The making of a wiki page

The wiki pages that make the news are Wikipedia articles where things go wrong – libel, conflict of interest and the like. It’s worth taking a look at an article where things work differently – for example in the following case of an article about an environmental technology.

In September 2005, an anonymous editor added a piece of information to Wikipedia about wastewater treatment equipment:

UASB – Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket technology normally referred to as UASB Reactor is used in the treatment of wastewater.

That was the entire UASB article – no categories, no images, no links, no formatting. Not even a comma.

Four and a half months later came the second and third edits – a cleanup tag and a suggested merge. Thanks to these tags, I found the article a few days later, and thought: Merge? A UASB is a really cool piece of technology – it deserves its own article! So I helped turn it into a short but respectable article. After a quick consensus on the talk page, the merge tag was removed.

At this stage this stub article (an article with just a few sentences of useful information) painted a broad picture, describing a valuable piece of technology that turns waste into energy, at the same time as it cleans wastewater. It would be a good place to learn the very basic facts, and had some valuable links to more in-depth information.

I went back to working on the appropriate technology articles (this was shortly before Appropedia started) and left the UASB article for someone else to develop further. Another editor improved the article a little, and then, less than 2 months after I did my basic work the article, came a new Wikipedia editor with a passion for water technologies.

Anaerobic digestersVortexrealm‘s userpage says he works in the field of waste management – but more importantly, his edits showed a consistently good understanding of water and wastewater treatment. 11 weeks and many edits after he started on the article, a solid, informative article had been created, including a photo he took himself of a wastewater treatment plant with UASB. The article had become a great starting point for anyone – student, worker, curious citizen – who might want to know about a valuable piece of sustainable technology technology.

Today the article, renamed as Upflow anaerobic sludge blanket digestion, is even better, after still more work by a number of editors, both regular editors of the article, and new editors.

The history of some articles on Wikipedia is smoother than others. This is what it can look like on the many, many occasions when it works well.

(Note: All of these changes can be seen via the articles history page, linked from a tab at the top of the page.)

Photo: A “Mechanical Biological Treatment facility” in Tel-Aviv. Credit: Vortexrealm (Alex Marshall).

Getting it: Ekopedia

It’s very striking when we meet people that really get what Appropedia is doing – why knowledge sharing matters, and why we practice radical openness and collaboration. Examples are when I heard Akvo‘s Mark Charmer talk passionately about the importance of breaking down the barriers between our silos of information; another was in 2007, on my first call with Andrew Lamb, head of Engineers Without Borders UK, hearing his lament over the many, many development organizations, each with knowledge that is not actively shared.

The most recent example is Jean-Luc Henry, founder of Ekopedia, a mostly French language sustainability wiki. Like others, he didn’t need to be converted – Ekopedia has been sharing sustainability knowledge since 2002 (well before Appropedia, which began in 2006), and branching out into multiple languages.

In the last few weeks we’ve begun talking seriously about our shared vision, and how we can work together. As a first step, we’re moving all French language content on Appropedia to Ekopedia, and all English language content on Ekopedia to Appropedia. Less duplication, more synergy – and an expression of our trust and shared vision.

With our own translation projects, starting with Clarion University’s program and expanding from there, and with like-minded people working on translation for related projects (such as OLPC), there is the potential for massively ramping up the work of effective multi-lingual knowledge sharing. If we can get funding to develop new translation tools, it could be better still.

We’ll keep you informed. If you want to join the team, please get in touch!

Village Chickens and Hard-boiled Eggs

First, consider the image below:

The (hopefully) interesting tale below occurred during my recent visit to Sierra Leone.  Unfortunately, my phone, which was doubling as a camera, apparently was not partial to the weather.  After one photo (see my previous post), the software departed for parts unknown and did not return till end of day.  I looked through a boatload of other photos from the same trip.  Chickens seem ever-present in these villages, so I figured I’d find a random chicken to make my point.  But alas, the chickens are apparently camera shy, and so I was out of luck.  With no images of my own to illustrate the story, I took a look at Wikimedia Commons, and voila.  A kind soul I have never heard of before (Foodeel Seddichi) posted a picture to a Flickr account (clicking the picture will take you there), and in turn posted it to the Commons.  The picture is from Niger, not Sierra Leone, but gives a pretty similar sense.  I love that the copyright holder made it available under open license.  We collaborated semi-anonymously (I know a name, but don’t really know the person) in creating this blog post.

The story that prompted this picture began December 29th in Mafirah, a small village near Lunsar, Sierra Leone.  Jon Bart and I were taking a village survey as part of Village Hope.  Our goal was to get a handle on the dietary situation of the members of this village.  Remarkably, although domesticated chickens were scurrying about and seemed to be constantly underfoot, they were not part of the village diet.  Neither the chickens nor the eggs.  The chickens were raised for sale in the market.  I’m guessing they aren’t bought by other villages (which have their own chickens), but by townspeople.  In addition, these chickens were not bred for egg-laying, and roosters and chickens were not kept separate.  In other words, eggs were not produced in high quantities, and they were all fertilized, and therefore represent the chickens of tomorrow.  So, these chickens and eggs represent a small but relatively easy source of extra cash.

A couple of days later, while driving out to another village, I got to talking about this chicken topic with Village Hope’s one paid employee, a Sierra Leonan name Stephen Gibateh.   Stephen told me that fertile eggs are very important to villagers.  Each egg represents valuable future income.  It is a part of the village culture, he said, to tell children stories of bad things that would happen if they ever ate an egg.   The only time a chicken would be eaten in the village was if it became ill and could not be sold.  Similarly, the only eggs that are eaten are those that have clearly been abandoned by a hen.    I marveled at the elaborate customs built up around economic necessity.  Fish is cheaper than chicken.  They raise chickens for sale, and buy fish for protein.  Remarkable.  It made me appreciate the previous day’s meal: a killer fish-AND-chicken stew served over white rice.

Stephen and I continued on our drive out to the villages as part of my investigation of groundnut farming (again, previous post).  At the first village, Kolifah, spent a couple of hours learning a lot of detail about groundnut farming.  I truly am fascinated by this stuff.  At the end of our interviews, the village demonstrated their hospitality with a fish-stew-over-rice meal.  Yum!  We drove on, passing through several villages, including Robanka, where they encouraged us to stop by on our return.  We made no promises, but continued on to Robump, and did another round of interviews.  (In all, I did these interviews in 5 villages, learning something new and relevant in each interview.)  The folks in Robump, upon learning that we had eaten, rewarded Stephen and I with two live chickens, bananas and papayas to take with us in lieu of the meal.  Stunning!  Each chicken alone represents a day’s wages!

As we drove home, twilight was settling in.  We didn’t have much daylight remaining to navigate the rough dirt roads with a series of somewhat makeshift and dodgy bridges over small streams.  Clearly we could not linger in Robanka.  As we passed through Robanka, we paused to explain.  In a heartbeat, someone trotted out, reached through the open window, and handed us four hard-boiled eggs.  They’d been prepared assuming we would pay a longer visit.  Obviously, some villages don’t have such harsh taboos on eating eggs!  Stephen and I had a good laugh over that.  Even Stephen, the local expert-on-the-ground, didn’t have a full picture.  And so there’s yet another lesson.  Along with subtly different ways in which each village farms its groundnuts, they also have different ways of handling chickens and eggs.

And that highlights once again the need for solutions that can be adapted to the local situation.  I propose (surprise!) semi-anonymous collaboration as a useful technique to develop these solutions.  Here at Appropedia, we’re working on getting the infrastructure up and going.  There’s a lot here, but of course always more to do.  Now we just need a more ubiquitous culture of semi-anonymous shared problem solving.  Some may say that’s a bit of a chicken and egg challenge.  All I can say is that bad things may happen if we can’t figure out how to work together.

Don’t re-invent the wheel. Build a green knowledge base!

Students and professors: Don’t re-invent the wheel. Help build a green knowledge base for all


When students submit a project – even a very good one – it typically gets very little exposure. Another day, at another institution, another student or researcher works on the same question. How much more powerful would it be if each built on the work of the last?

Some teachers at universities – in languages as well as science and engineering – have been using Appropedia with their classes and getting great results. It’s inspiring to the students knowing that they’re creating work that will be used by others – including users of the XO-1 (the “$100 laptop”) – and they also learn more in the process.

We’d love to have much more of this, in English as well as other languages such as Spanish and Indonesian.

Can you suggest any courses or professors who would benefit from knowing about this option? Please let them know, and let the Appropedia community know!

I’ve just scratched the surface here – see our Service learning page for more info.

Looking forward to getting feedback, and hearing from interested academics and students.

I just posted this to the Green Group on LinkedIn – but you need to be logged in to view.