Facilitating International Development through Free / Open Source
An open library of designs for refrigerators, lighting, heating, cooling, motors, and other systems will encourage manufacturers, particularly in the developing world, to leapfrog directly to the most sustainable technologies, which are much cheaper in the long run. Manufacturers will be encouraged to use the efficient designs because they are free, while inefficient designs still have to be paid for. The library could also include green chemistry and biological solutions to industry challenges, for example enzymatic reactions that could be used in place of energy, and chemical-intensive processes or nontoxic paint pigments for cars and buildings. This library should be free of all intellectual property restrictions and open for use by any manufacturer, in any nation, without charge.from A Whole-Systems Framework for Sustinable Production and Consumption - a whitepaper I co-authored while volunteering at RMI
The goal of this essay is to show examples of technologies that could be created at the US taxpayer's expense, help people all over the world live as they wish to, and also displace technologies which are actively bad for the US taxpayer, wherever in the world they are employed.
Free/Open Source development is inherently non-coercive. Anybody who does not wish to use the systems that would be developed in this scheme is free to ignore them. However, because they solve real problems, I think there would be considerable benefits for everybody - American citizens, and people all over the world equally - if the government were to invest in these systems.
The question I want to raise is this: as a vehicle for attaining conventional foreign policy objectives, this approach has a great deal more promise than current levels of government investment in it would suggest. How do we close the gap. Part of the key is the concept of "trans-idological consensus" (a favorite concept of Amory Lovins) - the hawks want many of the same changes in the world situation that the doves want, like reduced pressure on the global fuel market. But war suits nobody as well as reaching those objectives by peaceful means. Open technology development gives us one path which is mutually tolerable for all parties.
The Axiomatic Framework
- Oil demand is rising roughly 2% per year
- In the international markets, a gallon of gas saved in China is roughly speaking the same as one saved in Iowa, and closely equivalent to or better than a gallon of oil in the ground
- Pressure on natural resources is still strongly correlated with economic growth in spite of reduced energy (etc.) intensity per GDP
- Population growth is undesirable for all kinds of compelling reasons and there is some correlation between infant mortality rates and demand for and use of birth control options
- Resource conflicts anywhere eventually lead to increasing military pressure everywhere
- Models which assume long term international economic disparity may not hold up under the weight of globalization (although citizens within nations can be reasonably expected to stay stratified)
- Buy change where it is cheap or free
- "Everybody Wins" is much easier to sell than win/lose solutions
- Paths to economic well being which do not involve the developing world going through a dirty industrial revolution are preferable
- Globally reduce pressure on the environment
- Globally reduce resource conflicts, particularly those around oil and water
- Steer towards paths which invite development for all along lines compatible with 1 & 2
Solar Water Pasteurization and other clean water technologies
What?Water heated to around 160F for several hours is sterilized of all pathogens. In many parts of the world this is achievable by putting a plastic soda bottle on the porch and leaving it until evening. Importantly this approach sterilizes the container the water is in - other approaches, like UV sterilizers, frequently produce clean water which is then served from contaminated containers, negating most benefits.
There are a variety of products on the market which do this job at differing levels of sophistication. Many are implausibly cheap: a few cents per head per year.
Why?PR: "after we started using the American water bottle, our children no longer got diarrhea and we could work more because we were not taking care of them while they were sick. I think Anju would have died without it." Hearts and minds, hearts and minds. We can do this for, what, a dollar per head? Even at $10 this is cheap.
Reduced infant mortality is a big step towards stabilizing population growth, if it is accompanied by birth control availability and female education at even very basic levels. There is less clarity about what is achieved without these two cofactors being present.
What needs to get done?Comprehensive mapping of which parts of the world have enough sunlight for this to work
some areas will work just with a plastic bottle
other areas need some basic solar cooking engineering
We need definitive "is this water sterile?" indicators.
Primarily, "turkey popper" type devices which can be placed in or on the water container and then pop out when it has been hot enough for long enough. Some approaches suggested in the literature suggest paraffin wax. I think this is the wrong approach: an LED indicator and a simple thermometer is going to be cheaper in the long run to mass manufacture and will be more reliable. It can be solar powered.
Secondarily, what's the situation with assaying water quality? What's the cheapest and most general kit available for diagnosing problems with water supplies? How can it be improved?
Algal Turf Scrubbers or other algae biodiesel/biobutanol/bioethanol systems
What?Farmed algae - some grown in salt water, in shallow ponds in desert areas - have incredibly yields. Some estimates (Michael Briggs) indicate 20,000 gallons of biodiesel per year per acre, plus additional fuel from processing the biomass into alcohols. The diesel comes off the lines at about $1.50 per gallon. Of key importance - this doesn't require the conversion of scarce agricultural land to fuel crops and doesn't increase freshwater demand. Systems which process the oils in the algae to biodiesel and the biomass to bioethanol/biobutanol are to be favored. Biobutanol is produced much like bioethanol (but less far along) but, crucially, apparently runs in unmodified internal combustion engines. The US DOE Aquatic Species Program (closed in 1993) has extensive research.
Why?This is a long term solution to the world's transportation fuels crisis because new capacity can be added to meet rising global demands. Estimates suggest that a few thousand square miles of these ponds would supply the USA. Long term price stabilization comes as cost of production plus cost of borrowing to buy production capacity provide a permanent natural maximum fuel price. Food and carbon sequestration may be interesting side benefits. This technology could allow many nations to grow their own fuel and help break the lock of the oil-rich nations. What needs to get done?
Dr. Adey of the Smithsonian or some other equally competent player needs to get a pilot plant in the "half a square mile" range funded. Once the entire world knows that this technology is for real there should be a mad scramble by all kinds of nations and companies to commercialize production of their own local variations to rapidly flip the world fuel economy from gasoline to algae products.
The 300 mpg autorickshaw
What?A super efficient lightweight rickshaw-type vehicle for use in the developing world and poorer parts of the globe. Plausible technologies include lightweight bicycle-style construction (aluminium tubes and bike bearings), computer designed aerodynamic cowlings and small, efficient engines. Options include battery powered drive for short journeys to be powered from the coal grids of Asia. Because these vehicles do not need to provide the same degree of speed, weather protection or (frankly) safety they can be designed with a completely different engineering ethos from western cars resulting in breakthrough fuel efficiency.
Why?Most of the expected growth in oil demand is from the poorer parts of the world as the people there experience economic growth and buy cars. If, however, a highly pleasing and area-appropriate vehicle is available for 10% of the cost of a car a lot of demand may be offset by consumer choice. Current models get under 100 mpg and are generally not well engineered for either safety of efficiency: much room for improvement exists. Mopeds may also be due for an overhaul along these lines. What needs to get done?
I think this challenge would be well-addressed by a $1,000,000 design prize or other "challenge driven" competitive engineering events. The level of complexity that engineering students could initiate much of the fundamental work.
Key areas to consider: can the final designs be published without patents? If a really good design emerges, could plans for an efficient, low-cost production system / factory be produced and published, enabling business people from all over the world to easily set up shop producing these vehicles, each one making their own variation on the basic template to ensure their own brand prospers?
Can existing car companies be persuaded to leave these vehicles alone and not pressure for legislation in the developing world banning them? There is, of course, some inverse relationship between the success of algal turf scrubbers or similar technologies and the need for 300 mpg car-displacing autorickshaws...
Software for global democracy
- binding a "hard" identity to a mobile device like a cell phone (biometrics?)
- protocols to allow secure anonymous voting in an environment where physical
- coercion cannot be protected against
- flexible polling and governance software
Why?In the developing world the cellphone is advancing rapidly to become the main national communications infrastructure. One can theorize that as this trend progresses, services of various kinds which require "hard" identity information (such as banking) will migrate to this platform. Once there is a reliable way of conducting secure transactions of this kind over cellphones, some political units (perhaps starting with villages and towns, if not entire states) are likely to switch to cellphone-based decision making in some areas. While it is hard today to imagine entire national elections being conducted on this platform, the paper-and-ballot-box approach is incredibly expensive, physically insecure and has no cultural foothold in most of the world. For cultures where all remote business is conducted by phone voting in this manner will be natural, predictable and easy.
The key to this software is that, for these democracies to flourish, it has to work. That may be a job better suited to the US Govt. than many other entities. But in addition to working, this software can encode a lot of political assumptions: for example, if the de facto standard distributed voting software only supports party-based first-past-the- post, the code has locked people into a particular political situation. Similarly, if the voting software has the ability to show images and logos, the illiterate are more supported in voting. What if the software supports only one display language? Then we bias the voting towards the users of the primary language in multi- or polylingual areas.
By paying to get this done right we encourage - and perhaps ensure - safe, fair and free elections in any nation using the software. Furthermore, this is tangible support for democracy that everybody can relate to.
On coercion: because one cannot ensure that the vote caster is alone while the vote is cast, it becomes necessary to allow "revoting" where they can recast their vote at some later date according to their own preferences. Hopefully any armed bands holding statistically significant numbers of voters hostage until polling closes would be easy enough to identify. Some thought should also be given to vote confirmation by cryptographically signed SMS messages (given the 160 char limit, ECC may be the only plausible approach) so that hacking at the vote counting facilities can be detected. Note also that the vote counting systems could be located remotely - say, in Washington, DC - another example of the "state services" thesis of "Winning the Long Peace." The benefits of being a white glove trusted third party are many, if we can reattain that status.
This is a long term - multi-decade - project with no immediate returns to the US Govt. although very large possible long term effects. These problems must be solved, and by solving them first, in a high quality open source implementation, we get long term political control of the platform on which democracy runs. The only possible advantage that the US Govt. can derive from this - short of backdooring the software! - is to ensure fair and free elections abroad.
As an aside: if cellphones are used for banking, and poor people have access only to the basket case currencies of their nation state, when the currency collapses they go from being very poor to starving. A good cellphone interface to very low value dollar or gold bank accounts (see http://e-gold.com/ for a large, successful, privately issued gold-denominated Internet currency) could provide access to international economic opportunities and a great deal of stability and security for the very poor. As a gateway, cellphone minutes should actively be prevented from becoming de facto electronic currency in the developing world, lest the cellphone companies become vast private banks and the poor become unfortunates who's lifetime savings are held in the form of privately issued company scrip.
What needs to get done?Solve the identity management issues for mobile devices. Current suggestion: bluetooth-based biometric identification modules that can be sold as an add-on to the global cellphone infrastructure. But it will have to get much, much better. Solve the problems of voting at non-physically secure terminals, where coercion may be practiced.
Develop software which generically represents the electoral situations of the developing (and other?) world and make this highly secure software available for free to anybody on the planet. Hardware components too?
GPS/Satellite property registers
What?Land ownership registers based on satellite and GPS data, accessible through cell phones (of course.)
Why?Land clearances, sophisticated frauds like declaring your parents dead and taking their lands (happens a lot in India), borrowing capital against land and so on all require solid, transferable deeds of ownership of lands. USGS already does 90% of the work required to make a system like this happen, if the identity infrastructure is in place, and it represents critical infrastructure all over the world. Extending a system like this to handle less tangible assets like water rights has potential also: consider within the larger frameworks of carbon trading, for example. How much could we help stabilize the rural populations of developing nations by offering them cheap access to these tools once infrastructure like GPS phones come down to low enough prices to be routine in those nations?
What needs to get done?The most basic level of service is being able to precisely define the shape of a plot of land by GPS, and have this shown on a satellite map. Some kind of authorization interface is required to enter these plots - i.e. "authority X states that Land Plot #234234234234 has these coordinates."
A second system then handles assigning ownership of these plots - one imagines X509-type flows of authority channeled down through the current holders of these capabilities where they exist, and de novo creation of these authorities where they do not. The simplest systems start with people asserting that they own their ancestral lands.
What?A set of hypertexts available in every major language explaining the history, geography and political structure of the world to the global poor as they come online through ultra- cheap ICT. Other critical areas include medical and health care, agricultural and other knowledge bases that are highly relevant to the lives of peasants, slum dwellers and other impoverished people. Basic educational texts are very important. These texts should be standardized wherever possible (with exceptions for, say, sex education materials in Muslim or Catholic nations) to aid keeping the translations straight. There may be room for open source approaches with autocratic editorial quality control.
These texts should also include a "media primer" helping people interpret texts they find online to prevent propaganda being as effective as it might be otherwise be. Writing a document that explains the types of human knowledge to a culture without any written history and global access to the Internet is a challenge unlike any other.
Why?Billions and billions of people are going to drop into the 21st century as ultra-cheap computing devices, cell towers and other ICT arrives within the market reach of the global poor. Expect rising literacy rates!
These people are being hit, in one generation, with writing, printing, telecommunications and the computer revolution. They have little or no context to put the world crashing into their homes: expect Cargo Cults, at the very least. What if the Church of Scientology or a similar group rapidly exploits this revolution in communications and winds up with 400 million members across the globe... or if we see massive global ponzi fraud schemes like the those that hit Romania and Albania (the Albanian instance toppled the government)?
There is no shortage of mischief that unsympathetic tellings of world history could cause - old rifts renewed, anti-Americanism or Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion - propaganda and lies of all kinds sown into the fertile ground of atechnological populations: the information age equivalent of Smallpox to the Aztecs.
On the upside, how grateful would you be as a peasant to have crop rotation and germ theory explained to you by a nice digital voice coming from your cell phone, reading a text in your local language prepared by the USDA and CDC? If, as a rural African, your little terminal contained accurate and compelling HIV education materials. Again, the costs of developing these materials are low, the impact high, and the potential for forestalling problems immense.
What needs to get done?
- Analysis of what goes into the Primer
- Assemble the knoweldge base in English
- Verify, validate, translate and test
- Explore all plausible means to push this toolset - and the fair and unbiased information with it - all over the world. Think Voice of America for the internet age.