Tapping into the wisdom of the (char) crowd


As I mentioned in the previous post, the amount of biochar research happening around the world these days is growing exponentially.  It is no longer feasible, if in fact it ever was, for one person or even a single organization, to stay abreast of all of the research.  Given that, how can all this ever-increasing amount of valuable information from labs and field trials be harnessed in a manner that will enable the use of biochar to realize its maximum potential quickly?

In Peter Miller’s book ‘Smart Swarm’ the author describes a model currently being used by the US Intelligence agency that could work for the biochar community.  ‘Intellipedia’ was created to keep the intelligence community up-to-date in real time on thousands of different topics.  It combines different Web 2.0 functions such as Wikis, blogs, instant messaging, shared drives, photo galleries, tag-connect functionality (e.g. Digg), and subscribe functions.  All of this information is collected, curated and to some extent corroborated (or vetted) by volunteers within the intelligence community. Very soon after its creation, the system became an invaluable collaboration and crime-solving resource.

The creation of a shared platform similar to Intellipedia but customized for the needs of the biochar community could enable improved knowledge sharing and speed up discovery of how best to make, modify and use biochar. “Charpedia” could include Wikis with individual ‘stubs’ or pages that focus on different end uses (e.g. soils, filtration, GHG mitigation, etc.), feedstocks or crops.  The tag-connect or bookmarking function is a role that could be expanded to include the addition of keywords on published literature that maps to an agreed Charpedia stub taxonomy.  This would facilitate more accurate linking to appropriate stubs.  A database with information on different biochars already exits thanks to the efforts of the University of California Davis, but could be expanded.  A subscribe functionality would keep interested parties informed of new developments.  And finally a shared literature database would allow deeper understanding and knowledge sharing. 

Many of the key challenges to biochar knowledge sharing are no doubt common to many other research topics.  An increasing percentage of publications are written in language that are not easily accessible outside of the country they are published in.  This is especially true of Chinese research where biochar research is booming.

The other hurdle is that many if not most of these peer reviewed articles are written in a manner that most non-scientists or non-specialists struggle to understand (I often include myself in that category!) Synthesizing and simplifying publications is an urgent priority if we are to train farmers on the best ways to make and use biochar in different geographies, on different crops and in different soils.

Tapping into volunteer subject matter experts or perhaps different universities that could act as curators to manage specific biochar research stubs (e.g. biochar made from bamboo, biochar used in rice cultivation) could be one way to agglomerate or consolidate research.  Volunteer curators are the backbone of Wikipedia a platform which has transformed the way knowledge is pulled together and published for all to peruse.  Perhaps it’s time to replicate this success to enable biochar to flourish!

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