Free Idea: Use ChaCha’s structure for disaster relief

On the drive up to Seattle a few weeks ago, Cindy and Sarah Dopp and I were playing with ChaCha and wondering how they make money. Around here we all go “What’s your business model” right away… and then snicker.

So I think I might just have figured it out. Do it for free for a bit with your VC money and show how it works. Then, sell “Enterprise ChaCha” or something like it, to a big institution. (I was looking at Indiana University‘s page about it.) You’d sell the structure and the setup, and the institution creates its own number (and password or validation system) and pools its own experts. So, sell it to Exxon or something for its corporate librarians and geologists. Or to the military, obviously. Here is the military’s answer to its perpetual search for AI. “Human assisted search”.

Anyway, this could also work for disaster relief, because it’s ideal for situations that change very rapidly. I was looking at Jon’s empty wiki and thinking, well aside from all the problems with the whole idea of that, which I won’t go into, might a Twitter feed be better? I thought of myself on the 2nd floor of the Astrodome after Katrina, gathering and putting out information that was extremely up to date, and how quickly things changed on the ground. Would I want a wiki for it? (I tried. It is hopeless without a core of people already trained to use one and to work together with one.) Maybe I wouldn’t want one. Maybe a feed would be better. Page back through the “2nd floor astrodome” Twitter feed and see what’s up. Combine many different channels of all the people at various stations in the Astrodome and you’d know who says what is true, right in the moment.

But even better — a private setup for a ChaCha-like thing. You get 100 people together to monitor and answer questions and you would have an instant backup, fit for the general of an army. Or fit for a reporter on the ground in a rough situation. I think of how I combed google news all day long for the Back to Iraq guy back in like 2003 and emailed him updates on whatever was going on or being bombed in the area near him. How much better, if he could have called a phone number like ChaCha’s, and tapped into a network of people like me. Someone would have texted him back the information he wanted within minutes. And if there were sort of a combination of Ning and ChaCha, you’d be able to set up your own information broker network and invite people to join it.

The Red Cross should be using this (okay, maybe in 20 years if they can get it together that fast). But, I offer the idea up to whatever nonprofits or disaster relief workers can use it.

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DIY: Access Hacks project

For the second year in a row, I thought of the wheelchair modification and disability access projects that could and should be at Maker Faire. I’d like to make that happen next year.

At Maker Faire this year, I talked with Miguel Valenzuela, who was showing Lift Assist, a toilet lift device that can be built for $150 out of bits of PVC and junk from a hardware store, powered hydraulically from your own water system. That kind of thing costs thousands of dollars if you buy it as a medical device. If it were a DIY kit, and if it had open source plans and instructions up on the web, it could be useful to thousands of people all over the world.

So I got to thinking. Who would I even hook Miguel up with, to get his plans used? What other projects are spreading disability access devices, open source? Could things like this just be given over to an organization like Engineers Without Borders? How can they be open sourced or copylefted? Who’s collecting that information? Certainly not the U.N. committees on disability – ha!

There are specific projects like Whirlwind Wheelchair International and its design for the Rough Rider chair, developed by Ralf Hotchkiss and students over many years and meant to be distributed to shops or factories or organizations in developing nations. In other words, partnership with actual manufacturers. There’s the Free Wheelchair Mission which has a kit to build wheelchairs for under $50. They seem to take donations and then ship a giant crate of wheelchair kits to somewhere in the world. Those both look great. But neither of them were for a disabled person who might want to build their own stuff.

Then I found some nifty sites like Marty’s Gearability blog, which has a DIY category for “Life with limitations and the gear that makes things work”. She has made dozens of posts on modifications she’s made for her dad, who uses a wheelchair. I especially enjoyed the how-to for a wheelchair cup holder and the elegant, blindingly useful offset hinges to widen doorways.

I’m also somewhat familiar with Adafruit Industries and its projects like SpokePOV. What if assistive devices used something closer to this model? Rather than people patenting, and trying to sell their designs to a medical supply company, which marks it up a million times until disabled people in the U.S. can’t afford them unless they have insurance or can wait 5 years and fight a legal battle with Medicare.

I found organizations like Remap in the UK, that takes applications from individual disabled people, and hooks them up with an engineer who will build them a custom device. This I think exemplifies the well meaning but ill advised attempts to help disabled people through a “charity” model rather than through widespread empowerment. If an engineer is donating time and an invention, why not have them write up and donate the plans for whatever they are building, and post the DIY instructions for free? Then, thousands of people all over the world could build that invention for themselves.

Here’s another data-sucking black hole of information that should be out there on the beautiful, wild, free internet: academia. This paper on bamboo wheelchair designs is probably super great, but who knows? Only the libraries who have the bound copy of the conference proceedings of the 5th international bamboo conference back in 2002. This makes me very, very sad. OneSwitch, on the other hand, has the right idea. It’s a compendium of DIY electronics projects to build assistive devices. Perfect!

Meanwhile, I went looking for the latest news in open source hardware. What’s up with the Open Source Hardware License?

My own inventions for assistive devices have tended towards the creative yet slapdash use of duct tape. For example, my Duct Tape Crutch Pockets, an idea easily adaptable to small pouches for forearm crutches and canes, or to get more storage space onto your wheelchair.

My own canes and crutches that fold (with internal bungee cords) could use simple velcro closure straps to keep them folded up while they’re in my backpack or in the car. There are some ingenious ways, also, to attach canes or crutches to a wheelchair.

I have thought of, but not made, ways to extend storage space further. For example, I think that the lack of pockets in women’s clothing is a political issue. Women’s clothes are mostly designed without pockets, because of cultural pressure to look skinny, so women end up encumbered by bags and purses. If you think about how wheelchairs are made, it is interesting that they are assumed not to need storage space, cup holders, things like that. People hang little backpacks off their chairs. And there are a few custom made pouches for walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs, like this thin armrest pouch. You won’t find them in an actual wheelchair store – and rarely in a drugstore or medical supply house. Why not?

As wheelchair designs continue to evolve, I hope that manufacturers will create customizable backs and sides and seats. Nylon webbing with d-rings, sewn into the backs and under the seats of wheelchairs, would mean that custom pouches and packs could clip onto a chair. Then it would be easy to set up your chair with interchangeable bits. My laptop could go in a pouch under the seat, for example, so that it wouldn’t affect my center of gravity so drastically as it hangs off the seat back in a backpack.

I’d like to see more and more mods for chairs and canes and crutches that are just for fun. The little holes in adjustable-height, hollow metal walking canes — don’t they seem like the perfect size to stick an LED light in there?

Also, meanwhile, I had posted briefly the other day for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008 with a list of ideas for Practical actions that will help, like smoothing out steps into a small business (ie just freaking pour some asphalt in there or build a wooden wedge even if it is not exactly to code; people do nothing, for fear of being sued, rather than spend thousands to do a to-code ramp, and I’d rather they just stuff in a slope and bolt a rail to the wall than do nothing!). After I made the list, I went looking for online instructions on how to do the things I was suggesting. What did I come up with ? Jack shit! Nothing! Nada!

So, here’s what I propose we do:

– Compile free and open source how-tos, plans, designs, etc. on Disapedia. I have made a page for DIY equipment.

– I will go and interview Hotchkiss and his class, and write up more detail on how their open source project works.

– A meeting to share access hacks and start to add to that wiki page on Disapedia.

– I’ll head up an effort to organize a really good disability/accessibility hacking booth for Maker Faire next year.

For the Access Hacks booth, I’d like to pull in:
– craft/sewing people for stuff like mobility device storage and mods with velcro and fabric
– metal working people
– electronics people (like the OneSwitch folks)
– Maybe invite Tech Shop and the Bay Area wheelchair stores to participate
– obviously, disabled crafty/makery people. I thought I could try to pull in GimpGirl and put the word out in other communities
– Flyers on how to open source your hack and make it free – license info, where to post, hook up with places like WikiHow.

This could make a super fantastic real life application for hardware/craft hacks. I would love to just hang out all weekend with a bunch of other people with disabilities and share whatever hacks we’ve already come up with. That in itself would be productive without even doing it at Maker Faire. I’d like an Access Hacks meeting around here and I wonder if people would host them elsewhere and then post tips on Disapedia. (I would like to use them rather than host a new wiki, but I’m willing to make an access hacks wiki if that’s what people would like.)

Please, leave feedback in the comments.

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Folk logic computing for every gadget

Midnight blogging! I was thinking of all the science fiction about smart houses, like Smart House (Kate Wilhelm) or Remains (Mark Tiedemann). I don’t want to talk to my house, and I don’t want it to be a master controller of Everything in my living environment. Instead I want all my household gadgets to be more like my Chumby. I don’t want to freaking “program” my VCR or my coffeemaker. I want to swipe the widgets that my friends hack up. A couple of years ago I talked at the first Barcamp about social networks and trusting small areas of expertise. But now I think that idea will be played out better through folk logic. My co-housing mate obsesses on automatic control of our houses’ heating and so I bought a fairly cheap gadget with the most annoying user interface ever and now can never control the damned heat level of my house without consulting a 10 page user manual and going bleep bleep bleep oh whoops hell beep beep beep damn oh I give up, and then it reverts to how it was 12 hours later anyway. Screw that. The damn thing should run linux, like everything else should, and then I could log in to it and tell it to use Max’s program which he had the patience to set up. Likewise, I don’t care enough about TV to even mess with Tivo. (Count the number of media players in the world that right now are flashing 12:00, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.) I would rather just copy my friend Laura’s setup because I am likely to like anything she likes; we have the same taste in many areas, as you can see from our LibraryThing profiles. There are areas where I put in a lot of time and have tons of expertise, so my friends or fans would rip whatever widgety things I hacked up.

I can’t quite imagine how or why we would program our fridges or bread machines or coffee makers but they sure as hell have oddly sophisticated computer chips in them already, and someone will think of something good. So why not — my coffee maker should be truly “programmable” and have some kind of open source layer so that people can write stuff for it.

Everything computery should be hackable. I’m not going to have the time to hack everything, but someone in my social network will.

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A culture of free as in free beer, trust, and ethical payment

The other day I was checking out the developer preview of Songbird‘s music player, and had a few ideas. Right now you can use it like a browser, reading blogs and downloading mp3s from those blogs. In about 5 minutes I had found great music from búscate un novio and fuck me i’m twee (I’ve been listening to a lot of girly pop/punk lately.)

I’d really love to change the whole model of music distribution. Rather than buying the rights to do whatever I like with a song, I’d like to download it and listen to it without feeling like a criminal. I’d like it to be licensed under Creative Commons in some sensible way. And then I’d like my music players to include a tip jar.

If I like a song, I’ll tip the artist, or the consortium of artists, or whoever does their distribution. For example, I’d like a guarantee that the original artist gets a particular percentage of the tip. Even if I knew they would get 50%, that would make me more likely to tip than I’d be if I had zero information.

Skyrocketing downloads, as music consumers felt the confidence that they weren’t doing anything illegal, would fuel the music industry. We’d tip a song, or an artist, more than once. When I made a mix CD for someone and put my favorite song on it, I might tip again. Over the many years of listening to a song, I might tip its creator many times… generating more money for the creator, and for anyone in the middle like Songbird could be, than a simple “pay 99 cents for it” model.

I’d see in my music player that I’d tipped 3 times for a particular song or album. I could sort my music on paid-for or not, which would encourage me to want to pay more artists and feel good about my own habits.

Further, I could earn a reputation as an ethical consumer. My own profile — on Songbird, or on some public site — maybe on a badge I stuck on my blogs — could proclaim that I’ve tipped musical artists 1052 times, or dollars worth of tips, in the last 5 years.

This information could build relationships between consumer and artist, or label or consortium. Kathleen Hanna would know that I’m her loyal fan to the tune of $30 over several years, and might send me announcements, concert information, free stuff, tshirts, or free new music.

This might also avoid the morass of micropayments. Create small payment structures for specific industries, instead of a grand scheme of people passing around the same .001th of a cent whenever they read a web page.

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SXSWi: Non-developers to Open Source Acolytes: Tell me why I care

Elisa Camahort is moderating. Annalee Newitz, Dawn Foster, Erica Rios.

Annalee Newitz explains the entire complicated insane definition and history of the Open Source movement in less than 3 minutes. Free redistribution, available source, derivative works okay, no restrictions on tech or users (http;// Licenses: gpl, MOzilla public license, BSD License. Commonly used open source software (oss): Firefox (MPL), OpenOffice (LesserGPL), GNU/Linux (GPL), BSD (BSD), WordPress (GPL), Apache (Apache License), Rails (MIT License), PHP (PHP License). The GPL is viral and powerful. Anytime you use software that uses GPL that you intend for redistribution, you have to release under GPL.

Elisa: I know some of the names of this software. But Rails? Apache? Okay, well, really I know what Apache is. But why does this matter to me?

Dawn Foster talks about OSS structure and leadership. It looks chaotic from the outside. Random people contributing code. How in the world can you end up with anything reasonable? But that’s not how it is. You’d be surprised how hierarchical it is. OSS community structure.
Bug Reports: Community members submitting bugs to improve the project.
Contributors: Community members contributing to committers for review.
Committers: Trusted community members with access to modify code.
Maintainers: Direction and decisions for a portion of the project.
Leaderships: Strategic decisions, project direction.

Elisa: So, I’m not the only one who had no idea that all this existed behind the idea of open source. Erica is going to talk from the point of view of a company using open source software.

Erica Rios: My role at the Anita Borg Institute is to maintain the technical aspects of the organization. We use WordPress, for example. I see myself as a customer for these tools. I want help with installation, configuration. Is it going to have an impact on my server maintenance, what cron jobs I should run, what about backups, patches. When I hire people I need to know what kind of time and money I need to invest to maintain the software. What kind of customer service support do I get from a tool? The staff, my users, who are also the customers for this software. Does the tool do what they need it to do? Is it easy to use? Are they going to be able to figure it out, with or without support? There’s a self-sufficiency question. Will everyone be coming to me for that help? I think of it like hardware. We’re lucky enough to have HP Labs donate space to us. Our machines are still on warrantee and I can get service. Do I always need to know the details behind why something’s not working? Is the community “friendly”? Am I going to go looking for help and be told RTFM? Because I’ve already tried.

Elisa: When you were looking at open source tools, was that part of your due diligence, did you look at the friendliness of that tool’s open source community?

Erica: Absolutely. And it doesn’t have to be a hierarchical traditional manual or documentation scenario. The community is so robust that I can type my question into Google and get an answer right away.

Guy in audience gets up and takes a mic. A lot of people don’t realize some open source tools and projects offer paid support. Ubuntu, etc.

Dawn Foster talks more about open source and paid support.

Erica Rios. Developing friendships with other users and developers. If you have a personal relationship then people are much nicer in their explanations. With documentation, when it’s written in plain language, it’s more helpful. I have a degree in computer science, but I appreciate documentation in plain language, and it helps me communicate to my less technical users. Quality community can demonstrate their intelligence through the quality of a product but not feel ego-driven to demonstrate it in their documentation.

Elisa invites questions from the audience.

Same guy from audience: Questions about where the open source software came from. Fear of patent suits from big huge companies, etc.

Annalee Newitz: I’ve heard people talk about their management saying “You can’t use an open source code because it’ll creep into our code and we’ll be sued.” People need to be educated about the legal ins and outs of open source licenses. For example the GPL is one of the most radical ones… A company lawyer is good to go through the license and explain to management. There’s a lot of online explanantions written by lawyers, for example through the EFF or some from Creative Commons. It’s sad that people move away from the GPL but from a business perspective it makes a lot of sense.

Dawn Foster: It’s less of a risk, because if there’s proprietary code in there, someone’s going to have noticed it. Or they can notice it. It’s not really that different.

Annalee: I would strongly agree with that. The fact that you can look at the code means you can tell if there’s a problem.

Audience member: Myth of putting it al out there and it being exploited.

Dawn Foster: I tend to worry less about being exploited by open source Eric Raymond “with enough eyeballs… all … are shallow” I worry about backdoors and things in proprietary code, that I’ll never know is there. The empowerment of being able to look at the code

Annalee: That’s why you hire security auditors, etc. BSD, used by the miliatry, you can lock it down.

Liza: I’m going to be the downer here. THere is a cost for making it useable for people with no technology background. For example WordPress, it’s so beautiful! But it’s hard for people to use and to understand. So, users assume that level of customer service is free and that it’s going to be free and that there’s no cost to maintain it. And this makes it hard for developers and consultants to monetize what we do. Upgrading, security issues, etc. People coming into open source, think that it’s going to be free .

Dawn quotes Richard Stallman, Free as in freedom, not free as in free beer. There are costs, time and money.

Annalee: When you’re looking for a return on investment, long term will it be more costeffective to have this invest in maintaining this rather than paying Microsoft for a new license every couple of years? So yes, the long term costs are way better.

Erica Rios: We look at it that way at Anita Borg Institute. That’s one of the key philosophical reasons I put to management, the flexibility we get.

Kimberly (from audience): Speaking as soneone who once upon a time had all sorts of Microsoft certifications and has now gone more into open source, there is more flexibility, there is very little barrier to entry, it’s really a meritocracy. They can contribute and there’s opportunities for them, they can build stuff for non-profits. To get Microsoft certified you pay a lot of money and yes there’s support and community but open source has way more opportunity.

Elisa: Is there a way in open source to validate what level they are in an open source community?

Kimberly: I’ve had people use me as a reference

Woman in back: It depends on the community.

Erica: Now that I’ve gone through this process I look at how much a person has contributed and how much of it has been accepted in to the main trunk fo the software.

Dawn Foster: It’s good for companies and hiring and companies can see people’s code and status in a community before hiring them.

Frank (from audience): Reliability and continuity. You can always get someone to maintain it because it’s not proprietary. Voting machines and cryptography. If the source isn’t out there there’s always someone out there who is so clever they can’t see their own mistakes. But a community can see it and can find the broken places. As American people we need to get the source out there so we can rely on our voting machines.

Elisa: Thank you so much for bringing that up and articulating it. Let’s talk about the philosophy and the reasons for supporting it. HOw many of you buy organic food, and free trade coffee? (Show of hands) We make economic decisions based on philosophical, emotional, ethical reasons. How many of you make technological decisions based on that? (Show of hands, a fair amount)

Guy in grey hoodie: (question)

Elisa: Kaliya Hamlin, getting non developers involved with open source communities. It’s extremely intimidating, I can tell you. I’m a wannabe, but there’s an idea that it would contribute to the greater good. Anyway, what’s the ethical reasons to use open source?

Annalee: Oviously there’s a lot of technical reason to choose it. And that’s an ethical choice too, to make the technical choice that would benefit the most peopl.e But when yo have a product made by people donating their time, or a company is giving 20% of their time to give back to open source, you simply get a higher quality. People are working together. They own it. When people own the stuff they produce, it will be better. When you produce software that is proprietary and your company owns it, you are alienated from it. But with open source you put your love into it. You can play with it, deploy it, use it with your friends, fix its security holes…

Erica Rios: analogy of the free library. If we can’t contribute and have free access to intellectual knowledge, we undermine democracy. Women and systemic reasons why girls and women often drop out of technical fields. Access. Open source is a unique opportunity for all women to have access to knowledge. If all software code was proprietary, I would never have looked at a pice of code in my life. I couldn’t have afforded it. Period.


Erica: Dr. Fran Allen, just announced as a Turing Award winner, first woman to be granted this award. It’s highly likely that a girl at the high school level right now, who has access to open source code, may achieve something as great as Fran. It gives other people access and opportunity and to contribute at higher levels. It’s a key consideration in us achieving equality between genders in technical fields, and as we increase participation, we’ll increase innovation.

Jory Des Jardines (audience): The Wisdom of Crowds. Ran an open source business project, because people didn’t ahve the motivation, aka, pay. Does money mean motivation? Money makes it easy to commit, people are flowing in and out of this project. The explanation you’re giving explains the structure, but what is the motivation for an engineer to bother?

Annalee Newitz: There are other rewards that people work for. We’re at a conference where there are artists. They’re hoping to make money, but they want people to appreciate their work. They want to create something beautiful and be acknowledged for it. Why do people want to have a higher reputation on Digg? They’re not getting money for it. Well, some of them are. (laughter … re. crowdhacking prank.) But there’s a point, Hey, I’ve spent 4 years doing this kickass thing, now pay me.

Dawn Foster: Contributors to the Linux kernel. They pay people fulltime to do nothing to contribute to those projects. Those companies are motivated for that software to be good.

Guy: Dispel that there’s anything anticapitalist about open source. More of them are libertarian than anti-capitalist. And about self interest and profit, my company went to open source, time, energy, money chasing clients on IP issues, waste of time. We got a better rate for our time to offer consulting services around it and provide the software as open source.

Erica: Who is mostly willing to work for free? Women. the motivation to work is there. There’s a lot of stereotypes that we default to when we look at what it is that isn’t working. There’s probably a lack of supportive culture. Asked by Mozilla to tell what could help keep women developers. My answer was I don’t know, ask the ones who are there and ask the ones who are leaving.

Woman with short black hair in audience: Ideals, but as a business manager, of a sucessful open source consulting and educaiton company, we charge a fair amount. It’s a myth that keeps developers away from open source. Like it kind of smells like patchouli a little bit…

Elisa: You will not find musicians in an orchestra playing for free. Actors will do it for free. Bloggers used to do it for free but that’s changing. Now we have blog consulting. People had passion that seemed to translate into not getting paid, Oh if I love doing it i shouldn’t get paid. Open source has that too, if I’m passionate about it I shouldn’t charge.

Annalee: You don’t have to do it for free, just get your boss to let you spend 50% of your time doing it because it helps improve the product.

Guy in audience: I’m not understanding, please explain, what is the distinction between building proprietary products on top of open source software.

(Well, it depends on the license! )

Annalee: that’s a good question and it gets debated a lot in open source communities. They are spelled out in the licenses. For example what will happen with Google and the GPL license. People need to be a little bit geeky about legal language and licensing.

Audience: How geeky do you need to be to say you’re into open source?

Erica: For example our crm system….Not important for us to customize that part. But to customize web solutions is very important. If we don’t need to hack it, let’s not do it.

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Women in Open Source

Women in Open Source – at SCALE in LA next weekend. Stormy Peters, Jean T. Anderson, Strata Chalup, Celeste Paul, Bdale Garbee, Randi Harper, and Dru Lavigne.

The Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) will host a Women in Open Source Event as part of their upcoming 2007 conference, SCALE 5x.

The focus of this event is on the women in the open source and free software communities. The goal of this event is to encourage women to use technology, open source and free software, and to explore the obstacles that women face in breaking into the technology industry. The Women in Open Source event will be held on February 9, 2007 at the Los Angeles Airport Westin Hotel.

I’m so tempted to go…I could probably get a plane ticket and fly down there and back the same day. Or, Strata said she could put me up in her hotel room if going back and forth on the same day would be too exhausting.

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