Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Akvo product planning

A piece of the “Akvo product planning bubble diagram” which we use to visualise the way things which we are working on and how they interrelate. Including who does what and what priorities they have.

Christmas holiday begins. In Sweden the celebrations are generally focused around 24 December. So one day earlier compared to what most people consider christmas. One feature of today is that it is nice and quiet. Not a lot going on. Which means I could wrap my head around Akvo product planning. Which is what I have spent most of my day thinking about and documenting.


Filed under: India, ITC technology

Books for children, for 40 Euro cents

Photo credit: Praham Books

Today we visited an amazing organisation called Praham Books, and we met Gautam John. They are a non-profit organisation which publishes books for children in up to eleven Indian languages. Research has shown that children learn to read in school in India, but do not retain what they have learned, because there is nothing for them to read. So Pratham Books was set up with a goal of having one book for every child. The publish children’s books of amazing quality and at the stupendous price of…. 40 Euro cents / 25 Rupees.

Pratham Books publish about 50 books per year in five to eight languages per print run. They print tens of thousands of copies per print run. What is amazing is that even with this low price a team of professional people they actually manage to break even. Pratham Books was founded by Rohini Nilekani, who also founded Arghyam.

We discussed how some of their work with schools and reading projects overlap in technology and reporting requirements with the Akvo work and we’ll compare notes further down the line and see where we can shore knowledge and maybe technology.

Filed under: Development aid, India

A sixth of the worlds population as your audience

Today I met with the India Water Portal team and learned about what they do and what their plans for the future are. The India Water Portal is possibly the best national internet resource on water in the whole world. The team also runs several more web sites in this context including a Hindi language portal, the Kannada language portal, one for schools and one about conflicts.

The team has asked me to review their work over the next couple of weeks and participate in their planning meeting for next year, where I will help by bringing a different perspective to the table.

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Arghyam strategy meeting

Today Arghyam had a meeting reviewing the strategy going forward for the next five years. The process at Arghyam is very open and everyone who wants to participate can, actually everyone is encouraged to participate. This was not the first time the strategy was discussed, but a review of a near completed draft of the strategy document which will next go for review by the board of directors.

Later in the day I will be sitting down with Rahul Bakare, Director of Programmes at Arghyam, discussing ideas around how Arghyam’s Grants team can be using the tools.

Filed under: Arghyam, India

Bangalore Wikipedians

A journalist from the Bangalore Mirror was at the Wikipedia meetup and wrote a story about the meeting. A picture of the page can be seen above. With a bit of fantasy you can actually see my face in there (and I didn’t Photoshop it in there, promise). Funnily enough, in the article above it, which is about techies who use their bicycle to get to work in Bangalore (not for the faint of heart) is Sharada Prasad, who works at Arghyam. The same day, the same paper, the same page. Pure coincidence…

On Sunday afternoon there was a Wikipedia meetup in Bangalore. Every month a bunch of people who contribute to Wikipedia meet up and discuss different issues related to Wikipedia. I had a really interesting time, met great people and learned a bunch of useful things.

The Auto Wiki Browser is Windows software, but you can supposedly run it under WINE on a Mac or a Linux system.

Bulk edits in a Mediawiki system

First presentation was about the Auto Wiki Browser, a tool to make bulk edits to any Mediawiki installation. This would be useful for example if you wanted to insert the same information in a number of articles at the same time, say a new set of category entries at the bottom of an wiki article. The tool allows powerful search and replace features and many more things. The tool can also be run automatically, in so called bot mode, to make changes without a person overseeing it.

THe Auto Wiki Browser is a very powerful tool and one can do good work with it, but one could also wreck havoc with it. This means that to be allowed to use this tool on the Wikipedia you have to have permission from the administrators of Wikipedia. Only about 2500 people have this permission and less than 200 accounts are allowed to run this tool automatically and perform batch edits (bot mode).


I also learned about Python tools for MediaWiki batch edits, called PyWikipedia, which I had hoped was something we could use to extract article information from the Akvopedia and insert into Akvopedia Widgets, but I am not so sure now when looking at it in more detail.

Google translation tools

The next thing which I learned about was the new Google Translator Toolkit Data API from two Google employees who were there. This allows you to programatically post and retrieve information to translated to and from different languages which Google’s system supports. This could, for example, be integrated with the Akvo RSR system in such a way that Akvo RSR could present a (machine) translated version of a project and its updates in the language of the users choice. Not perfect but better than nothing if the information is in a language which you don’t understand. The Google employees verified that we could use their tools this way.

Filed under: India, ITC technology

Governments slip even further behind the mobile worker, everybody looses

My colleague Mark Charmer wrote a nice piece about some things that will crystallise in 2010.

I wanted to add one to that.

6. Governments slip even further behind the mobile worker, everybody looses

I work for an open source foundation, based in one European country. I live and pay taxes in another European country. I spend 1/6 of the working year in an Asia country. The EU is supposed to allow freedom of movement for workers, but this is so last century’s model it is laughable. If you are supposed to benefit from any of this freedom of movement you are supposed to actually move, physically.

They really don’t have any way to deal with workers who move around at will. Production is assumed to be attached to the production line or the office. But with the internet offering more and more freedom for the best paid workers, the knowledge worker, the knowledge worker is slowly slipping through the fingers of the government.

You can’t really be employed in one EU country, and live in another, with the standard employment benefits you would expect, like pension schemes, seamless healthcare benefits, kids schools, without running your own company and contracting across the boarders, with the appropriate extra overhead. We are twelve employees, four work in the country of the registered office, the other 8 all have independent companies in different countries.

Europe, Japan, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, do not allow freedom of movement of workers, but they all allow anyone to travel as a tourist between these countries. To what gain do they stop workers moving freely? It inhibits innovation. It stops the most interesting entrepreneurs to move about and do the interesting jobs where they are best done. At the same time they can’t stop this from happening totally. I have lived in the USA, whilst being employed in the UK and paying tax there. Now I live in Sweden, being employed in the Netherlands and working in India. If we got rid of the stupid barriers for knowledge workers we would have more innovation and more business started across borders. And everybody would gain. But no. Visa requirements and idiotic border policies are everywhere.

Oh well. I am off to hang out in Bengaluru this weeked. In between the Skype conferences, stretching over five countries and ten locations… for free*.

* Well, the marginal cost is free. I have to have a laptop and internet connection, but I couldn’t do my job without and the cost of these are easily offset against earnings.

Filed under: ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Gender workshop

The Friday was largely taken up by a very interesting gender and water issues workshop, organised by Abigail Brown, from Oregon State University, who is working on her master thesis in gender issues. The workshop leader rightly pointed out that something like this should really be held over a couple of days, but this time there was only time for half a day.

The workshop started with getting to know the participants and then we went through excersises which highlight gender issues. For example, you look at a number of statements and decide if these are statements about gender or statements about sex and biology. Often quite lively discussions ensued, which were probably the best part of the workshop. All participants had quite strong views on the issue and it was interesting to also investigate how these issues are different between the north and the south, as well as other cultural differences. Overall a very good workshop, albeit shorter than one would ideally like it to be.

On reflection, Arghyam may be one of the more gender equal organisations which I have worked with.

Filed under: Development aid, India, Water and gender

Gram Vikas

Gram Vikas executive director Joe Madiath (left) before starting the presentation of their organisation to Arghyam

Today I attended a very inspiring presentation from Gram Vikas, which is an NGO that operates in Orissa, India. Gram Vikas has won multiple national and international awards for their work and it is impossible to hear Mr. Madiath talk about his work without being impressed an humbled.

It is hard to really summarise the work Gram Vikas does in a couple of paragraphs, but Vishwanath and Praveena captured it well in their twitter streams today.

Here are some sample achievements:

  • 54,000 biogas plants constructed between 1983-1993 by Gram Vikas in Orissa
  • Wasteland in the tribal villages where Gram Vikas works is convereted to forests
  • Water and sanitation is used as a vehicle to close the sustainability in tribal villages of Orissa
  • Gram Vikas has trained 4000 rural youth in masonry, plumbing, who are converted from unskilled labourers to skilled, and more than double their income
  • Over 90% immunisation of children , 90% enrollment in school, girl children over 80% attendance
  • 100 % coverage of all households, 24 hours running water, sanitatin all homes is their model in Orissa. People are ready to pay for watsan
  • Toilets and bathrooms built for 44697 households in 701 villages together with the villagers
  • Piped water supply in 320 villages, they are working on it in the other 350+ villages

With some luck I will be able to go visit some of their project villages in Orissa next month together with some staff from Arghyam. I am looking forward to it.

Filed under: Development aid, India

Ask the experts

Today I spent the whole morning talking to the Indian Water Portal team at Arghyam. The discussions were far ranging, and we are following up with further discussions next week, as we ran out of time. The one thing I would like to highlight from today’s discussions though were their excellent service:

Ask the experts

The “Ask the experts”  service enable the citizens to pose questions about their water problems to a panel of water experts. These experts are answering these questions purely on a voluntary basis.

This is a service which I haven’t seen done this way anywhere else in the world. We discussed how we could scale this up and use it in more places in the world. How can we make more people read this and learn the answers.

In general it is interesting to see some of the most successful online water and sanitation related discussion groups are based in India, including the Solutions Exchange, which participates in Ask the experts.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, ITC technology

Anupam Mishra: The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting

In this excellent TED India talk Anupam Mishra shows us how communities in some of the most “water poor” environments have solved water shortage in very practical and ingenious ways. Ways which have lasted for hundreds and nearly thousand years. He contrasts this with how modern efforts to solve water problems which do not engage the local community and fail miserably.

Today Mr Mishra had a discussion with Arghyam about how this applies to their work. Below are some excerpts of what was said and how people interpreted this.

In order of appearance, Anupam Mishra, Praveena Sridhar and Deepak Menon.

Filed under: India, Water management

About Bjelkeman

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

+46-8-626 7609

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