III. Nine steps to solve a problem
A recent New York Times editorial described how farmers in Zimbabwe discovered a novel way of preventing elephants from destroying their crops. With the help of a $108,000 grant from the World Bank, they now plant chili peppers around their fields. The elephants find the smell noxious and avoid the crops. The farmers enjoy both a protected field and a new cash crop. The result is an inexpensive, low-tech, and elegant solution to a genuine problem that affected farmers on a regular basis.
The cerbumi process and contributing infrastructure is our proposal for utilizing some of the lessons learned in the open source movement to create appropriate solutions for real-world problems. Let us use the elephants and the chili peppers example to illustrate how it could make a difference:
The cerbumi process
A nonprofit organization, such as the Peace Corps, observes a challenge in the field. They document the nature of the problem.
In our example, an aid agency observes farmers "warring" with a herd of elephants. They learn that this drains substantial resources that would best be devoted elsewhere, and that the problem is common in the region. The agency documents current approaches to the problem and reports on their effectiveness. Suppose the problem affects about 10,000 people in the region. Prior efforts have included armed patrols or moats, both of which are costly and ineffective.
The nonprofit summarizes their findings and present a case for assistance by sending an email to the general mailing list. A Cerbumi.org moderator (initially an administrator, but later a volunteer) verifies the message and forwards it to the email list that reaches all Cerbumi.org members. Members query if the project is suitable for Cerbumi.org:
- Severity: What is the severity of the problem? Is it a nuisance or a significant problem? Is finding a solution worth the effort?
- Difficulty: Is there likely to be a simple solution, or will this problem require substantial resources and effort?
- History: How long has this been a problem? Are we planning to fix a symptom or the root cause?
- Locality: Is the problem specific to one area or village? How significantly can we improve quality of life around the globe if we solve this problem?
If suitable, a representative of the nonprofit or an interested Cerbumi.org member starts a challenge topic. The member categorizes the challenge topic by specialty and geography and presents the complete findings of the nonprofit. This step alone serves to create awareness of an issue, which has marked benefits (in and of itself).
In our example, the aid agency visits Cerbumi.org and presents an abstract to the general email list. Hundreds of people receive the abstract, and a few interested volunteers add the challenge topic to Cerbumi.org's listing of challenges as agricultural in nature, generally affecting southern Africa. The agency's findings are fully disclosed. Nature, scope, and severity are clearly documented.
Interested members will find the challenge topic on the Cerbumi.org website or through moderated emails that highlight new topics and successes. These members are volunteers or members of interested nonprofits or donor agencies.
Now that the elephant topic has been created and "advertised," volunteers join the topic. Their names or aliases are added to a roster of participating members and to the topic mailing list. Other nonprofits join the topic to observe possible solutions to related problems they may be facing. Donors interested in southern African affairs join to support new opportunities.
Via an online forum or enhanced mailing list, the group begins to discuss the challenge and consider possible sources of solutions. To supplement the discussion, members may circulate drawings, photographs, and papers on the Cerbumi.org website. During this discussion, a group moderator regularly summarizes the current discussion and maintains the challenge's website to keep the group and other interested parties up to speed.
Our group begins brainstorming on the elephants. Are there too many elephants? Can we feed the elephants something else? What is wrong with current prevention techniques? Why don't moats work? Can we build a better moat? What similar problems have we already encountered? In the United States, gardeners plant marigolds to repel deer. Will marigolds have any effect on elephants? If not, what else will?
Volunteers provide a listing of their skills and competencies for a member database when they join Cerbumi.org. When a challenge discussion requires knowledge or a skill that nobody in the group has, the group can turn to the member database and find experts. Experts may become intrigued in the group's work and join the discussion, or they may simply answer a few questions.
Our group likes the marigolds idea. But will elephants like marigolds? A veterinarian or zoologist might know. They learn that chili peppers, cacti, and tumbleweed all deter elephants. The group asks a botanist if these plants will crowd out existing plant species or are the appropriate plant for the area. The group identifies chili peppers as providing the best benefits with minimal risk, and return to the discussion.
After several cycles of brainstorming, questioning experts, and discussion, the group will eventually find at least one plausible solution. They temper it by considering and resolving possible sources of failure—the group should dissect overly simplistic solutions. They explain, with expert backing, why their solution will work, and how much it will cost to implement. The group may conduct limited pilots to test core assumptions. Finally, they publish their findings and suggestions on the Cerbumi.org website. This creates prior art, a possible source of protection against future patent abuse.
Our group has settled on the chili peppers approach. They have investigated the financial, cultural, natural, and legal ramifications of their solution and found no obvious problems. The group moderator documents their discoveries, including: the nature of the problem from step 1, key highlights from steps 4 and 5, and the reasons why their solution will work.
This may be an optional step depending on the circumstances. Given the wide variety of projects clamoring for financial assistance, perceptive donors look to fund results—not effort. Thankfully, volunteers have already donated most of the "effort" necessary to develop a solution. Potential donors now see solutions—results—with substantial community backing, and need only fund a trial implementation. The nonprofit who started the cerbumi could simply return to their usual funding sources. Additionally, Cerbumi.org could provide a listing of projects that have a consensus for a solution but no trial funding.
Our group approaches the various donor groups on the Cerbumi.org database that have expressed an interest in this field or region. With luck, their idea will compel donors to fund a trial.
Now that the group has received a commitment from donors, they can work with local groups to test an idea. In many cases, the nonprofit that documented the problem will also work to implement its solution.
With funding from a major agricultural interest, an local aid agency works with farmers to test the use of chili peppers to deter elephants.
After testing the solution, we will learn the realities of its effectiveness. The solution could be extremely effective, leading to Cerbumi.org suggesting its use elsewhere. Unforeseen complexities could hamper the solution's effectiveness. In many cases, it would be appropriate to provide feedback to the project group and modify the solution accordingly. Ultimately, a failure may be as helpful as a success if it can provide substantial information.
Our farmers test the chili peppers and discover that this particular species does not thrive well in their soil. Alternatively, in a worst-case scenario, the wrong chili pepper species could be too successful and overwhelm nearby native species. The implementing agency returns the results to the group along with additional data (perhaps a soil sample). With additional help of experts, our group discovers an appropriate species and the idea is tested again.