Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

How open source software builds strong roots for better governance


Image credits : Wikimedia Commons. Modified by Jen Wike Huger.

(This was originally posted on, thanks to their editors and to Mark Charmer for getting the writing into good shape.)

Open data and going digital are subjects high on the international agenda for global development, particularly when it comes to financing improved services and infrastructure for the poorest people in the world. Young people from Laos to Lagos aspire to become software developers, and smartphones are set to put unprecedented computing power into every corner of the earth. But the paradox is that many governments still only have rudimentary information technology infrastructure and often can’t find trained and skilled staff to design and run it.

In many African countries, the capacity for central and regional government to work with digital tools is limited because it is common to find only a few people in the government department responsible for coordinating involvement and investment in, say, rural drinking water infrastructure and financing. Thus, they are easily stretched thin by the demands and the need to be experts on many aspects of IT and data systems.

Our organization designs and builds open source data systems, which we also run as Software as a Service (SaaS), for organizations working with international development. This embraces a fascinating mix of multi-lateral organizations (such as Unicef and the World Bank), international NGOs, and central and regional governments. This is a pivotal moment for the development of country governance tools. I’ve long felt that the roots of such systems should be built on open source software because in just a few years’ time, IT infrastructure in a country will be just as important as other infrastructure, such as roads or water supply. Our societies are evolving toward a future that is intricately connected with efficient just-in-time systems that keep our society ticking, and IT is a vital part of the system. For the more than three billion people living in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia—areas with under-developed IT infrastructure for governance—a big change is coming quickly.

For a little more than two years, we have been helping governments of countries like Ethiopia, Nepal, Nigeria, and Indonesia with map infrastructure for schools, health centers, public drinking water points, and peri-urban water connections. Access to these data systems quickly changes the way infrastructure investments are done. Without the systems, making effective investments and prioritizing decisions is difficult, if not impossible. For example, full-country rural drinking water inventories are underway or complete in Ghana, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, and other countries.

So why is open source software important in this context? I believe that a strong society has a common ownership of its critical infrastructure, and IT services that support governance of municipalities, regions, and countries are becoming critical infrastructure.

Where I live, my local municipality owns or controls the piped water supply, sewage system, local roads, electricity network, waste management facilities, fiber-optic network, and district cooling and heating network. Companies offer services that use the roads, fiber-optic, and electric network, or provide management and operations of the waste and heating/cooling facilities, but ultimately the infrastructure is under the control of the municipality and, as such, is indirectly owned by the citizens.

IT infrastructure, including software and databases, will become just as important as other infrastructure, and the best way to retain control over your IT infrastructure is going to be to work with open source software. With open source software, the door is always open, too, so if you want to move your data operations, you can take the software and your data with you. Ideally, the result will be better governance, better democracy, and ultimately better lives for the populations of these countries in the future.


Filed under: Open source

Advice to Y-Combinator non-profit startups – part 2 – Core success factors

This is part of a series of blogs called Advice to Y-Combinator non-profit startups. Of course it has wider application than that. Part 1 was some general advice to get this started

#Akvo RSR developer team meeting at Villa Kakelbont
Part of the Akvo RSR developer team, meeting this autumn

There was a discussion on Hacker News about how to make money on open source software, where I chipped in a bit about how we at Akvo do it. I wrote enough to actually make a coherent blog post out of it.

For quite a long time there has been this idea going around that organisations who create open source software should make money on providing software support. This has proven to not be very lucrative for most businesses that try this and other models have been tried, some of which are described in the above discussion.

We took a somewhat different approach with

We noticed the really poor use of Internet systems in international development aid. More than $120 Bn is spent yearly on this, and nobody really has a clue where the money goes. There is no useful overview. So we started building tools to fix that and supply them as a paid for service.

Everything we build is open source software. We have 45+ people working on this, with paying partners such as the World Bank, UNICEF, Liberian government, Mars Chocolate and many hundreds more. It is not your ordinary business model, but it works and we are growing. You can make open source software and earn a decent living.

Core success factors

We believe that our success comes out of a few core things:

  • We brought together domain experts as equals, i.e. people working in international development, water and sanitation issues (our starting market), network organisations, computer software and services, computer software marketing and communications, to solve a problem. This is fairly unusual in both the software and the international development industry.
  • We say our team is a three legged stool. Partner team (more about that below), software team and communications team. If we don’t treat all three equally the stool falls over. We go so far that we think it is imperative to not have an organisation run by the tech or the international development side, but by both sides. So we have until know had two directors of the organisation, one from each domain. Working very closely with the comms director.
  • Maybe most importantly though, we have a very experienced partner team. They have worked in this market for decades. They know “everyone”. We literally have connections to thousands of organisations through our networks and we understand how to talk to those organisations. Our partner team know where all the gremlins are and how the processes work. They know how to get the required startup and expansion investments as well as how to get the big organisations to use our tools.

Non-traditional sales and marketing

About the partner team. We don’t consider us having any customers. We treat all of the organisations that work with us as partners. They then treat us as partners too and it completely changes the relationship when you are trying to solve a problem. Of course it helps that we are a non-profit foundation. We are also not-for-loss. We have a functional business model. This is obviously critical.

In a traditional company our partner team would consist of strategic sales people, account managers, project managers, consultants, trainers etc. We have a partner team that fulfils all those roles, but they are a _partner_ team. Sales are not done on a quota, no bonuses are paid (which often drive really crappy sales in a s/w company) etc.

We have no marketing and PR team. We have a communications team. Most of our staff communicate. Everyone is in fact encouraged and empowered to speak for the organisation. The communications team just supports everyone learning how to communicate well. We hardly do any PR. We may need to increase it, but it mostly does itself based on our peoples open communication.

No bespoke development

Some open source product organisations try to supplement their income by doing bespoke development on top of their product. We don’t as we find that this only distracts you from building a good product. Our revenue comes from hosting, training and implementation consulting services, but not technical implementation services, but implementing the tools themselves within the organisation.

We avoid technical implementation services, as most organisations we work with have a really low internal technical knowledge. If we then take the responsibility for implementing the technical side, we find that they don’t take the ownership of the bigger issues. These are things like learning to publish open data and the changes in culture which this implies in the organisation. Then their failure to embrace the change needed in the organisation is projected as our failure to implement the technical side.

We have technical account management, but require for our partners who implement our tools to either have in-house the required technical skills or hire in the required skills. If they don’t do this, take ownership of the bigger issues and hire competent technical project management and help, we don’t do the projects, as they are very likely to fail. This may sound obvious, but often it isn’t to the partners we work with.

I could write a lot more, but we are creating the Akvo Handbook, which will outline all of this, and be available under an open content license. You can read it all there then. But don’t hesitate to ask any specific questions you may have.

Filed under: Open source, Startup, ,

Advice to Y-Combinator non-profit startups

Y-Combinator is probably the most interesting organisation in the US and EU when it comes to startup funding for digital entrepreneurs. Interestingly enough they have decided to also help non-profit startups. They did an experiment in the last batch with one organisation, Watsi, donation funded healthcare, which apparently turned out well. So Y-Combinator is now taking applications from non-profit teams too as part of their normal application process.

As someone who has been running a successful non-profit digital startup for a number years I thought I’d share some thoughts on some things I think are important to be successful as a non-profit digital startup. Much is the same as running a normal digital startup, so I’ll concentrate on the differences.

First though, for those that don’t know Y-Combinator I’ll let them describe themselves:

In 2005, Y Combinator developed a new model of startup funding. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($14-20k + an $80k note) in a large number of startups (most recently 52). The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present to a large audience of investors. But YC doesn’t end on Demo Day. We and the YC alumni network continue to help founders for the life of their company, and beyond.

#wwweek activity in the @Akvo and the @washalliance stand

The Akvo stand at a recent conference, with Peter van der Linde, one of the co-founders of Akvo

Incentives are different

One of the most obvious, and maybe most important, differences with a for-profit company is that you are not doing this to become rich. It may sound obvious, but it changes several important things in an organisation fundamentally.

The people or organisations that invests money in your organisation will still be looking for a return on investment, but often that will return will not be in the form of money. The return can sometimes be hard to define. If you define it well you are well on your way to get investments or grants., of which I am a co-founder, has received several million Euros in grants and investments. We haven’t been asked to provide a board seat for any of our investors, neither have any of our investors any shares in the organisation (it is a group of foundations). This means that we have a great deal of autonomy, but it also means that we have to be very careful how we populate our supervisory boards, with a good balance between understanding our business as well as challenging us. This is not that different from a for-profit board, but I’d advice against having only board members with no experience in the non-profit space. Find board members who have crossed over in either direction with experience from both non-profit and for-profit.


Akvo is non-profit, but we are also not-for-loss. In other words: we charge money for the services which we provide, as we think it is fundamentally unhealthy to rely on grants to survive as an organisation. We still take grants, which are mainly investments to build new products or break into new markets. But each product and market is expected to pay for itself in the long run. This has in fact been been critical for our investors decisions to invest or grant us money.


Because it is not primarily about making money and making you or the investors rich you will find recruitment to be quite different as well. The people that come and work with you will be doing this for the passion of the cause, not the money they can make. People have to eat though, so I’d advice you to pay a decent salary. If you do, then your team will passionately stay with you for a long time.

No customers

We say that we don’t have any customers, only partner organisations. This may sound like a silly point, but we think it is very important. By always talking about those organisations we work with as partners rather than customers, then we think of them differently. Importantly, our partners also think about us differently. We have a much better relationship with our partners as a result.

Open source

We work hard at trying to not duplicate work others have done already. So we use open source software wherever possible, but it is a pragmatic tool, not a religion (i.e. we use GitHub, Disqus etc.). We build all our services as open source software which we run as a service. Most of the services that we operate benefit fundamentally from being run large scale. But our philosophy is that the “door is always open”. If you want to take the software and your data and move somewhere else, you are always welcome to do so. At the same time, the systems are complicated to develop, operate and maintain, and our partners don’t really want to have to do that. They just want to use the systems. As Akvo’s systems gradually are moving into becoming digital governance tools in countries and organisations that use them we fundamentally think it is of critical importance that we supply open source tools. More about that in another blog.


There is definitely competition to our services. However, as we are here to fix a problem, not make money, we are very pragmatic in working together with potential competitors. that see the world like we do. We support each other and try to make sure we don’t overlap in unhealthy ways. We also compete with for-profit companies, which I think is good for both. We keep each other sharp.

Discoverable communications

Something Mark Charmer, who works with me at Akvo, and I have come up with as a concept to describe how we communicate is: discoverable communications. We work in the emerging digital age, use the tools! Nearly everyone in our 45 strong Akvo team uses blogs, twitter, commit messages, video and more, to communicate. Our communications team is there to support everyone else to communicate well, not to be the gatekeepers of information. As a non-profit your reasons to be secretive are a lot less than for a for-profit. Use this advantage ruthlessly.

Of course there is a lot more that can be said about running a non-profit digital startup and if you think this is useful I’ll write some more.

Filed under: Open source, Startup

Open-source developers, you are not innovative, you are expensive and not collaborative

So, is it true that open-source developers are not innovative, are expensive and not collaborative? At least that is the impression I get when I read what Joel Selanikio, CEO and co-founder of DataDyne, wrote recently. He surprised me somewhat the other day when he said:

“Regarding open source, in my experience its promise (ie constant innovation, lowered costs, collaboration, etc) has not been met by the reality.” and then he said:
“The only open-source software that I have ever used regularly is the Firefox browser, though I don’t much anymore.”

XKCD: Someone is wrong on the internet

Brilliant comic pane by XKCD (I have a signed print of this one).

To me, these are a pretty surprising statements coming from someone who has based his business on several open-source products. DataDyne builds and operates the EpiSurveyor service, which uses mobile devices to collect data. DataDyne has just under one hundred paying customers for its services [1] and about nine thousand who use their service which is no-cost up to five thousand data uploads per year (i.e. subsidised by their paying customers).

I was surprised, because two core data collection components of the EpiSurveyor system, namely the EpiSurveyor J2ME (Java) app, is built on the framework of the JavaROSA open-source project, and the Android app “is based on the excellent work done in the ODK project at the University of Washington” (wording from DataDyne’s own writing). Not only that, DataDyne’s web site runs WordPress, which is also open-source.

I think anyone who decides to use JavaROSA, ODK and WordPress to help run his business if wouldn’t do this if s/he didn’t think it was innovative, low cost and great collaboration to build his services on these open-source products. I should probably just stop right here, but I find this kind of attitude too interesting to analyse a bit further. There are quite a lot said about open-source software, which I don’t particularly agree with and this is an example of it. I wanted to discuss some of my thoughts on the subject.

Open-source doesn’t offer constant innovation, lowered costs and collaboration?

The biggest open-source projects of them all is the internet itself. (The internet is without doubt also the most complex interconnected “machine” humans have ever created.) It runs on open standards and protocols and is constantly developed. HTML is the code which is used to markup web pages such that they get structure and layout [2]. The HTML standard is a huge collaborative project. No single organisation owns the HTML standard and it is a constant effort to improve it. It is not always clear what is the best way forward and often something good happens which wasn’t “according to plan”, like HTML5. HTML and its use is a highly collaborative environment, all the code is open (for any web page). You can “View->Source” and see how a particular web page has been assembled. This very open way of working has been a critical part of making the web an enormous success. I think that this is innovative and collaborative…

The web propelled the internet into popularity and has made it possible to get access to all the glory (and gore) of the internet, for as low as US$15/month or free at your local library or school. I think there is overwhelming evidence to support the statement that open-source is offering constant innovation, lowering costs and creates collaboration.

“The only open-source software that I have ever used”

A lot of people don’t think they use any open-source software. I am not sure how anyone working in a mobile phone and web based company would get any work done at all these days, without using open-source software. It even escapes many peoples’ attention that large parts of the smartphone operating system Android is open-source.

Even the more secretive company Apple, has release the core of the Apple Safari web browser, WebKit, open source (which was based on KHTML and only released openly after the community applied some pressure on Apple. Thanks to @peppelorum for reminding me). In fact nearly 40% of web traffic comes from WebKit based browsers these days and 60% from all open-source based browsers [3]

It is hard to do anything on the web without using open-source software considering that the majority of the web servers in the world are open-source. The open-source web servers Apache and nginx together account for more than 70% of the world’s web servers. [4]

Joel also said that:

“The only open-source software that I have ever used regularly is the Firefox browser, though I don’t much anymore. I believe that this is because of the poor business models for open source products: if you give your software away, you need to charge for something. For open-source software that either means training and consulting (which means you are not incentivized to reduce the training/consulting requirement for your software) or grant support (in which case you are more focused on grantors than users).”

Poor business models are often brought up in these type of discussions around open-source software A lot of people seem to never have heard about RedHat, a billion dollar business with US$146 million in net income in 2012 and 3,700 employees. Or Canonical (US$30 million/400 employees), or Automattic (who makes WordPress) which has 115 employees and more monthly unique visitors to their web site than Amazon (IMHO a good business model is more than just the dollars). Neither of these companies rely on grants, and “only” training and consulting for their income.

To be fair with Joel, in a blog post, which he links in the discussion, he says, in a footnote, that all this is about: ” ‘user-facing software’: software designed for regular people to use. I am not talking about back-end, programmer-facing software — a field in which open-source has made significant and ongoing and innovative contributions.” Which is a bit like putting your caveat at “the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.” [5]

But he posts all these statements in a discussion, which is about promoting his company vs. some open source software (which I work with and which is for “regular people”) to essentially disparage open-source with these “regular people”.

This attitude makes me a bit sad. And I think that is a shame, as they make products for a good cause.

[1] Based on data from their web site and information in that LinkedIn post. 8965 users (15 Aug 2012, 16.21 CEST) and he says “less than 1% pays for the service”.
[2] There are more components, like CSS, JavaScript and more, but they are largely handled the same was as I describe HTML above.
[3] Chrome (30.06%), Firefox (21.01%), Safari (9.10%), Android (2.57%) are all open-source based and make up 63.28% of all browser usage.
[4] The web servers Apache (59.39%) and nginx (11.53%) together account for more than two thirds of the world’s web servers (70.92%).
[5] Extra points, without search engine, for identifying who said that.

Edit: 16 Aug 2012, 16.12 CEST, added piece about KHTML.

Filed under: Open source, Swedish development aid transparency

This was originally posted on the Open for Change blog screenshot

Today I attended the launch of the new aid transparency effort,, which is a joint effort between the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), to show where Swedish government development aid money is going. The Swedish minister for Development Cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, presented the effort and went into some depth to describe the work.

I together with Akvo was asked by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to review and give feedback on the site before the launch. I was also part of a review panel which discussed the work after the presentation together with a very engaged audience.

I think is a very good effort to start showing the Swedish aid budget. The team working on this clearly were very passionate about this work and has put in a lot of effort bringing both budgets and thousands of documents visible online. We would like to commend everyone involved on a great start.

openaid-tv picture

To see the video of the launch event, click the above picture. The panel, which I was part of starts at 34 minuts in.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Development aid, Open source

You need guts to innovate in old structures

Tim O'Reilly

When @timoreilly says he talks to the World Food Programme about “reviewing their plans to create next gen IT infrastructure for emergencies. They need help. Plan to connect geeks”, then I sincerely hope that they understand that they have to let go of some of the control of how they are running their organisations. True change and innovation often needs more than incremental improvement and setting out to radically change how you do things requires guts, and a lot of it.

When we started we made a specific point of having people from different backgrounds working on the project together. Early on we included people who are software engineers, communicators, water/sanitation and development aid specialists, entrepreneurs and designers. And we didn’t pull these people of the street either, we brought in an entrepreneurial team that could start a new internet business from scratch.

A lot of development aid does not have a good reputation, and there are plenty of examples in the water and sanitation sector where we are still making the same mistakes as we did 30 years ago. But there is also an aversion towards innovation. People are truly hesitant to try that which is new. So when we started Akvo, we didn’t want to repeat these mistakes, but we also wanted to make sure innovation and new thinking was at the top of the agenda. We did this by adding entrepreneurial people from all these different areas to the team, and we didn’t start before we had a team which we were convinced could pull off what we are working on.

Often when information technology and communications (ITC) tools are brought into an organisation they are brought in by the management who think they need the standard tools, like email, internet access, document handling, mobile phones etc. But they don’t know how to really ask for innovation. Improved ITC ends up being: “can you get the email spam filter to work better?” Not changes that will turn the whole sector upside down. The kind of changes which the music industry is going through because of the internet or the book selling industry.

25%-50% of all deaths in the world happen because of abject poverty (ref: @leashless, great bit of video if you have some time) and development aid does a poor job of improving that. We really need to change how we do things.

At Akvo we think we have a small component of the solution, which we are working on. What we are trying to achieve is actually quite a lot bigger than what you can see us working on. But we believe in delivering stuff that works, and less talk. As, like most others, we will be wrong in many of the things we think are the solutions to our problems, but it isn’t until we actually build and try it out that we find out. Build a little, test a little. (Old engineering mantra, hijacked by the open source crowd.)

But doing that takes belief in the process. Belief in the idea that you can create whole new ways of working from scratch in just years. For us who have actively taken part in the Internet revolution, we have seen this happen, close up on a massive scale. For us it isn’t a leap of faith. But for a lot of people, even those that use the Internet on a daily basis, don’t really understand or truly believe with their gut, that it can be done.

So my advice to the World Food Programmes team is:

– Team up with “geek” entrepreneurs on an equal basis, you need to share control
– Team them up with food aid “geeks”, but those that dare to innovate and throw away the old
– Be brave, you can change things for the better

Good luck!

– Thomas

Filed under: Development aid, Open source

Heroes – Vinay Gupta

Vinay Gupta works on sustainable technology. Specifically he has been working on the Hexayurt, low cost emergency shelters. Vinay is my hero because he synthesises sustainability in a way I have never heard anyone else do. In this video Vinay talks about some of the work he has done recently (January 2009) with Akvo. He talks specifically about how to pool research together into bundles and get different organisations to collaborate on this.

Filed under: Heroes, Open source

The installation experience – Open Office for Mac OS X

So I downloaded the latest release of Open Office for Mac OS X. I need a word processor that can handle 30-60 pages and doesn’t have a screwed up paginator like MS Word.

So here were the first impressions:

1. Registration asks for a bunch of things. Should be enough with name, email, intially. Get people to fill in more if they want it.

2. The registration confirmation email sends you to a page which says you are now a SDN member. Is this really the right audience? I would have thought that links to things like:

– new templates
– tips and tricks with Open Office
– how to go from MS Office to Open Office

etc. would be much much more powerful.

What they have at the moment only a develper would feel at home with and is Open Office only for developers? Didn’t think so. The whole package (the welcome package) is just way to “techie”. They need to get some consumer software folks involved.

Filed under: Open source

About Bjelkeman

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

+46-8-626 7609

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