Open source software, open hardware and crowd-sourced innovation are the key to a new project intended to design clever, low cost data gathering tools for relief efforts.
When we think of open source, the ancient saying that our achievements arise only because we stand on the shoulders of giants is often validated. Apple's huge success is in large part because it has been able to use so much open source software, albeit giving very little back to the commons (as is their corporate style); Microsoft, IBM and most others owe big slices of their product portfolio to their ability to build on open source precursors rather than to reinvent the basics.
While such commercial examples may spring to mind readily, open source is also having enormous impact in allowing humanitarian activities to start aloft giant shoulders rather than needing to painstakingly build from the ground upwards - the Sahana Software Foundation epitomises this. For aid and relief organisations, open source is as important for providing access to innovation and technology as it is for reducing costs.
An interesting and recent example is the OpenRelief project. Started in the wake of last year's huge earthquake in Japan, it aims to draw together existing parts - hardware, software, data and administrative patterns - to solve obvious barriers to successful relief efforts that its founders saw made heartbreakingly real last year.
I had the opportunity to interview one of the founders of OpenRelief, Shane Coughlan. Shane is well known in European free and open source software circles, not least for his work at the Free Software Foundation Europe building their amazing network of legal experts and for his involvement launching the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review. He's now living in Japan.
His motivation for OpenRelief arose from his experiences as a relief volunteer following last year's massive earthquake in Japan. He realised that there was not enough information flowing between the various volunteers and agencies to make the effort effective, and decided to do something practical about it. Together with an eclectic international group of collaborators, OpenRelief was formed and quickly got to work.
While they are focussing initially on crowd-sourcing an autonomous aerial robot, their vision is broader than this admittedly attention-grabbing project. By bringing together commodity components, open hardware designs, open source software and smart people, they hope to evolve designs for tools that will complement and assist disaster relief efforts.
The radiation sensor they're using is typical. The prototype uses a treacle tin, a few cheap and common components and hardware items and a wireless-network-capable microcontroller to broadcast the data. Other modules - the UAV for example - then harvest the data and relay it where it's needed. Shane mentioned they are specifically targeting Sahana's software, but there are plenty of other potential uses.
Of course, this topic area is also of great interest to rich corporations who can be expected to use patents to chase away low-cost solutions. But OpenRelief has thought of that too. They are encouraging all their volunteers to use the Linux Defenders scheme to defensively publish all their innovations. This has the dual benefit of enriching the knowledge commons in ways that are reusable (unlike patents themselves), while also registering prior art to defend against possible future patent actions.
Here's my full interview with Shane:
Overall, this is an intelligent and capable humanitarian activity that deserves to succeed. Once they have their UK-based non-profit established, they will be able to accept cash donations, but for now they need volunteer collaborators as well as donations in kind. Take a look at their web site for more.
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