Wordless instructions. This suggestion comes up almost immediately as the best way to deliver instructions to the developing world. Whether it be an answer to tackling the behemoth that is multi-lingual translation or addressing mass illiteracy, this is the answer that keeps coming up. It is easy to see why, it sidesteps the issues of translation and illiteracy.

This approach was undertaken by two Swedish students in a remarkable a project the called Made in Kenya that tries to engage with the informal manufacturing industry and uses IKEA inspired styling http://www.notechmagazine.com/2011/11/when-low-tech-goes-ikea.html

A great effort though I remain dubious of a totally word free approach. I find it hard to believe that all issues of clarity and interpretation can be designed out by better diagrams. Looking at the images I am hesitant to attempt building it. Given a choice between a Haynes Manual style instructions or IKEA style I would take the former, especially for complex builds.

It is hoped that eventually illiteracy is no longer prevalent. Would creating a system that allows continued illiteracy be detrimental on this front? Or does delaying the adoption of technology because it exists behind a word wall more detrimental to overall welfare?

Then what is to be done? My current train of thought is to pursue visual clarity but to not see the whole weight of knowledge transfer placed upon these diagrams. The pictures are a subset of the whole. It would be more dangerous to leave vital safe information in an ambiguous medium. I suggest placing our faith in people once again. My balance between an ideal set up and what is realistic sees the words as a vital, but only as a one time measure.  If the text contain sufficient information to instruct construction independent of a consultant, an illiterate manufacturer and a literate person can collaborate in learning how to build the invention. In subsequent builds the pictures can suffice as a guide and a reminder after the process is initially learned.

Who is this literate person? Who would give up so much time? Perhaps the local NGO contact. Perhaps the local teacher, or if I were to take an optimistic view I could imagine teachers teaching children how to read instructions to their parents.

An alternative is a mobile phone approach, a reading service. This could take a multitude of approaches. Pre-Recorded instructions played back over the telephone. Specialised readers who bring up the relevant document on the internet and read it through with the manufacturer.

This still leaves us mired with the problems of translation. Perhaps the teachers will be well versed enough with English to provide end point translation on the fly at least until formal translations can be provided. Perhaps they can actively engage with localisation efforts. With free (in the Stalllman sense) documentation, bottom up translation can become the norm.

None of these are perfect solutions but perfect wordless instructions for manufacture is a pipe dream. It may work for simple devices and pre-manufactured flat-pack items but it will not work for far too many technologies to consider a serious solution. The perfect is the enemy of the good and as far as I can figure this hashed approach is a far more viable solution.

As always your thoughts are welcome.


I gave a talk at the open source hardware user group recently titled “The Needs of Others”. It was half outlining what is known about the effective delivery of technology aimed alleviating technology and half talking about how faithful reproduction of physical objects at any reasonable scale is dependent good documentation and then exploring the challenges all int he context of Free and Open technology. Unfortunately I only had 20 minutes while it was at least an hours worth of talking.

I really enjoyed it and the other two talks we great.

It was the first time I had to talk about the topic so the practice was great and I now have a better feel for it. Might ask a few ewb branches if they need a speaker

You can see my notes if you download the file.

I will write up about the talk at OSHUG later on but this has been the first rest period for a while so I thought it would be best to update the project status first. Short form – back to the foundation and in need of a rename

The last month has been rather quiet on both of my blogs. Why is an interesting question. It started with Richard Stallman comeing to give a lecture at Hub Westminster. Another three high profile events followed and a freelance contract.

Stallman took a great interest in the Hexayurt Project and seemed interested in the idea of free hardware. His talk about free software sparked in me a need to delve deeper into the heard of the documentation issue. The faithful reproduction of physical objects by a second party is incumbent on direction. This direction comes from good instructional documentation. This was an aspect I was  familiar with. The wider implications of the initial approach, be it from the mindset of “free”, “open source”, or “appropriate” needed further deconstruction. I had not studied these terms deeply enough before I started mapping out the problems. A large part of the problem stems from well meaning individual who had not taken due care to pay attention to minor details from the start.

Was I tackling the documentation of free appropriate hardware, open source appropriate hardware, appropriate technology, open source appropriate technology or the myriad of other combinations thrown around interchangeably? Nomenclature is important and must be approached slowly. I decided that since some folks were not paying attention to these minute details then I was tackling all of these whether or not the correct label was applied at the time. I decided that I needed to use the widest brush possible. To go back to “free” instead of “open”. It does mean I will have to rename the whole project.

When considering the distinction between free and open, some might have felt the the idea of ethics and morality imperative would have been encompassed in the fact the technologies in question were targeted at members within the world’s poorest communities. Turns out this is not the case. Whilst morality underpins many of the practices between free and developmental technology they do not necessarily overlap all that much. As this aspect of the project is explored in deeper detail I hope to blog about it

I am trying to come up precise terminology for these free appropriate poverty alleviation technologies. So I began typing up the aims and working backwards.

Targeted at those in poverty
Free to use and modify
Environmentally, economically, locally sustainable
Sensitive to the needs of the users and local conditions
Leads to increased income or substantially better quality of life
Does NOT harm

As always the list is a work in progress, but it is important to lay out a lot of non visible groundwork that pays of in the end though slightly less exciting than the maps and table I cranked out after rushing off ahead as the project tired to pull me faster than I could handle.

I hope that gave a taste of where the project it. Strained on time and returning back to the basics before too much has been built on top of a bad foundation.

http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/1Zs8Ws/blog.paulpolak.com/?p=1111 by Paul Polak is perhaps one of the most important blog posts I have read related to affordable poverty alleviating technologies. Read it before continuing this post

Read it?

I hope to write a bit more about the delivery chain but for today I will focus on scalability. This paragraph covers the important aspects.

“In many instances, the design of a scaling strategy is not very complicated. What development practitioners usually miss is the importance of building design for scale into a project from the very beginning of the design process. For example, if you need to sharpen ten pencils, the way to do it is simple. If you need to sharpen a thousand pencils, you need to use a different strategy, but it can be done. If you need to sharpen 100,000 pencils, you need a still different strategy. Each of these problems is eminently solvable, but each one requires a different series of logical steps; it’s very difficult to efficiently change from a ten-pencil strategy to a hundred-thousand-pencil strategy if you’ve already committed your resources and your time to the former.”

The same applies to documentation. Even if the technology is inherently scalable, the documentation can go a long way toward making or preventing the practice of scaling. The way one would convey an invention to a single small group is very different to the way you’d show it to a large number of large groups. Especially when we consider that the interest of each group might be very different and they are all important parts of the delivery chain. The solution needs to meet the needs of each part of the delivery chain, or at the very least a large chunk of it so that only small segments require extra effort.

Can we make a set of instructions suitable for all? If not how much can we cover in one step? In how few steps can we cover all of the important stuff?

First this will require a deeper investigation into the needs of the delivery chain with regards to documentation. Then I will revise the simple needs map, it was a quick first attempt and would have been better termed instructional resources map, with a deeper analyses of the delivery chain to ensure that the most critical resources, in terms of achieving success as opposed to nominal functionality, are highlighted.
From here it will be mapping out the different resources, the shared source materials, the generation of that source material and the users

So you want to build a hexayurt? There is no shortage of information online. But which website do you go to? What do you find there? The information is all there but it is a bit messy. Numerous diagrams and building guides. Many videos. Some with the latest developments, some out of date. The mailing lists are full of questions and answers.

All of this mess in only one piece of open source appropriate technology, in one material. Plywood hexayurts are a totally different from Polyiso ones. The people with the answers and the people making developments don’t all make clear instructions. Maybe it’s lack of time or graphic design know how. Now imagine this across all of the different Open Source Appropriate Technology products.

My goal is that it take 10 minutes or less for someone to have the instructions they need to start building. No more questions, just the answers. And that these instructions are appropriate for their user. Websites are not enough. We need field manuals for disaster relief workers. Black and White printable instructions for developing countries. CAD models for developers. Videos and slideshows for trainers. All on free to use or opensource platforms.

The O+S Project. Open and Sharable.

First quick attempt at making instructions. Out of date. Up to date open platform version in the works




Here is an attempt to map out how information flows in an idealised documentation and creation cycle of a piece of technology and how this can be seen at different resolutions. Currently the situation is that the polished documentation and documentors stages are bypassed. They fall broadly into three categories, the passing on of information, feed back on the use of the product (be it the instructions of technology) and creation/improvement.

At the base level it follows the cycle below. It can be seen the steps that all information has/should pass through are the documentors, the feedback and the polished documents

A major improvement on the design has the potential to create a new variant. Each variant has its own cycle. A variant can spawn other variants. Lessons and improvement from one variant can be applied across the range. Variants typically have a reason to exist separately from the original model. If the new variant is superior in every way it renders the old one obsolete.

These variants are still considered part of a single invention, however breakthrough can span entirely new inventions have all the same interconnectedness seen between different models of a single invention. Each can also be analysed as having the same basic information cycle across the entire rage of inventions level instead of only and the model level

These inventions can be grouped by family of technology Each family of technology also has the same basic cycle at a pan inventional level and interconnectedness across the pan family level

There are potentially many other levels above this following the same structure.

Often when I try to describe the project to people they get focused on a single aspect. This project is about documentation, instructions, open source ideals, and appropriate technology. During this starting up phase I will try to offer a glimpse at what the project hopes to cover.

Today I took a first look at the video format. How to make video instructions collaborative friendly and open source. As said this is a first run we will return to once the project starts in earnest.The same sort of analysis will be done to every aspect and every medium.


Re-filming videos is an expensive process. Especially when it becomes necessary to remake the videos to fill a different need. Applying Open Source and Modular principles to video might hold some answers

Things to consider

Multiple resolution and aspect Ratio
No overlays
No Presenter (Value of the presenter? Complicates modification)
Narrators (how to make multiple voices feel normal)
Source Material
Padding and filler (different languages take different times to say the same thing)

What are the source materials of a video?
Editing Suite files
Animations (has own source material)
Unedited Footage
Transcripts & Subtitle Footage
Time Data (unedited video cuts and activities, edited video cut and activities, and transcript)
Allow editors in other languages with enough time data
Still images

Features of Video according to purpose
Each one is multiplied when considering a video that is specific to a variant or the whole family of the technology
Teaching Instruction Promotion
Lecture Substitute/Supplement Handbook Substitute/supplement Advert
Also Background and Variation Single Purpose of build Showcase/Summary
Some details All Detail Little Detail
Audience Builders Public
Continuous run or paused at stage Paused often Single run
Animate to clarify and simplify Animate to clarify detail/step/process Animate to simplify whole

I’m hoping to run an evening ideas workshop in Hub Westminister in early to Mid november to fully map out the needs in documentation for open source appropriate technology.

I am looking for people who produce technology, people who produce the documentation, people that train others how to use it. People who work inside appropriate technology and development and people who work outside it. So let me know if you are interested or know anyone who would be interested in joining.

Here is the simple needs map I have come up with an I am hoping to build upon in the workshop.

It identifies what we would do with all the resources in the world and what to do when we don’t have that in the three areas of operation of a piece of open source appropriate technology. Hopefully when this is finished people will be able to map out the areas relevant to their operation and minimum standards for each area can be defined.

First draft of the script for the upcoming video
Run time? 5 mins?

Welcome to the O and S project.

The O and S project will tackle the heart of open hardware, looking at what it means to be open from a documentation standpoint.

There is an assumption that when something is shared and has a copyleft or similar license, that it is open.

Whilst this is nominally true, it can still be functionally closed.

The most obvious example is in language, until something has been translated into a language you can understand, it is closed to you, no matter how many other people can understand it.

A lot of open hardware might as well be written in Aramaic.

Only a handful of people are able to rebuild it just by watching the video, or the pictures, or seeing the sketches.

O and S seeks to lower the threshhold for copying what others have shared.

O and S looks at these problems from both a Documentation standpoint and an Open Source Appropriate Technology stand point.

The instructions have to be suited to the people using it and the place they are using it.

Where internet access or electricity is non-existent, people will want instructions on paper.

Someone running a workshop will want a video or a slideshow. Perhaps over head projector slides or material for document cameras. Perhaps small prototypes, even instructions for these prototypes

An engineer analysing the integrity of the design would want as much detail as he can have. Technical drawings, Computer models.

Each of these instructions should be as complete as possible so that in less than idea conditions, it is still possible effectively copy the design . There should not be a reliance on access to another medium.

With so many mediums this can all get quite messy. Even before we consider the issue of versions, collaborations and source material.

The project seeks to develop tools, conventions and potentially a platform that allows the several mediums of instructional documentation, ranging from videos to printouts, and their various revisions, translations and source material, to exist cohesively in an open, collaborative friendly, decentralised, but non-fragmented environment.

We begin with one good example of multifaceted documentation. Then another, and another and the lesson learned will inform the framework we build.

Welcome to the O and S project. We are at Hub Wesminitster. Our website is…. Donations, Advise, Comments and Collaborators are all welcome