- April 30, 2013
- Everywhere Tech
Last Fall the Shuttleworth Foundation kindly provided me with a flash grant to apply towards open source work within a period of six months. These funds were used to launch Everywhere Tech and its first initiative: a collaborative effort to make open source hardware more accessible to all.
Everywhere Tech seeks to address the challenge of open source technology transfer with the goal of making open source and public domain solutions accessible to and easier to use by anyone anywhere in the world. Despite the inroads made by the open source hardware community towards making technology accessible to all, several challenges still need to be address in order to increase diffusion and facilitate usage and contributions.
OPEN SOURCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER
For this purpose we began by identifying the components needed to effectively and efficiently replicate hardware.
While open source designs are now available for a wide array of devices — and, in theory, enable anyone anywhere in the world to replicate, modify and repair them — there are still several challenges to overcome:
- Design files may be available in formats that require hard-to-obtain and/or expensive software.
- Plans and instructions may be not be comprehensive enough.
- Plans are often not clearly licensed.
- Technical jargon often makes the plans and instructions incomprehensible for those with no technical training.
- The languages in which open source hardware documentation is described often represent a major barrier for replication in other parts of the world.
- More sophisticated files, such as 3D models, commonly require access to computers with powerful processors.
We’re currently in the process of identifying standards and best practices for the design and documentation of open source hardware with the specific goal of enabling practical replication, modification, customization, and repair of the devices. The outcome will consist in:
- The Visual Language for Open Source Hardware – a set of simple icons, grammar and standards allowing for a language-agnostic description of a device or material – inspired by The Noun Project and the IKEA documentation model.
- A list of recommended file formats, applications and hardware platforms with the lowest possible barrier to entry for the delivery and modification of plans. This will focus on open source software platforms — with a focus on a robust OS CAD solution —, ubiquitous file formats and applications, and low-cost hardware (eg. Raspberry Pi or cell phone vs. computer).
- The Open Source Documentation Handbook – a proposed set of standards and best practices for the documentation of open source hardware with a focus on: detailed documentation; accessibility of file formats, software and hardware; language-agnostic build instructions; modularity to enable the remix and mashup of the documentation to create hybrid devices by combining parts of different documentation sets (eg. the code from one project with the electronics or mechanical components from another).
- The Design for Replication Handbook – a series of best practices for the design of open source hardware with a focus on: modularity, standard interfaces, simplicity, efficiency, low-cost, accessibility of materials/tools, and repairability.
Even with designs and build instructions available, the replication, modification and repair of hardware still requires access to tools and materials that may not be locally available.
In cases where the required tools and materials are not available, Everywhere Tech intends to work with the interested parties to address import substitution and tech recursion by assisting in the development of local micro-factories; researching alternative materials, tools and techniques; and collaborating on the redesign of the device taking into account local specifications.
Knowledge & Skills
In order to build or modify a device, skills such as soldering, welding, machining and operating digital fabrication tools are often required.
Everywhere Tech hopes to convey much of this knowledge through entry-level documentation and online tutorials. In addition to these resources, we seek to collaborate with local organizations — such as hackerspaces, schools, Fab Labs, and local shops — which can act as hubs for skills buidling and distribution of open source knowledge and plans to their surrounding communities.
Development & Support
Assembling and repairing hardware often requires technical support. In addition to this, solutions and modifications devised locally don’t always make it back into the public pool where they could be of use to others.
We seek to address this challenge by ensuring that all interested parties are connected and can provide peer-to-peer support to each other via an international network of producers-users. In addition, we’ll devise a simple process to allow knowledge generated during the technology transfer process to be added back to the public pool so that innovations devised by one community can benefit everyone else. In other words: our focus is as much on delivering open source knowledge as it is on capturing it and redistributing it. This applies not just to the hardware itself, but also to the process of technology transfer, which we see as a collaborative leaning process.
THE FIRST OSHW DOC JAM
The next step was to begin drafting ways to address these challenges. Since designs and build plans are the main product/output of open source hardware, they were identified as the first item to focus on. Given the complexity of the problem and the fact that in this case ‘hardware’ encompasses many different types of technologies — from small electronics devices to complex fabrication tools —, it became clear that this would have to be a community-wide effort made up of several contributions. With this in mind, Everywhere Tech joined several other organizations to organize the First OSHW Documentation Jam.
This workshop took place in NYC — with parallel events in Berlin and Amsterdam — on April 26 to 28 and counted with over 50 participants whose skills ranged from graphic design, UX design and service design to open source hardware and software development. During the three days of the event we collectively identified sub-problems within the bigger challenge and broke down into groups with the goal of: clearly defining each problem, creating guidelines to understand and address it, and sketching solutions. Work group topics included:
- Accessibility: this discussion focused on identifying constraints that may hinder access to open source hardware plans and build instructions, from physical specificities (such as dislexia or color vision), to technological limitations at both the software and hardware level, to cultural and language barriers. The group developed a series of guidelines for user accessibility and began sketching strategies to address them.
- Taxonomy: discussion focused on defining a taxonomy for labeling and providing information about open source hardware projects as the basis for a directory and search engine capable of quickly retrieving relevant and usable information. The group generated a template for an OSHW Index Card that would identify all open source hardware projects.
- Platform Interoperability: discussion focused on devising strategies for remixing, deriving and versonizing open source hardware projects. The group produced a list of requirements for enabling remixability of projects and identification of versions.
One potential solution that came of the event was the possibility of adopting the OManual format and xml schema, in conjunction with the taxonomy header developed during the event, as an embedable, interoperable module for packaging instructional files. This format includes a validation schema.
The next steps for the OSHW Doc Jam:
- Analyze and compile the documentation produced by each group during the workshop.
- Hold an online meeting between all the participants to discuss main take aways and next steps.
- Devise plans for implementation and diffusion of the findings and recommendations generated by the work groups.
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN PROGRESS
In addition to tackling the challenge of generating and sharing plans for open source hardware, Everywhere Tech is also currently working on other initiatives that will support a more efficient technology transfer process and the spreading of open source hardware, namely:
The Everywhere Tech Map: a google map for tracking hardware needs from around the world and matching them to potential open source solutions. The map option was based on its accessibility and ease of implementation. However, we’re currently working on developing a more appropriate platform for collecting needs and offers, as well as making it possible for several users and producers to find each other and collaborate. The goal of this system is to break down hardware projects into many smaller components that can be engineered independently and, in this way, crowdsource the development of open source technologies.
The IP Rescue Program: In a world where patents and copyrights have become numerous, vague and obscure, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between public domain, fair use, open source and proprietary components, all of which can coexist in a single artifact. As Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine point out, this legal tangle hinders innovation and makes it extremely hard for developers to improve or create something new without violating some “obscure patent.” In addition to this, there is a wide range of projects out in the public that have not been clearly licensed but are unpatentable, or that are legally in the public domain but for which the actual knowledge has been lost. The IP Rescue Program has launched a process to retrieve lost IP by:
- Requesting the assistance of IP attorneys to prepare IP briefs for specific pieces of hardware so it becomes clearer which parts are open for further development.
- Contacting the creators of unlicensed plans and working with those who are willing to properly open source those designs.
- Working with experts in several fields to recover lost public domain knowledge.
Thank you Shuttleworth Foundation for making it possible for me to dedicate time and resources to these efforts. It’s my hope that Everywhere Tech will make a significant contribution towards spreading open source hardware wide and far.