Blog Post

Opportunities in Sustainable Development and Open Source Technology

An open source refugee shelter system called the hexayurt.

Guest post by Joshua Pearce, Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Research Group
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The state of the globe is not all bad news. For example, there has been progress towards our Millennium Development Goals. However, disturbingly high levels of poverty and environmental desecration persist. The vast majority of formal research ignores these problems, which are related to sustainable development for the worlds’ poor. Surprisingly, even when research finds solutions to these problems, deployment is hamstrung by patent and copyright laws. Until recently, this forced people all over the world to reinvent technologies in their own communities. Fortunately, the same model of technical development used by Public Lab and other groups making low-cost high-quality open source lab equipment can be used to help drive sustainable development.
This solution to lack of collaboration and access to critical information is found in the rapid growth of open source appropriate technology (or OSAT). The open source’ part describes hardware where the design is shared so others may make it, but is licensed so improvements musts be re-shared with the global community. It is simply a pragmatic methodology – with the same benefits of teamwork in sports. The ‘appropriate technologies’ part refer to technologies that are easily and economically used from readily available resources by local communities to meet their needs. Often, and particularly in the developing world, these technologies are small-scale and elegant. For example, consider the hexayurt, an OSAT refugee shelter system.
The free nature of the knowledge also obviously provides lower costs, which is particularly important in the developing world.
Innovators in the citizen science and open source community are well positioned to investigate OSAT as they possess:

Researchers can perform experiments on OSAT and record the information in the public domain to accelerate sustainable development.
How to Take Your Work to a Global Audience
Most scientists focus on local or specific problems, yet many of their solutions may be useful globally. As a researcher that often develops equipment for citizen science, I was frustrated by the fact that some of our best work was effectively blocked by paywalls from use in the poorest regions that need it the most. To overcome that problem, I have been working with the NPO for the last decade to help put my group’s work in the hands of their primary audience: field workers on

An open source water quality testing platform.

the front lines of sustainable development. It hits a lot of them, with my group’s work being read more than half a million times per year there. Appropedia is a major center for OSAT dedicated to collaborative solutions in sustainability, poverty reduction and international development. Appropedia is a wiki-based website in which a large number of participants create and modify content directly from their web browsers. This allows even sometimes anonymous users to help my research group with our work. All the information developed is free to use and adapt. Anyone can also add to the collective open source knowledge base by contributing ideas, observations, experimental data, tests, or deployment logs.
Many of the technologies and projects on Appropedia are well developed; however, the vast majority could be improved by a careful critique by researchers. For example, innovators involved in water quality analysis can share the methods and tools they use in their own community for the benefit of communities all over the world. Similarly, they could also build and test equipment originally aimed at developing communities if it may be of use in their own. It is not hard to begin – just navigate to a page that you know something about, click edit and improve it. Your team can try building the technologies, test them and share your results or improve them. Use the good ideas in your experience or community to make it more sustainable and feed your results back to the world. If you want your innovation to reach the world – this is how to do it.
Professor Joshua Pearce runs the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. He is currently on sabbatical as a Fulbright-Aalto University Distinguished Chair developing open source scientific tools in Finland. He is editor-in-chief of HardwareX, a journal dedicated to open source scientific hardware and author of Open-Source Lab:How to Build Your Own Hardware & Reduce Research Costs.

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