• Written by Mark Charmer
    29 April 2009

I’ve been thinking about this conversation with Ian Abbott Donnelly for a month and thought it worth sharing more widely. Ian is European chief technology officer at IBM Big Green Innovations. We first met Ian at Stockholm World Water Week in August 2007.

Ian blew Thomas and I away with some ideas at World World Forum in Istanbul, about radical new ways that data could be organised, to gather knowledge – capturing positive and negative stories – about people’s poor access to water and sanitation.

Ian stressed the sweet spot is small stories – often just short paragraphs about what the issue is, or why something worked as a case study. As he put it:

The clever bit is that you tag these small stories – what kind of story is it? It could be about sanitation or pesticides, or how to pump water effectively from one place to another. You don’t have to have a taxonomy – you let the people who tell the story tag them in whatever way they want to tag them. You also get them to rate it on a scale of one to ten – a ‘smiley’ scale of happy to sad faces.

It’s then possible to drill into the data in all kinds of ways, to explore what people actually think about technologies in practice. This points to ways that we can one day process the data coming out through Akvo RSR (Really Simple Reporting) – and it could mean we should consider adding tagging – and smileys – into project updates in a future version.

I think Ian hit on a way that we can create a bridge between Akvopedia and Akvo Really Simple Reporting – enabling ways for anyone to drill down into what people actually think about technologies in practice. There’s potential to go from a rope pump entry in Akvopedia, to a global map of stories about how effectively rope pumps have worked, what the issues have been, etc. And the idea that this could mine the entire Akvo project base – which we hope will eventually feature hundreds of thousands of projects – is an eye-watering idea.

The software that could underpin this comes from a spin-off IBM venture called Cognitive Edge.

I think it’s time to speak to Ian and his guys. If you’re interested in helping us explore it, drop me a line.