Why Document?

Instead of repeatedly appealing for collaborators I am posting a series of my thoughts on documentation to publicise the documentation project.

Why am I pursuing this documentation project?

I will begin from a very simple and obvious point. “A thing is useless to me if I cannot use it”. No matter how brilliant the thing is.

This can be for many reasons.Too big, lack of training, unsuited for my cirsumstances, in the wrong language, lack of capital, I cannot acquire it, I cannot communicate with the people that could help me etc. Until all barriers that prevent me from accessing it are overcome it is functionally useless to me. Who is responsible for eliminating these barriers is another matter entirely that depends on the thing in question. I assume this holds true for most people.

So now I will look at this in the context of things designed to ease the lives of poor people. I will probably jump back and forth between the abstract and the example but I trust you will be able to keep up. I will focus first on acquiring the solution. Until there is a method by which a thing can become manifest in the location of need, it is of no use.

If the thing or something equal or better existed in the community there would be no need to acquire it from an external source. The reason an external source is needed comes down to a few fundamental considerations, motivation, material and monetary resources, production capacity and knowledge. Money is often used to overcome one or all of these. e.g buying proprietary solutions, having outside trainers come in, manufacturing elsewhere.

With open source appropriate technology, as the name implies material and monetary resource and production capacity are taken into consideration and motivation is assumed. This only leaves knowledge. The knowledge is placed into the public domain but once again the usability of this knowledge needs to follow similar considerations.

The knowledge is useless up until it become useful. Using the below simple model for the stages of knowledge. The vast majority of people are not specialist so solutions need to be in A or B for maximum cost effective impact.

A – It is common knowledge
B – It is accessible knowledge
C – It is specialist knowledge
D – The knowledge exists

In the moment something is invented the knowledge is created and enters stage D. Those who built it should know how to do it again. Even if it is publicised it does not move up to stage C until other experts are able to discern and replicate it. Stage B is the most important stage, the bridge that empowers a person to construct a thing and bring it into the community.. The epitome of “help people help themselves”. This is where documentation comes in. Effective documentation lifts knowledge from D to C and C to B. Progressing to stage A is usually a generational thing.

A good example that lifts specialist knowledge into accessible knowledge would be the Haynes manual for cars. Clear detailed instructions that allows an individual with the will to do something normally reserved for specialists. Returning back to international development, I am not advocating the elimination of specialists and trainers. They will always be needed. This however provides a route that allows people to empower themselves. I am advocating, that for the simple stuff give people access to knowledge rather than bringing the knowledge to them via the medium of a human being.

This project seeks to take the multitude of knowledge that sits in stage D and C and bring them firmly into B. The wider issue of proprietary knowledge in appropriate technology that roots the knowledge firmly in stage C is something I hope to blog about later but for now I will stay focused on the open source knowledge that fails to get into stage B. Something I can personally fix. Expanding from my first point, the money and effort in generating a solution is wasted until it generates an impact, and if that is stalled simply because there are no good instructions then that is a shame. The impact does not need to be in the field. It can even be impact on the research of others

This is a major communication problem. Imagine the volume of repeated effort. Don’t repeat Isaac Newton who invented calculus but never bothered to tell anyone about it.

Next post will be “Who is responsible for documentation?”

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