The future of source material. Learning to see the steps.


I’m busy helping to build Akvo at the moment, an open source wiki and set of collaboration and finance tools that pool the knowledge that already exists in different NGO and government silos, to help the world’s poorest communities quickly build water and sanitation facilities. It’s worth doing – today over 1.1 billion people are without safe drinking water and, globally, 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Each year, as a result, 1.8 million children die of diarrhoea and other diseases, 440 million school days are missed, and in sub-Saharan Africa alone $28.4 billion (USD) are lost in productivity and opportunity costs.

The great thing about tackling a problem this urgent is that you can challenge every aspect of how things are currently done – the assumptions that keep us constrained. What has become quickly apparent as we’ve presented the prototype and raised funds from development sector groups is that this field is wide open to act as a test-bed for our first game-changing element – that open source principles of knowledge sharing can change how development is organised. This component was surprisingly easy to explain to an NGO audience, in fact, with a panel debate at Stockholm World Water Week demonstrating a sound appreciation from relevant parties of the opportunities it presents to reduce costs and improve participation and technology re-use and longevity.

Yet underneath there is a tougher issue to deal with, and it becomes more apparent when dealing with that other movement of the moment – the opening up of knowledge systems via social media, and the tensions that creates for organisations built on hierarchical, command and control lines.

The problem is that organisations that have evolved as a hierarchy, with a clear chain of command, are not particularly effective when tasked with gathering and refining content in an emerging infrastructure shaped by social media and by processes that share every stage of a product (or story’s) development with anyone who is interested.

Because while digital material, by its nature, can be updated whenever there is a good reason to do so, it often isn’t. Instead, the vast majority of digital material today continues to be written, approved and published as if it was print material – it just happens to be made available digitally. Almost all marketing departments work this way.

And here’s where I’m going to collapse my lessons from open source and social media together. The central problem in most modern organisations is that there is no culture of shared, authentic core content. Traditional marketing and communications teams have developed stories in a linear fashion, with source material being assumed to be the final polished product, rather than the raw facts and figures. The source becomes the brochure, rather than the original interview that created insights for each section of that brochure. While technology such as wikipedia-style databases allow it, established processes of information gathering make it impossible to easily reference original source material in end products, and when that source material changes it is unusual for end products to be updated without considerable management activity.

This linear process of content creation and approval, favoured today, is designed to discard the real source content and create an improved edited reality, usually a report that is distorted to answer particular questions, or a document that tells a certain story to a certain audience. The organisation – or more accurately individual actors – try to hide any ‘weaknesses’ in the original source or make decisions along the way about which portions of the source should be published more widely and which should remain confidential. In other words, they attempt to control access to the source content. With emerging social media processes – pioneered in particular by the open source software movement – the philosophy is that the source content is open to all unless there is consensus that an individual should be excluded from either reading (unlikely) or editing (more likely) that content. The aim is to encourage all to feel they can contribute to and edit the source code – all actors are encouraged to improve the quality of the source code itself, perhaps by making connections between it and other things, or even simply by tidying it up. In all cases, what is changed can be tracked and large numbers of content editors constantly watch over changes and rigorously review and tweak material.

Yet over decades we have created organisations that usually have two parallel organisational realities – an internal organisation that is quirky, has politics, problems, secret plans, good people and bad people, versus an external organisation that is coherent, polished and near perfect.

The key beneficiary of maintaining two separate organisations is usually the marketing (or legal) department. Millions of man hours are applied globally to take real scenarios and polish them into something suitable for external consumption. Maybe its time to refocus our efforts, giving people at every level and every stage in the process of product and service development the tools and skills needed to tell their own, real stories at every stage. Doing so is no longer a technology problem – it’s a management one.

Mark Charmer is director of The Movement Design Bureau. He co-edits Re*Move and is a contributor to Greenmonk.


Turn Servers Off When You Don’t Need Them Part 2

I recently blogged about the fact its common in Japan to turn servers off at night, so I found it interesting that Cassatt, the data center automation vendor launched by BEA founder Bill Coleman , has just announced a power management play- claiming “customers have experienced up to 50 percent reduction in their power usage, simply by allowing Active Power Management to turn off servers when idle, and then confirm a successful power-up when they’re needed again.”

According to the release the The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported last month that data centers are consuming up to 1.5 percent of all the electricity generated in the U.S.

But Europe is actually ahead of the US in some areas of efficiency and greening. BT, a leader in the field, now looks for always available, rather than always on in its equipment purchasing. One of the strangest arguments of the last ten years came from the Washington lobbyists and politicians claiming efficiency initiatives harm the economy. I am glad this argument is being won by the other side – green power can save money whether you’re a small or large business. As this Computerworld story says vendors such as Sun and Fujitsu are now showcasing their own initiatives. It doesn’t matter whether you turn electricity off to save money or save the planet.

Why do I find the Cassatt pitch interesting? Partly because it answers a key counterpoint to “turn you server off” thinking. Thus Mike Gunderloy, in comments to my earlier blog post, asked:

Has anyone looked at the labor costs of this? I know that even on my tiny little dozen-machine network, I am reluctant to power everything off at night simply because it takes so bloody long waiting for the damn things to boot up in the morning. Seems like actual working fast-boot technologies would go a long way to sell this initiative.

IT labor costs of course will kill energy efficiency initiatives every time, if they are too high. That’s where automation software comes in. We can expect automation vendors of all stripes to pursue similar power management strategies, which is a good thing.

Power off.

picture courtesy of r3wind‘s creative commons attribution license.


Go Green Nippon Style: Turn Your Server Off at Night

I recently met with Fujitsu Siemens Computer about green data initiatives, based on what the joint venture calls IT with a sense of responsibility. The underlying hook to the narrative is Japanese/German engineering excellence (not a bad peg, I am sure you’d agree).

Bernhard Brandwitte, director of product marketing for FSC and perhaps more importantly in the context of behavioural change an excellent story-teller, told me something that really rocked me on my heels: in Japan its common to turn production servers off at night. Yup- apparently the Japanese insurance industry tries to avoid fires in plants at night by offering much cheaper cover for companies that power down after dark.

What does that mean in practice? A much more coherent backup and recovery strategy for one. A commitment to not 24/7, not follow the Sun, not have uptime for its own sake.

I have been thinking about this issue for a while, but it was a tweet from Chris Dalby this morning that pulled the trigger:

yellowpark is going green. I’m turning my server off each night 🙂

Chris is someone I deeply respect. Another cool thing is that he won’t shop at supermarkets- all his shopping is packaging free, from a local farm shop. When he tweets a delicious lunch menu you know the vegetables were never wrapped in plastic. That is a pretty good metaphor for Chris: He is very real, very passionate, and focuses on local issues. He is all about change from the grassroots.

Chris’ commitment to server-off computing is cool because he is an expert in technologies such as Windows Small Business Server, which he sells into small and medium-sized businesses. I wonder if he could set up a service helping SMBs become more green, given his bona fides?

All I know is that much as we should all turn off our appliances at night, and our cellphone chargers, so we should ask – do we really need that server on all night?


picture credit: Chris’s dog, from his moo cards, saying… “Turn that bloody server off, I’ll be your watchdog…”

disclosure: Chris is a friend.