Question 16 of 365: Can we Open Source our way out of a tragedy?

As I continue to hear more and more stories from Haiti in the aftermath of the worst earthquake in over two centuries, I realize that more people will inevitably die. Not from the earthquake itself, but from the staggering loss of infrastructure and the inability to acquire the basic necessities of life. This particular problem is one that is the most incomprehensible for me. The logic goes, “If I have access to the essentials, why is it so difficult for others to have that same access.” I can literally see the cups I could drink fresh water out of and the roof directly over my head right now. How is it these things are not available to all? (Clearly, this line of thinking is callous, but I believe that it is the primary reason that more isn’t done by those who have for those who do not.)

So, as I am thinking about this unspeakable tragedy, I keep on wondering what would happen to the people of Haiti if they could “make” their essentials out of the rubble, if they could literally turn waste into water. Would the mass of people who are not donating to non-profits like the one a colleague of mine set up, think twice about helping if they knew that the technologies existed for sustainable relief. I guess the second part of the question is, “Would America be more likely to give a handout,if  it knew that the handout would beget much more than a single meal, but rather a change in situation?”

While this line of thinking seems perhaps almost ludicrous, I think that the only way to build infrastructure quickly is to re-imagine what infrastructure can look like after a tragedy.

So, what if we took the Open Source Hardware projects to Haiti and had them start developing their own ready to use flashlights or DC Electric Motors out of the plastic waste left behind.

Or, if we scaled the Open Source water purification set to as many folks as possible. While you can make these systems using heavy production, the majority of the systems made are made of ceramic pottery that can be manufactured locally quite easily, even after a tragedy like the Earthquake.

Open Source housing or the SHRIMP project could be a reality for many of those who are without a home. After all, providing a way to make the same concrete structures that fell over in the first place, doesn’t really seem like a viable option.

While some people may be offended by the notion that the Open Source movement could solve the problems of natural disasters, and they may point to things like the One Laptop Per Child projects as examples of Open Source forcing other cultures to take part in a Western technologies and thinking. I believe that if Open Source is done correctly, all of the feedback from those who are requesting aid could change those very projects to fit the needs of the people left with nothing.

While Open Source doesn’t have all of the answers, neither does a few ready-to-eat meals that get on the ground 2 days too late.


  1. I'm sure you knew it as you typed it, but “I believe that if Open Source is done correctly, all of the feedback from those who are requesting aid could change those very projects to fit the needs of the people left with nothing,” is your key here.

    Working in South Africa and Kenya last summer, I couldn't escape the worry of contemporary colonialism. This is not to say I believe the work we were doing was colonialistic, but that history preceded us.

    Our answer to tragedy in pre-industrial nations is often, “Here, you'll need this.”

    So, I'm game. Let's do this. Let's make this change. Better yet, let's find a way to make a preemptive change before tragedy strikes. What's stopping it?

  2. I think this may get at some of the “problems” that your kids are trying to
    fix, right? Are they considering open sourced solutions?

    I am also game for figuring out problems like this, and doing it
    preemptively. I think that the only thing stopping us is lack of access to
    the people on the ground. I can come up with “open sourced” solutions as a
    part of a collaborative process with other “first world” folks, but that
    really doesn't help with the feedback part of it. I think that we would have
    to live the problems or be able to collaborate with people who do in order
    to really bring about changing the way that aid is given.

    Mobilizing (in both senses of the word) every citizen is going to be the
    “next big thing”, whether we like it or not.

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