Technology is awesome

One. I'm in Melbourne on a train to the city as I type this, chatting with Paul (more about Paul another time) who I've never met, and who is  14,000 km away in Costa Rica. We're discussing Appropedia.

Two. The Appropedia Foundation was founded in 2007 - and none of the 3 founding directors had ever met in person at that stage. I'm not recommending starting a legal entity with people you haven't met face-to-face, but it's worked well for us.

Three. One of the admins and significant contributors to Appropedia is truly hardcore in taking action on climate - he refuses to fly to climate conferences. He commutes by foot and bike, and points out that the "100 mile lifestyle" is far more important for the environment than the "100 mile diet". Yet he works with a global community without flying, without even leaving town.

How awesome is modern technology?

What other amazing things could we do with technology if we decided they were important? Say, if we decided to divert a trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies to low carbon energy research and implementation? Because we're currently using other kinds of technology to cause a drastic increase in greenhouse gases. But I digress.

Technology is awesome.

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Appropriately big?

Appropriate technology is a concept we believe in - it's really the unifying theme of Appropedia. It's about understanding the context, and choosing the technology (or technique, design or process) which is most appropriate to that context.

E.F. Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful, also talked about intermediate technology - neither primitive and unproductive, nor high tech and expensive or polluting. But is that the same as appropriate technology?

Having a fixed idea about the "right" scale of the solution or the "right" level of tech is a problem. Small-scale intermediate technologies can be wonderful - especially in remote settings. Other times, there's a lot to be said for the efficiency of scale, especially the large-scale infrastructure in cities. Doing things at scale means being able to afford expertise, monitoring, and backup systems. And the person living in a compact, walkable city, sharing a (very large) public transit system, getting their water from a (large) water utility and buying green power from their (large) electricity supplier, may have a smaller footprint than someone living close to nature with small-scale solutions, with solar panels and (because they're so remote) a car. (There's a big dose of "it depends" in such a comparison.)

Small is beautiful, yes. But let's not be fixated on small for every solution. I wouldn't want Appropedia to become solely for DIY enthusiasts building their own home-scale tech. As a living appropriate technology knowledge base, with an active community (including many students) Appropedia can bring together wisdom on many issues - including not only home greywater systems, but also the big infrastructure and planning issues we face. The appropriate approach is to take each approach on its merits, without an ideology favoring big or small scale.

Small is beautiful... but sometimes big is also quite good looking.

Education search engine

I recently needed to search for academics in a particular field of sustainability. Standard web searches weren't focused enough, so I looked for an education custom search - but couldn't find one.

Now, I can easily search all .edu sites by putting site:.edu in Google. Or search all US, UK and Australian education domain sites by using site:.edu OR site:.ac.uk OR site:.edu.au in Google. But I wanted to search as widely as possible, so I built my own custom search engine.

This tool covers many countries, and many sites for universities and other educational institutions. It include universities from countries such as Canada, France and Bulgaria which don't have education domains (e.g. Queens University is queensu.ca). So it was a fair bit of work, finding lists of universities, manipulating the layout and adding them to the search engine, but the result, for me, is a useful search tool.

Here it is. I hope it can be useful for someone else as well.


Note: you can also find this custom search easily by going to Appropedia and looking up "Education Search Engine".

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AppropediaFox!

Appropediafox.png

AppropediaFox is a free and open source plugin for the Firefox browser to help make editing Appropedia faster and easier, developed for Michigan Technological University (MTU).

MTU classes under Prof. Joshua M. Pearce learn about applied sustainability, including solar photovoltaic power, semiconductors and industrial symbiosis. Students document what they learn on Appropedia - making lots of great new pages. More info.

Now, because he wonderful folks at MTU do so much good work on Appropedia, a browser plugin was seen as a way to streamline their work. We worked with them to make it happen.

And AppropediaFox is free for all to use. It's still an early version, but if you want to do some serious editing of Appropedia, check it out.

So, what's it good for? First activate it (download and install, then View > Sidebar > Appropedia-Fox). Then check out the functions:

Adding categories and templates

It's handy for finding categories to add to an Appropedia article - you browse through the alphabetical list in the left sidebar, click one and it automatically copies it to your clipboard (as if you'd gone right-click > copy). Then go to your wiki article and paste it in. Repeat as needed - one at a time.

Similarly with templates - browse the templates (by category, this time), then click and past in. Templates are harder, as you have to guess exactly what the template does, but the name gives an idea. Just try out your template first, by pasting it in then pressing "preview". (If you want to view the template page, you can use preview and then click the appropriate link under the Appropedia edit box, where the page's templates are listed.)

Marking technologies by stage of development

There's also a "Status" function, useful when writing about a technology or a design. This important tool (developed by Prof. Pearce) tells the reader whether the technology is proven and in use, or just an idea, or somewhere between.

Creating maps

It's possible to embed a Google map into an Appropedia page. Normally it's a challenging job - too daunting. With AppropediaFox it's much easier.

AppropediaFox lets you choose your display options and create the map, and shows what it will look like. When you're done, the code is in your clipboard, and you can paste it on the Appropedia page you're editing.

Upload

Okay, you can upload from the web and it looks pretty much the same. But if AppropediaFox is open, the upload form is one mouse click away

Download AppropediaFox for free here. To learn more about how to use and install it go here.

And here, a screenshot of AppropediaFox being used to create a map:

Screenshot: creating a map.

P.S. If you want to hide it, View > Sidebar > Appropedia-Fox (i.e. the same way you made it appear).

P.P.S. Message to the wiki universe: this plugin is specifically for Appropedia, but being open source, it could be adapted to any wiki, with a bit of work creating the template and category . And if your wiki has maps set up the same way as on Appropedia, that part would work.)

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energypedia

This wiki profile part of our green wiki series.

energypedia is one of the handful of ongoing, very active sustainability wikis. Benjamin Rebenich of energypedia describes their wiki project for us:

From an energy perspective, the world is facing two seemingly contradicting problems. On the one hand, CO2 emissions continue to rise, especially in transition countries like China and India. On the other hand, there are still many regions suffering from extreme energy poverty. For example, the electrification rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is below 25%. We at energypedia believe that we can tackle this challenge of combating climate change while achieving universal access to modern energy by promoting renewable energy solutions in industrial and especially in developing countries. Offering free access to up to date information is our contribution to a better and cleaner future.

Energypedia – Connecting Knowledge

Energypedia logo

There are many projects fighting against climate change and energy poverty. However, there is still a huge lack of information and knowledge exchange between those efforts resulting in the disappearance of important information and experiences collected by individuals and institutions. Energypedia tries to fill this gap, connecting knowledge by offering an open wiki platform where everyone can benefit from the experiences of the global society by reading, writing, and revising articles on technologies and approaches related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

We not only want to foster worldwide social and economic development by removing knowledge and communication barriers, but we also intend to connect people. By bringing energy experts, universities, civil society, as well as the public and private sector together, theoretical knowledge can benefit from the lessons learnt by practitioners and vice versa to catalyze innovative sustainable energy technologies and services. Therefore, energypedia not only offers editable wiki articles but also social media features like a newsblog, an event calendar, and an internal messaging system.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Health and physical space

Where we live

The physical context we live in affects our community and our health. How close are you to your neighbors, and how often do you see them in the street? Is it walking distance to the train station, grocery store and cafe? Is it safe to ride your bike?

The built environment and its effect on community has been a passion for me for 15 years, since reading that community development programs are more or less successful depending on the layout of housing in the community. Where houses are spread out, interaction is less and community development struggles.

Young and old

A few years ago I saw a new (to me) application of this idea: a documentary about an orphanage in France which was placed together with a retirement home. Children without ancestors, together with ancestors without children - a gap was filled in the lives of both. I'm suggesting it as a panacea - it could be done well or poorly. One obvious issue is the importance of freedom to participate or not - to have common space for the young and old, but also have space for each to retreat when they wish.

(By the way, if you know anything about this orphanage and retirement home, please leave a comment - I can't recall the name, and I'd love to know how it's going. I may have some of the details wrong, but I saw it on the "Global Village" program, SBS Australia, I think around 2005.)

The following video describes a somewhat similar idea in the USA: a school that brings children, adult learners and the elderly together, with benefits for young and old in health and educational outcomes and in quality of life.

(The video here launches when he starts talking about the school. If you want to hear about Alzheimer's disease, scroll back to the beginning.)

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Government, copyright and the public good

At GovCamp Canberra 2012, the Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan stated:

"When government is the owner of intellectual property, a proprietary approach runs counter to the purpose of government and the public good".

We couldn't agree more. Governments exist to serve citizens, not to compete with them. Any form of information produced by governments should belong to the citizenry.

Further, in this age of easy sharing of information there is no reason to restrict this access to the citizenry of one country. There is also no practical way to stop such access. I can and do access the public domain works of the US Federal government, though I'm not a US citizen. A Tanzanian can access works of the Australian government, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

These are sadly rare examples. Governments do tend to slap "Copyright... all rights reserved" notices on their works - including local and state governments in the US, despite the good example of the federal government. In Australia, open licenses are encouraged but not compulsory, and some departments are still struggling with the idea of letting people use the content however they wish. There are fears and misconceptions, but there are also advocates of openness, and change is happening in their corner of the world.

Based on Professor McMillan's presentation, and on a conversation with someone from his office, he and his office are serious about promoting knowledge sharing by the Australian government. I hope we'll see this approach followed in more and more governments around the world.

Are there local government councilors and state/provincial representatives reading this? Or representatives from countries that haven't implemented open licensing yet? Think about your publications on recycling, or energy efficiency, or cycling, or sustainable housing, or foreign aid... Councils such as the City of Sydney and the City of Portland have a large amount of valuable content, and citizens as well as governments would benefit from this information being shared.

What would it take to put a Creative Commons Attribution license on all your publications?

The quote was captured and shared on Twitter by Pia Waugh - wording is accurate to the best of our knowledge.

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Appropedia on IRC

To chat with the Appropedia community, find us in the #appropedia channel on Freenode, where we talk about exactly how we'll be ramping up Appropedia this year, how this will change the world... and perhaps some lighter topics as well.

That's an IRC channel - Internet Relay Chat, which is very flexible way to chat.

In future we'll be announcing meetings and Appropedia jams at set times, but for now, come and say hi, and if someone's around, they'll say hi back - then ask your questions and make suggestions. I'm in the channel most of the time that my computer's on, so there's a good chance you'll find me.

There are a few ways to join the channel:

  • Via the web. This is easiest (but not suitable for older computers or older browsers). Go to Freenode Web Chat, pick a username and connect.
  • Chatzilla extension for Firefox (and other Mozilla browsers). Some suggestions for setup options here. With Chatzilla installed, this link will take you to the channel: #appropedia
  • A chat client that supports IRC, e.g. Pidgin. (I find Pidgin less easy and less sophisticated than Chatzilla, for the new user.)

For more ideas, see Appropedia:IRC‎.

And aside from the discussion channel, we also have a specialist channel:

Recent changes channel

Appropedia's continued survival depends on the Recent Changes Patrol - rolling back spam and other junk as quickly as it is put up, and helping other editors. You can be part of the patrol by joining the #appropedia-rc channel and getting a live - this allows you to see what edits are being made to Appropedia, with a link to the "diff" for the changes. Thanks to Danny B. from Prague, a hardworking member of the Wikimedia community, who set this up for us.

So, drop in and say hello. And be patient if no one's around to reply... there are a few of us using the channel so far, and it's increasing, but you might have to try at different times. (As for me, I'm on AEST, the eastern Australian timezone, so if you're in the US, I'm likely to be asleep during your business hours!)

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Open source leaders belong on the (En)Rich List

I love the Post Growth Institute's latest project: The (En)Rich List, with the byline "A Wealth of Inspiration!"

This is a brilliant insight - paying attention to people who have helped show the way to sustainable paths is so much more important and urgent than talking about "Rich Lists" that measure individual success.

That's not to say I'm equally enthusiastic about all the choices on the list, but that's okay - the (En)Rich List is a conversation starter rather than an authorititative list. The listmakers state: "it makes no claims of objectivity". In the same spirit, I'll make some nominations below, for next time.

The commons is rightly recognized in the (En)Rich list, notably through Elinor Ostrom (commons researcher and Nobel laureate) and Michel Bauwens (the P2P Foundation). But what of those who have made the commons possible, in software, spreading knowledge, and in cultural works?

Being a wikiholic, I'll start by nominating Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) and Ward Cunningham (inventor of wiki software, to radically open up the development of knowledge and ideas on a website). Their revolution is a social one - by enabling learning and connections of knowledge on an unprecedented scale, they've expanded the opportunities for potential future leaders, and future pioneers and innovators in sustainable paths. And of course the wiki provides the model and platform used by Appropedia, enabling sustainable paths in our own way: as a sustainability wiki, an open database of solutions.

Before wikis came Richard Stallman, who stands out for his work in the software commons pioneering "Free Software" (that's free as in freedom... also called "open source," though Stallman hates that term). Crucially, he also wrote the first open license, that said in effect: I'll share this with you, if you agree to share what you do with it. Linus Torvalds added a missing piece to the coding work of Stallman's GNU project, and kicked off Linux, an important, very secure operating system; he also licensed it under Stallman's "copyleft" license.

And finally, Lawrence Lessig applied these principles to all kinds of creative works, through Creative Commons licenses. These are easier to understand and use than Stallman's original license, and are used on this blog, on the Appropedia wiki, on Wikipedia, on many published works by the Australian and other governments, on vast numbers of photos and other creative works on Flickr and elsewhere across the web.

I have more thoughts on the list which I'll share soon, on the contrast between the pessimists on the list (including Paul Ehrlich and Ted Trainer) and the optimists (notably E.F. Schumacher and Jean Russell).

Again, thanks and kudos to the Post Growth Institute - a great and provocative idea, well executed.

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Open Source Permaculture – 1 day to go

There's just over a day remaining for the Open Source Permaculture project, at time of writing, and around $3000 more needed to reach the target. Please consider donating if you haven't already - this will be a real boost for permaculture. See the fundraising status box to the right.

And if you're reading this after the deadline, there are plenty of ways you can get involved - just leave a comment here and we'll direct you.

Now for a brief "roundup" - as in the latest news and blogs, not Roundup the chemical herbicide. We use mulch to keep weeds down ;-) . Open Source Permaculture has been getting attention, appearing on Treehugger, Ecopreneurist, Inhabitat and many other sites. I want to highlight three particularly interesting links.

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