of duplicating past efforts.”

First impressions could indicate that Akvopedia directly overlaps with this more established wiki and they’d be right to an extent. But it was clear quickly that they, like us, recognise that great teams committed to open source working find ways to build off (and connect) eachother’s efforts. Appropedia has a broader focus, with a large (US-oriented) editor network, and has worked hard to learn lessons from the evolution of Wikipedia. In turn the Akvopedia is cultivating an editor network rooted in specialist water and sanitation experts and is being optimised to support from the start our initial programme of more than 75 pilot projects around the world. This is a jigsaw that can fit together.

Topics we discussed included:

Licensing. The Akvopedia will publish all content under GNU’s Free Documentation License (FDL). This is the same as Wikipedia uses. We’ve been asked by some to standardise on the Creative Commons Share Alike, By Attribution license (CC-BY-SA). The Wikipedia Foundation is exploring migration to CC-BY-SA but we’ve are leaning towards sticking with the proven approach and let Wikipedia do the innovating, as discussed on our Akvopedia mailing list. Thomas feels that it is much easier to get our content providers comfortable with the FDL license because we can say “it’s the same one Wikipedia uses”. Right now, anything else could slow things down. Andrew’s team at Appropedia is going through the same thoughts and has also decided to stay with FDL for now. This was reassuring.

Overlap. We are going to experience many situations where similar content could be posted on both wikis. Today there are no ground rules on how to handle this. Does a search in Appropedia also point to specialised content in Akvopedia? Does a search in our wiki flag wider articles on Appropedia? Indeed where does the differentiation kick in? Positioning wikis against eachother is fraught with problems. All we know is that our users may not just focus on water and sanitation, so Appropedia’s breadth will be valuable to them. Yet our specialist experience and contributor network will give Appropedia users unprecedented depth and insight. That’s before we address issues of language translation, or maintaining similar versions of content on both our wikis.

We talked about the evolution of content curatorship, where different resource ‘brands’ structure similar, open information in unique patterns designed to be easily understood by their target users. How and when this will happen I’m not sure. What seems unlikely is that the world will see the development of one universal wiki, particularly given Wikipedia’s governance issues and ongoing tensions about containing or not containing its growth.

Andrew also talked to me about emerging plans for an Open Sustainability Conference touted for October in Boston. We’ll throw our hat into the ring for that, to be sure. I also suspect it will be of interest to people such as Akvo friend and open source analyst James Governor at Greenmonk Associates. James, maybe a great time to mobilise some of those passionate open source clients of yours into action?

Our Akvopedia team is expanding right now in Delft and we met last Monday to plan the expansion of the resource this summer. IRC is leading our implementation, and right now the team is developing the core templates and prioritising initial content uploads. I’ve been devoting time to examine how we use communication to scale up our network of contributors quickly – I’m exploring ideas such as two-week Sprints where teams agree to focus intensively on collecting and editing certain types of content. Certainly I’m concerned about the Field of Dreams scenario – “If you build it they will come” is a romantic idea but we have to work hard to motivate contributors to act boldly, rather than tinker.

Andrew Lamb has a fascinating background having led several social ventures before becoming a director of the Appropedia Foundation in February. A Cambridge engineering graduate, he was CEO for some time of Engineers Without Borders UK, who he still supports, and is a co-founder of The Humanitarian Centre. Today he wears multiple hats at RedR, which provides skills development support to aid workers globally. He also helped design a robotic unicycle, which obviously would endear him to me.

I’m organising for Chris to meet the team in Delft when he visits the Netherlands in July. We’re looking forward to working with all of you guys.