Open source rain water harvesting hardware

Open source hardware doesn’t have to be very sophisticated to have a huge economic impact. Detail of a rainwater harvesting system in Kongarahalli, southern India

The Economist had an article about open source hardware, in the latest Science and Technology Quarterly, which a tweet from Tim O’Reilly made me notice. The article talks about how open source software, such as the Linux operating system and the Firefox web browser, has inspired some computer and consumer electronics companies to extend the ideas behind open source to hardware products.

The author envisions a future where “Some day, perhaps, fabricating machines will be able to transform digital specifications (software) into physical objects (hardware), which will no doubt lead to a vibrant trade in specifications, some of which will be paid for, and some of which will be open-source.” and ends the article with “All of which suggests that open-source hardware will really start to make a difference when big hardware makers and consumer-electronics firms begin to embrace the idea.

It seems a curiously narrow western view that the “big thing” is when you can feed a specification to you desktop 3D printer and out pops an open source iPod.

Billions of people live under crushing poverty and 40% of the worlds population doesn’t even have adequate sanitation, they go behind the nearest bush, or use a bag as their toilet and throw it over the nearest wall. Something which causes more death every year 1 than all the ongoing wars put together, untold misery, sickness and lost opportunities.

I would argue that the real economic revolution comes when the billions living in poverty are lifted out of this misery and are not only given a chance to live a decent life, but also become active participants of the world economy. It is now generally accepted that the cheapest way to lift people out of poverty is to tackle the water and sanitation issue. Each dollar spent on water and sanitation has a knock-on effect in other areas of US$3 to USD$34 2, i.e. spend money on water and sanitation and you get poverty reduction for “free”. And we plan to use open source as a tool to do this. It is actually around this central idea that Akvo was conceived, with a focus on the water and sanitation issue and not limiting ourselves to the idea that hardware has to be made by other machines and be consumer electronics to be valuable open source.

People in the water and sanitation sector, working with so called appropriate technology, have been working with an open source philosophy for a long time, albeit without the quite sophisticated licensing that most open source software comes with, i.e. GNU GPL licenses and the like. Many, if not most, water and sanitation appropriate technology solutions are in the public domain, an even more open version of open source if you will.

We started Akvo to promote this type of information about open hardware water and sanitation solutions as well as actually create a repository of information, the Akvopedia, as we found that specifications, instructions, and other information which is needed to make water and sanitation hardware, was surprisingly hard to find on the internet.

My colleagues from the water and sanitation sector had already started publishing books describing different hardware solutions, Smart Water Solutions and Smart Sanitation Solutions, when I first met them. These books have been wildly successful and they couldn’t bring enough of them with them to give away at conferences and exhibitions. They have been translated to a number of different languages by other organisations and reprinted several times, to the point where we have lost track of how many has been distributed. The PDF versions of the books are some of the most popular downloads at the web site of our partner IRC, they average two thousand downloads every month for the last half year.

But printed instructions about open source hardware only go so far. Once the page is printed it is static, and you can ever only reach as many people as you print copies of the book (a truth with modifications as we also distribute PDF files as well). But the vibrant trade in specifications The Economist envisages can only happen if we open up the printed page even further, which we have done with the Akvopedia.

Our vision is that the Akvopedia will become the place to go for specifications, instructions, drawings and advice on how to build open source water and sanitation hardware, so that we once and for all can tackle the massive water and sanitation problem that exists today.

The Akvopedia is only in its infancy yet, but we are convinced that these types of efforts can have and will have a huge impact in fighting poverty in a slum near you, soon.

Thomas Bjelkeman is the founder of Akvo.

  1. Dirty Water: Estimated Deaths from Water-Related Diseases 2000-2020 [PDF], Pacific Institute Research Report, Peter H. Gleick, August 15, 2002
  2. Driving development by investing in water and sanitation, Five facts support the argument [PDF], World Health Organisation, Stockholm International Water Institute