Hi all, I am applying to for the Shuttleworth Fellowship. I have to send it off on Sunday. If you could have a quick scan through and make any suggestions or edits that you think are appropriate (this post is a wiki). Each answer has a 1500 character limit and most are at that limit already. Any input is very much appreciated!
1) Tell us about the world as you see it.*
(A description of the status quo and context in which you will be working)
We live in a very unequal world and fixing it won’t happen just through charitable giving. We have to empower people through sharing knowledge and enabling education.
The vast majority of technology is developed in a top down fashion. People are given the opportunity to purchase and consume it but rarely to be creative and re-purpose. By default the way things are built in this world is by siloing knowledge and keeping a tight grip as possible on the intellectual property.
A majority of the people in the world are spending more and more time using electronic hardware. We are spending a significant amount of our day staring into the glowing rectangles of our phones and laptops. The trends people are excited about such as virtual reality, the internet of things, drones and other robotics are only set to increase our interaction time with electronic hardware.
While the progress is exciting, we are going head first into a world where the average person doesn’t have the ability to learn to understand and modify their tools and surroundings. Not only are we not properly documenting our technological progress for future generations but we are actively trying to stop people from accessing the information. This not only hampers education, creativity and social mobility but also has an environmental cost. As our technology becomes less and less adaptable and repairable our e-waste piles are increasing.
2) What change do you want to make in the world?*
(A description of what you want to change about the status quo, in the world, your personal vision for this area)
Electronics is at the forefront of bringing the freedoms we have enoyed in software to hardware. An electronics design is replicable, almost like software, and as the cost of replication becomes lower and lower the freedom to copy, share and adapt is becoming more and more important.
Big collaborative projects, like the Linux kernel, haven’t happened with electronics yet. For hardware designers, even with use of the modern web, it is still extremely hard to collaborate across the globe.
I want to change the way electronic hardware is developed and help build a world where we are able to better learn about the technology we are making ubiquitous.
Open source hardware needs to become a stronger alternative to the closed and secretive ways of today’s manufacturers.
I want to help bring about collaboration on the scale of the Linux kernel on hardware projects.
I want to help people document the wonderful things they are building so that others can make use of them and we will be able to replicate, repair and re-purpose them. Niche solutions and educational projects, that are not necessarily commercially viable, need to be readily and freely available.
The effects of a more connected world are close to reaching the electronics hardware development. We need to build on top of this infrastructure and bring out the unique advantages of collaborative models. This is an opportune time to do so and we should have an open approach to take the lead on innovation.
3) What do you believe has prevented this change to date?*
(Describe the innovations or questions you would like to explore during the fellowship year)
We are just at the advent of printed circuit board assembly becoming accessible and affordable to the average person. We are seeing more and more people sharing electronics projects online. For the most part people use software collaboration sites such as GitHub but these sites don’t lend the same convenience to hardware designers that they do to software.
Others are seeing the need for hardware collaboration spaces as well. CERN has built the open hardware repository (ohwr.org) and there a few companies with their own offerings. These spaces are missing the fundamental ease that has enabled collaboration on software. When a software developer comes across someone’s code they can compile and run it but with hardware the question almost always remains: what parts do I need to make this and where do I get them? The amount of components and the size of them is nothing to sneeze at either. (Most of them would blow off the table, never to be found again!) Projects have tens to thousands of electronic components and each one needs to be carefully specified.
Our tools are not doing a good job of transferring that information to others. Each individual component needs to be searched for and a web page needs to be read in order to purchase it. The friction in replicating open source hardware electronics is simply too high. The power of internet hasn’t caught up to electronics development yet because electronics developers can not properly share their work via web pages and email.
4) What are you going to do to get there?*
(A description of what you actually plan to do during the year)
I want to continue the work I have been doing on 1-click BOM and Kitnic.
The 1-click BOM browser extension answers: how close can we get to making a copy of a pile of electronic components? The importance of it is twofold. Firstly, the immediate practical need of letting the user easily buy parts is met but in doing so we are also paving the way for showing electronic parts distributors a more automated alternative to their manual online shop interfaces.
Carrying this idea forward is similarly twofold: on the one hand the supported retailer sites that it can automate needs to be expanded giving more options and retailer independence to the user. Secondly we need to encourage retailers to be more easily automated. This requires a dialogue with the various parties and working out an implementation method that allows us all to work together. This will allow us to build a network of automated part purchasing.
Kitnic.it gives open hardware designers a place to show their work and allows other to re-create it. The site was up for people to try as soon as it was just about usable. It has seen significant use and the feedback has been positive but it is not yet user friendly. Work needs to continue to make it as easy to use as possible.
Kitnic.it is there to help hardware designers collaborate we need to explore the interfaces that are required to best enable that.
I want to investigate leveraging this infrastructure to bring desktop assembly of electronics to the masses.
5) What challenges or uncertainties do you expect to face?*
Whether these solutions are the right approach to enable openness and collaboration in electronics hardware is not certain. What solutions are going to work in the space is an unknown. The only valid approach to mitigating this is to continually test out the ideas by letting people try them out.
It is a challenge to get people to use something new, something that hasn’t existed in quite in this form yet. We will need to find influencers and other talented engineers to put up open hardware designs to show that these tools are useful and usable.
The way electronics is designed using various, mostly proprietary, CAD tools doesn’t necessarily lend itself to collaboration. To be truly collaborative we need investigate how we can extract all the right information from these tools but try and change the workflows people are using.
There are still open questions: maybe most electronic engineers don’t want to work together and it’s something societal or cultural?
Getting the established component distributers to change their ways will certainly be a challenge. It’s possible expanding the team to find someone with more experience in these types of negotations might be necessary.
How to develop this further, as an organisation is a big question. Should this be a for profit venture or a not for profit foundation? Either way growing it and finding the right people won’t be easy.
6) What part does openness play in your idea?*
Open source is central to Kitnic.it and 1-click BOM. These are open tools to enable openness. All the software is released under and OSI and FSF approved licenses. Development happens out in the open from the initial Git commit. Documentation is kept at a level that makes it easy for newcomers to get started. We have issue trackers, mailing lists and chat rooms that are open to anyone to ask questions and get involved.
We make use of open source software when they allow us to be productive and match propietary counterparts. I have put financial information regarding investment and spending in public presentations and forum posts. As the organizational aspect increases I want to continue a practice of total transparency.
Open hardware needs our help. Efforts to make open hardware tablets, laptops and phones have still fallen short. The pain is not only felt in the electronics consumer sector but also in scientific instrumentation: the replication problem in science is exasperated by instrumentation who’s designs are not freely shareable.
Open source software’s biggest achievements were when it led the charge of innovation rather than playing catch up. The effects of a more connected world are close to reaching the electronics hardware development. We need to build on top of this infrastructure and bring out the unique advantages of collaborative models. This is an opportune time to do so and we should have an open approach to take the lead on innovation.