Socially responsible design
May 3, 2007 12:10 AM   Subscribe

 
#9: Prefabricated in biodegradable material, shipped flat and requiring no tools to assemble, the Global Village Shelter was developed in 2004 by Ferrara Design with Architecture for Humanity.

The last thing that a shelter should be made of is "biodegradable materials". That means the building will rot away and collapse. What the hell were they thinking?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:20 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


This was great, inspiring and really good to read and see. It recharged my faith-in-humanity batteries (which I'd thought had exploded weeks ago).
posted by fenriq at 12:26 AM on May 3, 2007


What the hell were they thinking?

That it would be temporary.
posted by IronLizard at 12:33 AM on May 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


Sounds like my book-cases from IKEA.
posted by Dizzy at 12:50 AM on May 3, 2007


One Laptop Per Child is a not-profit initiative, led by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab.

No way this belongs on the same list with a foot-powered irrigation pump and those water filtration gadgets. Peddling computers and internet access to people whose immediate need is clean water is not in any way socially responsible. WTF MIT?
posted by three blind mice at 1:03 AM on May 3, 2007


No Steven, the last thing a shelter should be built of is radioactive waste. Or medical waste. Or maybe puppies. Or, say, radioactive medical puppy waste.
posted by pompomtom at 1:11 AM on May 3, 2007 [6 favorites]


Peddling computers and internet access to people whose immediate need is clean water is not in any way socially responsible.

People in the developing world are just as desperate for access to information as you are. Ten minutes in an Uzbek internet cafe will tell you that. OLPC is meeting a need, that is every bit as relevant to modern society as education or foreign investment. Pretending otherwise is paternalistic and patronizing.
posted by xthlc at 1:18 AM on May 3, 2007 [5 favorites]


three blind mice, think about what a lack of nearby clean water means. It's not like famine—it's not an immediate pressing concern without solving which people will die in three weeks. It's a long term problem. So things like laptops, mobile phones etc. aren't supposed to be staved off—that's like avoiding better housing until you've eradicated infectious diseases.

Also, financial distribution patterns in developing countries aren't 'flat'. Within a 3 mile radius you can have someone who can't get clean water, someone else who's a perfect candidate for the OLPC, and someone else who studied at a boarding school in London and owns a stable.

xthlc and I already covered this issue. I think I just had a sort of ephiphany. I am so going to stop arguing on the internet.
posted by Firas at 1:29 AM on May 3, 2007


13 of 13 Intent on building free shelters for homeless people in Atlanta, a group of Georgia Tech architecture students founded Mad Housers as a voluntary project in 1987. Made from cheap, readily accessible materials like lumber, silver sheet insulation and roll roofing, each hut is prefabricated and can be installed in less than half a day. Used in the U.S. and Canada, each hut has lockable doors for security, a loft for sleeping and storage and a wood-burning stove for cooking and heat.

this sounds better than my apartment :-(
posted by pruner at 1:40 AM on May 3, 2007


If they designed these things to be powered by children -- smaller pedals on that irrigation pump, for example, and prefab houses in pieces small enough to be dismantled and carried to a new site overnight by one's daughters -- they might really take off.
posted by pracowity at 1:45 AM on May 3, 2007


People in the developing world are just as desperate for access to information as you are. Ten minutes in an Uzbek internet cafe will tell you that. OLPC is meeting a need, that is every bit as relevant to modern society as education or foreign investment. Pretending otherwise is paternalistic and patronizing.

Thanks xthlc. Internet cafés indeed provide a great benefit. I've never been to Uzbekistan, but I have been in enough remote places to know that all it takes to set one up is a couple of second-hand Dell computers, a mini-generator - and of course an internet connection.

One does not need to design a laptop to put into the hands of every child in order to make internet access a reality and the effort to do so could be far better spent on just about anything else.

OLPC is a jingo. You could just as well call it "No Child Left Behind without a Laptop" Socially responsible design is focused on solving practical needs, not idealistic dreams.

But when you are the "MIT media lab" and the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
posted by three blind mice at 1:51 AM on May 3, 2007


Now your comment is even stranger. They're the MIT Media Lab. What do you want them to do?
posted by Firas at 1:55 AM on May 3, 2007


think about what a lack of nearby clean water means.

The rule of threes, Firas: 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food.

Dead in 3 days. That's what lack of drinking water means.
posted by three blind mice at 1:58 AM on May 3, 2007


three blind mice, I'm assuming that the scenario we're talking about here (in terms of what filtration helps with) is not 'no water' but 'have to walk a long distance for clean water' or 'water is drinkable but spreads disease'.

I agree that there is probably a small intersection between 'OLPC prospects' and 'girls who spend half their day walking to water source and back with container'. But you can't trot out a false dichotomy like that to make a rhetorical point about OLPC and expect not to get called on it on Mefi.
posted by Firas at 2:05 AM on May 3, 2007


-think about what a lack of nearby clean water means.

--Dead in 3 days. That's what lack of drinking water means.


They are not lacking water. They are lacking nearby water that is clean. They will survive a lot longer than 3 days, but they will get ill frequently and have to spend a lot of time walking to & from the water source and carrying heavy containers.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:06 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


They're the MIT Media Lab. What do you want them to do?

Realize that they make stuff for relatively rich, comfortable people.

A real tech-to-the-people effort would be an electronic book, something that could store a few thousand long texts (a good library) and be cheap enough to give away, one per person in the third world. Make it durable, waterproof, solar-powered, readable in daylight and at night, and able to swap texts wirelessly with other electronic books. If you can make a PC for a hundred bucks, you can make such an electronic book for almost nothing.
posted by pracowity at 2:10 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that one of the primary use cases for the OLPC is as a text reading device. I also think you're definitely underestimating the cost of a wireless electronic book project—the only reason the laptop project is even close to $100 (I think it's up to $170 now?) is because the parts fabrication prices are predicated on huge orders.
posted by Firas at 2:14 AM on May 3, 2007


But you can't trot out a false dichotomy like that to make a rhetorical point about OLPC and expect not to get called on it on Mefi.

You are making my points for me. It is because water is such a vital human need that people will risk their health by drinking dirty water.

The OLPC project is not in the same league (and does not belong on the same list) as a low-cost device that filters the pathogens out of water and can be locally produced.

It doesn't run Linux, it's totally low tech, but it addresses a pressing social need in a way that does create further dependency on first world generosity. That's good design.
posted by three blind mice at 2:30 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


get over yourself, three blind mice. Why didn't you call out the prefab shelters for homeless amerikans? That's also not the same level of 'need' as water, but it is in the same category, just as the laptop is - innovative designs that solve 'pressing needs' whether social or not. You may not realise it, but you sound like 'no charity is worth giving unless it goes to the poorest orphans in Africa'. If that's not your point, maybe you should clarify what is.
posted by jacalata at 2:45 AM on May 3, 2007


If that's not your point, maybe you should clarify what is.

Sing along with me jacalata: "One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong."

That's my point.

What is and what is not "socially responsible design" might in large part be measured by how much the design serves the needs of the desing-ees and not the pet interests of the designers.

Prefab shelters for the homeless? Great idea.

One Laptop for Every Homeless Person? Not so much.
posted by three blind mice at 3:02 AM on May 3, 2007


Thanks for posting this dhruva. Interesting. I like the smart and simplistic design of that draggable water container. That and the filter straw raise their own priority issues too. If the money spent on design and manufacture of straws and water moving containers for say one village was instead diverted to create (yes, out of thin air) a safer water source -- dams/bores/tanks -- nearby, wouldn't that be better for the long term?

Not to say that the immediacy of these products don't of course make them useful and smart, but if there is only x amount of energy (money, designer hours, aid hours) and it's devoted to merely coping with present inadequacies, doesn't that kind of help to entrench those inadequacies as a permanence?

I'm just thinking out loud here and I'm not saying that these particular devices are not excellent. And I realise things on the ground and in terms of local politics and culture inject their own elements of complexity. But if an aid group dumps say, $20,000 worth of rolling water holders and filter straws to one particular area for instance, isn't it likely that this area will now be possibly further away than ever from overcoming these permanent difficulties (poor water, not locally available) - the aid group may well overlook them now for 2 or 3 or however many more years because they've just thrown some (useful, yes) bandaids at the problem.
posted by peacay at 3:52 AM on May 3, 2007


Very reponsible.
posted by caddis at 3:58 AM on May 3, 2007


It's just a list.
posted by unsupervised at 4:42 AM on May 3, 2007


Three Blind Mice, 3 hours without shelter certainly isn't fatal. I spent way more than 3 hours outside really recently, having a lovely picnic. If only I'd had a biodegradable laptop it would have been perfect.

It makes me sad to see people argue against helping the poor and dispossessed in any way other than food or shelter. Don't you see that's the best way to keep them poor and dispossessed?

As Tom Tomorrow puts it, if they don't like it, they can buy their own senators.
posted by imperium at 5:41 AM on May 3, 2007


OLPC is well-meaning, but OLPC is ecologically — and therefore socially — irresponsible.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:42 AM on May 3, 2007


the Pot-in-pot cooler consists of a small earthenware pot nestling inside a larger one with wet sand filling the space in between. As the water in the wet sand evaporates, it extracts heat from contents of the inner pot thereby cooling them.

GOD, I love science.

And the donut-shaped water jug is so mind-blowingly obvious it's almost painful to wonder how no one could have thought of it before.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:09 AM on May 3, 2007


God forbid someone try to do something, however marginally useful, rather than nothing at all.
posted by DU at 6:15 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


ntent on building free shelters for homeless people in Atlanta, a group of Georgia Tech architecture students founded Mad Housers as a voluntary project in 1987. Made from cheap, readily accessible materials like lumber, silver sheet insulation and roll roofing, each hut is prefabricated and can be installed in less than half a day. Used in the U.S. and Canada, each hut has lockable doors for security, a loft for sleeping and storage and a wood-burning stove for cooking and heat.

Pretty sad that that's going on in the US.

No way this belongs on the same list with a foot-powered irrigation pump and those water filtration gadgets. Peddling computers and internet access to people whose immediate need is clean water is not in any way socially responsible. WTF MIT?

Oh I know, the last thing poor people need is education or entertainment. Horrid! They should spend all their time scrounging for food like good peasants! Why, they might even start sending scam emails. We need to keep those dirty third worlders off the internet!

That said that laptop is butt ugly and reeks of condescension itself.
posted by delmoi at 6:16 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Other interesting tidbits about "Design for the Other 90%" at the accompanying article. (I saw the article yesterday but didn't realize there was a slide show!)
posted by pineapple at 6:29 AM on May 3, 2007


What never made much sense to me with the $100 laptop (besides the fact it costs more than that to make) was the fact that we probably have tens of thousands of laptops (or maybe many more) cycled out of corporate America every year. These used laptops don't have some of the important features - such as the recharging mechanism, but it would seem to take less time and energy to design a way around that problem and retrofit the used computers than it would be to design an entirely new one.

Plus, these used computers would have better screens, more power, and frankly better software. I'm extremely concerned that the $100 model just plain won't work very well.

Considering you can buy a new, fairly powerful laptop for about $500 these days, I just can't imagine $100 for an underpowered toyish computer is all that good a deal. Plus, they've had it in development for years and still not ready for prime time. I think the goal of the project would probably be further along if they just bought $100 used computers off of ebay.

But that really gets to a bigger question about the project - is it about the recipients of usable computers, or is it about ego stroking and the fun the designers are having? Hmmmm...

Ok, stepping off my soap box now.
posted by Muddler at 6:31 AM on May 3, 2007


I'd second pineapple's mention of the article attached to the slideshow, which adds a lot more context to the pictures and captions as presented.

If you guys are jumping on a single item in the slideshow, why not jump on the first slide of the Cooper Hewitt design museum? That one probably does a lot less for the third world.
posted by mikeh at 6:41 AM on May 3, 2007


The idea that ALL third worlders are starving and with no access to water, and therefore NOBODY in the 3rd world could possibly have any use for a laptop is a rather astonishing mix of parochiality and ignorance.
There are many, many millions of people with food and water, but without access to computers.
I, for one, think many people will be glad to get laptops, patronizing first worlders notwithstanding.
The "third world" is a big, big place, and there is at least (probably much more, actually) as much variety of human condition in it as in the first one. Not everyone here is a barefoot infant with flies on his face.
posted by signal at 6:45 AM on May 3, 2007 [6 favorites]


The OLPC laptops are butt ugly to disincentivize stealing them, delmoi. It's by design.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:00 AM on May 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


the Pot-in-pot cooler consists of a small earthenware pot nestling inside a larger one with wet sand filling the space in between. As the water in the wet sand evaporates, it extracts heat from contents of the inner pot thereby cooling them.

That is so organic that you would think it was in use for thousands of years, not just since 1995. Maybe it was, and we just didn't know about it. Cool tho! (Pun intended, and apologized for.) Makes me want to think of an excuse to try it.
posted by The Deej at 7:07 AM on May 3, 2007


Don't want to wade too deep into the argument, but it might be worth introducting the concept of Appropriate Technology. A lot of these items were not designed to be "green," they are socially responsible mainly by default of their being simple and low-impact.
posted by jtajta at 7:12 AM on May 3, 2007


Do we provide clean water or laptops?
Yes.
posted by caddis at 7:19 AM on May 3, 2007


disincentivize is no more a word than reponsible is
posted by caddis at 7:21 AM on May 3, 2007


disincentivize is no more a word than reponsible is

Have fun with that.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:31 AM on May 3, 2007


Wow, I hd heard of some of these projects, but not all. This is fascinating, thank you!
posted by piratebowling at 7:39 AM on May 3, 2007


I seem to recall one of the most unexpected benefits of the hand-cranked radio (BTW, 3rd world people don't need music) has been local farmers, e.g. coffee growers, are now in touch with market values and can get a fair price from the buyer who comes to the village and used to monopolize the market. So there are unforeseeable, good outcomes possible from the cheap computer.

The fact the designers may have enjoyed designing it and got stroked just reflects that these are basic human motivations to do almost anything, especially from a position of comfort. Save your disdain for the truly shallow.
posted by Rumple at 7:40 AM on May 3, 2007


People in the developing world are just as desperate for access to information as you are. Ten minutes in an Uzbek internet cafe will tell you that. OLPC is meeting a need, that is every bit as relevant to modern society as education or foreign investment. Pretending otherwise is paternalistic and patronizing.
posted by xthlc at 4:18 AM on May 3


The OLPC was created and marketed for your benefit, not the benefit of the world's oppressed. all that hype over the last two year was directed at you - the poor in the third world saw none of that. I agree that they need internet access as much as anyone else, but have you seen the price of 5-6 year old computers on ebay? We could just ship them our old computers for free.

I'm intrigued by the Lifestraw. Do they sell that here for camping or emergency preparedness? Would it be safe to use in freshwater streams in the US that may have industrial pollutants?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:53 AM on May 3, 2007


Would it be safe to use in freshwater streams in the US that may have industrial pollutants?

Most industrial pollutants are on a molecular or atomic scale (relatively small nonpolar molecules and heavy metals). The LifeStraw does not filter these. It is for use to filter particulates on biological scales (bacteria and parasitic animals that are larger than 150 microns).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:16 AM on May 3, 2007


It is for use to filter particulates on biological scales (bacteria and parasitic animals that are larger than 150 microns).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:16 AM on May 3


So it would at least filter the bacteria found in North American rivers and streams (i.e., it is not tailored for the conditions in Africa)? Can you buy one and throw it in an emergency kit?
posted by Pastabagel at 8:22 AM on May 3, 2007


I'm a little suspicious of the description of the "light mat." Does anyone here know more about it? It is the one image in the slide show not mentioned in the article. The caption claims that it is "powered by a combination of LEDs, switches and rechargable batteries," but none of these things actually provides power. (Batteries only store it.) Is it solar powered with photovoltaic cells on the other side? Does it plug into the grid like a rechargable flashlight? Why would anyone want to put their light source on the ground?
posted by drdanger at 8:23 AM on May 3, 2007


So it would at least filter the bacteria found in North American rivers and streams

Looks like it would be a good part of any emergency kit, or as a perfectly useful bit of camping gear.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:27 AM on May 3, 2007


pastabagel, here ya go. I'd be interested in one as well.
posted by fenriq at 8:38 AM on May 3, 2007


Re: cooling pots That is so organic that you would think it was in use for thousands of years, not just since 1995. Maybe it was, and we just didn't know about it.

It was. We did. There was even an askme question about making ice without a fridge, though I can't seem to find it. IIRC, nomads in the desert used this method to cool milk and other items. Also, using a fast evaporator in the exterior container, like alcohol or acetone, would net you much more cold more quickly. It's the basic principles of air conditioning, without the compressor, at work.
posted by IronLizard at 9:01 AM on May 3, 2007


Thanks, fenriq! I'll be picking one up for and tossing it into my Mad-Max Contingency Planning Kit.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:15 AM on May 3, 2007


Great to read about the designs, snarking in the thread aside. Read an interesting opinion by Steve Portigal regarding the Lifestraw and eco-design. Good to read a perspective that says sometimes a simple design of a product isn't always enough.
posted by rmm at 9:37 AM on May 3, 2007


The last thing that a shelter should be made of is "biodegradable materials".

And that, kids, is why we have never, in the entire run of human history, built shelter out of wood. Or brick. Or straw. Or mud. The Taos Pueblo has been providing shelter for a mere thousand years, SCDB, while your ignorance is a thing of ageless monumental beauty.

And that life straw, unlike the latest missive from the USS Clueless, is freaking brilliant.
posted by gompa at 9:55 AM on May 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


The doughnut shaped water drum is my favorite of the lot, but while it looks easy to transport, I have to wonder how easy it is to fill and empty. Full, it would be very heavy. I wonder, is the idea to eventually transfer the water to some other container or mechanism, or is it also designed to dispense water a little at a time?
posted by mauglir at 9:58 AM on May 3, 2007


If the money spent on design and manufacture of straws and water moving containers for say one village was instead diverted to create (yes, out of thin air) a safer water source -- dams/bores/tanks -- nearby, wouldn't that be better for the long term?

A fair question, by the way, peacay, but it isn't an either/or thing. The trickiest obstacle to dodge in the international development game isn't a big idea or enough money to make it happen - it's lasting ground-level implementation. And the idea that you'd ever get full implementation of permanent clean water sources wouldn't be likely even if there weren't people living in places where the water table was heavily contaminated. What's more, that life straw, for example, would be a magnificently useful short-term fix in a refugee camp.

Check out the books of (former World Bank economist) William Easterly. Those nifty mosquito nets in the linked slideshow, for example? Great idea, but the ground-level reality (as noted in this Times review of Easterly's latest book) is that if you give them away for free, people won't use them.
posted by gompa at 10:08 AM on May 3, 2007


Interesting how it seems that, according to media driven by white liberal guilt, only underdeveloped, third-world areas are capable of being "socially responsible" (or practicing "social responsibility"). Yet, given access to the wealth and resources of more developed industrial and post-industrial nations, these folks would take advantage of the opportunity to be just as socially irresponsible as the rest of the privileged white masses.

It's simply an updating of the egregiously-racist myth of the "noble savage."
posted by TexArcane at 10:43 AM on May 3, 2007


Slow down there texarcane, the "socially responsible" in the link is first world designers and engineers designing things to better the lives of poor people instead of really fancy chairs or whatever.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:23 AM on May 3, 2007


It's socially responsible design. Not solving the most critical problems 1st design. You wanna bitch about priorities? You could sell your pc, lose your Internet connection, and send the money to provide well-designed toilets in a village, and that would help safeguard the drinking water.

Why shouldn't people in impoverished areas have Internet access? The ability to communicate with the world might help them better control the political climate, promote peace, and make their lives better. Or they might set up more cottage scam industries like Nigeria, bet, hey, it helps the economy. Or they might have really great Myspace pages. The thing is, they'd get to join this giant community, and use this giant tool to their own ends. I've seen the prototype laptop, and I found it pretty impressive. It's a tremendous shame that the poorest, least developed parts of the world have been left out of this technology.
posted by theora55 at 12:21 PM on May 3, 2007


And I'm all for recycling, and have rebuilt pcs to go to a school in a remote village in Africa. But used equipment is just that. It breaks; the parts are machine -specific, it's a huge pain to support. Standardized, new equipment that is designed to be pretty rugged and pretty simple is a pretty good idea. I have never understood why all laptops, and cell phones, too, for that matter, are not at least somewhat ruggedized.
posted by theora55 at 12:28 PM on May 3, 2007


Hey, theora, curiously enough that's what ran through my head at the salad bar a few hours ago (yesioccupymythoughtswiththemostuselessthings), that the whole 'recycle/reuse' laptops thing is a good point, but: are reused laptops going to fulfill all the design constrictions placed on the OLPC? Likely not.
posted by Firas at 12:50 PM on May 3, 2007


The ideal of the computer for every child is great. Too bad they will all end up in the markets after the family appropriates the computer and sells it. That kind of resource would only be a resource of it's intended purpose if there was no other pressing need like food.

And how many little girls will get to keep theirs? One of the problems with aid that targets a weaker group is that stronger groups take the aid away.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 2:50 PM on May 3, 2007


One Laptop Per Child is a not-profit initiative, led by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab.

No way this belongs on the same list with a foot-powered irrigation pump and those water filtration gadgets. Peddling computers and internet access to people whose immediate need is clean water is not in any way socially responsible. WTF MIT?


Oh, right. Because people without clean drinking water don't need to communicate, have access to health care information, or bother to educate themselves (and possibly discover their own solutions to water and food scarcity). They should just sit under a tarp, twiddling their thumbs until someone comes along and cleans up their water.

These farmers use cell phones to access weather data that helps them decide when to irrigate their crops, saving labor and water. As in: water they can now drink. Would you say they shouldn't have these phones until that water is absolutely clean? It's ridiculous to declare that there is a specific order that problems should be addressed and solved before moving on to the next when a wholistic approach can address a multitude of problems at once.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:18 PM on May 3, 2007


theora55 : I have never understood why all laptops, and cell phones, too, for that matter, are not at least somewhat ruggedized.

Three reasons; price, size, and weight. Most electronics are ruggedized to a point. When they are being developed, they are generally tested to survive slightly worse conditions than they should experience in real world use. For instance, most cell phones should survive a 4 foot drop. But to make it really ruggedized (water/ dust proof, shock resistant, impact proof, etc) you have to make the case considerably bigger, which is going to increase the weight, and all of that is going to impact the cost.

You can, of course, get ruggedized equipment now, but you will almost always pay a premium for it.
posted by quin at 3:28 PM on May 3, 2007


Re: cooling pots That is so organic that you would think it was in use for thousands of years, not just since 1995. Maybe it was, and we just didn't know about it.

It was. We did.


Awesome! I'm gonna "invent" something that has been in use for thousands of years, and get me some internet publicity!!!! :)
posted by The Deej at 3:41 PM on May 3, 2007


Jeez, it's been all day and the Herald Tribune, of all papers, still hasn't figured out that they don't know how to spell "responsible." I am spelling challenged, but I don't work for one of the most respected papers in the entire world, and even I (OK, it might have been my nine year old son) can spot this egregious of an error, in multiple places in the page nonetheless. Perhaps Michael Levy is moonlighting as their copy editor.
posted by caddis at 6:08 PM on May 3, 2007


..can spot this egregious of an error..

/9 year old son

Thanks gompa. I was just having one of my imperialist first world patronising generalist musings. Such outpourings of hot air will of course keep the 3rd world rabble a little warmer at night. I contribute when I can.
posted by peacay at 6:51 PM on May 3, 2007


I'm a technical professional and have been lately looking for charities to start donating to regularly, inspired by my recently passed mother who donated quite a bit of her modest income to her favorite charities. Looking at these great technological solutions to serious problems, I wonder if there are any charities that focus on fielding these things? Not just developing them and getting publicity on the hottest internet sites, but actually doing the due diligence of getting them fielded. I think such a charity would fit into my portfolio well.

Some googling just now led me to Practical Action . Others?
posted by intermod at 7:48 PM on May 3, 2007


/

programmer geekiness, yeah
posted by caddis at 8:19 PM on May 3, 2007


Giving people a way to get groundwater doesn't necessarily help. The guy in the pic of the treadle well looks Indian to me (cursory glance.)

"Gourisankar Ghosh, who as head of India's National Drinking Water Mission warned about the problem to little avail in the late 1980s, says: "There should have been far greater vigilance. We were sinking 60,000 boreholes a year and analysing water from at most a tenth of them."

Since then geologists have devoted much time to plotting fluoride-bearing rocks. They have established that fluoride is associated with weathering granite rocks, and with water low in calcium. Gunnar Jacks of Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology found that fluoride levels are highest in valley bottoms. Five years ago, he and geologists from the Central Ground Water Board of India recommended siting wells further up hillsides. Yet few doctors or water engineers in India seem to have heard of this.

Lack of communication is endemic, says Susheela of the fluorosis research foundation. "Engineers just presume that underground water is clean so they don't test it. Doctors are not taught about fluorosis in our medical schools, so they don't diagnose it."


I like the tools and gadgets, too, but they aren't always a solution. Some of these I hadn't heard of, so thanks for the link.
posted by Listener at 10:09 PM on May 3, 2007


Earlier tonight I went to a lecture by Yves Béhar (flash), one of the principle designers in the One Laptop Per Child project. He talked a bit about the program and the design of the XO-1. So let me respond to some of the comments folks have made above.

Peddling computers and internet access to people whose immediate need is clean water is not in any way socially responsible.

Governments purchase the laptops for use in educational programs. They are given to the students for free, not peddled.

A real tech-to-the-people effort would be an electronic book, something that could store a few thousand long texts (a good library) and be cheap enough to give away, one per person in the third world. Make it durable, waterproof, solar-powered, readable in daylight and at night, and able to swap texts wirelessly with other electronic books. If you can make a PC for a hundred bucks, you can make such an electronic book for almost nothing.

The XO-1 has almost all those features. The screen fuctions both in color and high-contrast black and white. The screen is readable in strong sunlight and has an LED array backlight for night (also doubles as a lightsource). It's very durable--passes a drop test of four feet, even onto one of the antennae. It's splash-resistant--not submersable, but the keyboard is waterproof and the antennae fold down to protect the ports when not in use. One recently survived a coffee spill on live Argentinian TV. It's not solar-powered, but it uses very little energy and can be charged by human power; Yves showed us the prototype for a yo-yo shaped pullcord generator that provided ten minutes of use for a minute of charging. There's only 512 MB of flash memory, but the mesh network offers a lot more storage.

It doesn't run Linux, it's totally low tech, but it addresses a pressing social need in a way that does create further dependency on first world generosity.

I'm not sure if you're talking about the drinking straw or being sarcastic or what, but the XO-1 runs Linux.

That said that laptop is butt ugly and reeks of condescension itself.

The OLPC laptops are butt ugly to disincentivize stealing them, delmoi. It's by design.


I think they're pretty nice, actually. Miles above what usually happens when electronics are designed for children. And yes, they are ment to be iconic and instantly recognizable as a schoolkid's tool. They also stop working if they are taken out of range of the school's network. (At least until someone hacks 'em.) More on wikipedia.

There are a lot of other neat features built in that you wouldn't find in a recycled laptop from ebay. There are game controllers for pre-literate users. (And for games too, 'natch. Being addicted to Tetris is better than being addicted to sniffing glue, I'd say.) The touch pad is the same width of the screen, great for writing practice. The dual external antennae mean the mesh network has a long range. It's smaller and lighter and more durable than the standard laptop. There's a handle--not a superfluous feature when you're designing for the youngsters. There are LEDs that shine onto the keyboard. There are loops for attaching a shoulder strap--not included, which is an opportunity for local craftspeople.

OLPC is well-meaning, but OLPC is ecologically — and therefore socially — irresponsible.


I wish I'd asked Yves about the environmental impact. But at least it uses very little power.

intermod, if you're not sick of hearing about the One Laptop Per Child project, you can make a contribution.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:43 PM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


A contribution here, that is.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:48 PM on May 3, 2007


The XO-1 has almost all those features.

And lots of others that you don't need for an electronic book.
posted by pracowity at 12:55 PM on May 4, 2007



These farmers use cell phones to access weather data that helps them decide when to irrigate their crops, saving labor and water.


...curiously enough this may illustrate why the OLPC as it stands is a *bad* idea. Those cell phones were bought by the farmers. The farmers made an economic decision - they saw the cellphone's added value in their particular local context. All across Africa, cellphone usage is skyrocketing. Cellphone technolology works because *they* are using it, not because we decided it was good for them.

Now consider the OLPC. It is not for sale. Instead, you've got governments distributing them. The chain of accountability is broken. How do we know that the OLPC even meets the needs of those they're targeted at? And if changes need to be made, how do those changes get reflected in the OLPC's design?

Motorola and Nokia are efficiently designing new low cost cellphones. They've got people on the ground, customers who are experimenting, trying things out. They are what William Easterly calls "Searchers".

The OLPC team is I think what Easterly would call "Planners", top-down design, top-down distribution, zero accountability. Chances of success: slim to none.
posted by storybored at 6:13 PM on May 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's important to realize that Easterly had an agenda in mind when writing his work (an argument for lower capital transfers in attempts to aid development.) I'd also give some credit to Negroponte's team for designing with heavy feedback and planning to monitor uptake and usage. MIT's Poverty Action Lab is approvingly cited in Easterly's book if I remember correctly.
posted by Firas at 6:39 PM on May 4, 2007


The OLPC seems much more like the Searcher model to me now that I think about it. It's designed as a product, it's manufactured to be sold using target-government funds rather than donor/designer funds.
posted by Firas at 6:51 PM on May 4, 2007


Thanks Firas for the MIT Poverty Action Lab pointer; more of a think tank than a field operation. It looks to me like they're already well funded and probably don't need my piddling donations. On a similar note, OLPC has such a towering public profile already (witness how this thread got subsumed by handwringing about it), and I'm by nature a contrarian, that there's no way that I'd donate to it. Others are donating plenty already I'm sure.

Any other suggestions in response to my original question are greatly appreciated!
posted by intermod at 9:03 PM on May 4, 2007


intermod, I can't think of any… this sort of stuff is usually pushed in combination efforts by major organizations (think things like Habitat for Humanity or Save the Children all the way up to the World Health Organization & UNICEF) rather than by scrappy teams. It's much more efficient that way. I could be totally lost though; maybe lots of people doing this have just slipped under my radar.

Also, if you're looking into effective small giving, maybe "charities" aren't the best target. Check out Kiva, where you can make small loans to entrepreneurs in poverty (currently it can be as little as $25; the lenders' funds are pooled to make the actual loans). When they repay, you can fund more! It's pretty awesome, and the microcredit model is proven to be one of the most exciting advances in helping people in poverty help themselves, like giving women an independent income where they couldn't otherwise have imagined having one. I could link to more and more about this but just thought I'd bring your attention to the DIY microcredit idea. It has my full support, and institutionally speaking Kiva.org has my confidence.
posted by Firas at 9:25 PM on May 4, 2007


The OLPC seems much more like the Searcher model to me now that I think about it. It's designed as a product, it's manufactured to be sold using target-government funds rather than donor/designer funds

To fully benefit from the Searcher model, you need "boots on the ground" and tight feedback loops. I guess an analogy would be open source development. The developers and the users form a tightly knit accountability chain. Experiment, deploy, develop, iterate.

With the OLPC, we have MIT and governments. Where are the users (the children and the teachers) in the loop? They don't seem to have a strong stake in this. They get a "product" dumped on them. This might make someone feel better at MIT or in the education bureaucracies but what about actual outcomes?

Has there thought been given to how the benefits of these laptops will be measured? In the case of cellphones, the benefits are explicitly declared through the market mechanism. People pay for them because the value is there. In the case of OLPC, what feedback mechanisms are going to tell us that we are doing more good than harm? (I'm not suggesting markets are the *only* way of providing accountability and feedback)
posted by storybored at 9:00 AM on May 5, 2007


The web site for the Design for the Other 90% exhibit has a bunch more projects that weren't mentioned in the Herald's article and slideshow.

The design blog core77 just posted a thoughtful review of the exhibit, including an argument for considering aesthetics in these these sorts of projects.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:15 PM on May 7, 2007


Thanks Firas for the kiva.org pointer, I'm looking into them.

This was covered in the New York Times today, reminding me to come back to this thread and followup (and fire up my checkbook).
posted by intermod at 4:40 AM on May 29, 2007


The NYT article mentions KickStart (previously ApproTEC). And their website leads me to the Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Awards. Oh, hell yeah.
posted by intermod at 4:46 AM on May 29, 2007


More in my conversation with myself :) ..... Oddly , the KickStart site looks better than the ApproTEC site but is very broken. Use the ApproTEC site if the KickStart site doesn't work for you (file:/// URLs, anyone?).
posted by intermod at 4:50 AM on May 29, 2007


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