Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Engineers Without Borders, Unlimited

I just spent several minutes reading the Mission and Vision of EWB-USA. What a remarkable group! Now, I have to acknowledge that there are tons of remarkable groups out there. Still, I'm struck by their approach, captured in this sentence:

EWB-USA promotes a new way of thinking for the engineering profession and provides unique opportunities for engineers to work in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders such as communities, social scientists, public health officials, economists, businesses, and international development organizations.

What I really like about this is the straightforward acknowledgement of the large eco-system that is involved in making change happen in the third world. EWB's articulate vision helps me to clarify my own vision. I want to help facilitate this eco-system!

What can be done to facilitate? Pardon my geekness, but I'll answer it this way. One kind of facilitation can be achieved through publishing "open API's". (API's are "application programming interfaces".) What I mean is, if each stakeholder, or group of stakeholders, openly announces the ways in which they prefer to connect with or work with the other stakeholders (i.e. "interface"), then the various players can much more easily support one another. Here's my example.

EWB mentions the social scientists group. I take that to include anthropologists, who may be doing regional assessments, like Paul Farmer, the MD/Anthropology PhD, did in Haiti. In an "open API" approach, EWB could proactively say, "If any of you anthropologist groups happen to be performing assessing a region, here's the information that we would really find usefu for determining water supply issues, and here's another set that's very helpful for building schools." Chances are, adding a few items to an assessment is only incrementally more work. Then the village organizations can chip in and gather much of the information in the absence of anthropologists. Another group, like Engineers for a Sustainable World, can say "Here's our list of desired info for planning sanitation projects." Then the economists and health professionals can chime in with reports that help prioritize (the unfortunate reality) of schools with respect to hospitals for a given region. Charitable organizations and NGOs can plan fundraising for different kinds of projects because they have a fair idea of the cost. Social scientists can train for the appropriate translation skills because they know the topics that need to be covered. Pretty soon, Version 2.0 of the API's evolves, and each group gets what they need without having to repeat half of the effort of another group.

With "standardized interfaces", each group can do its job more effectively. The work becomes a little bit "commoditized", which helps, but there is still room for "differentiation", and different approaches. That's cool, because the more, the merrier. A little "healthy competition" keeps us all at the top of our game.

So, thank you, EWB! For supporting the Sustainable Development Open API Version 1.0! I look forward to the first release of the draft standard. And it won't surprise you to hear that I'd like to see the draft published at Appropedia. That's what we're about over there: sharing information.

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