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The Nitrogen Wiki
Article Photo Nitrogen pollution is a particularly nasty problem. The element is essential to life, but it seems to seep, leak, and sneak into just about every environmental problem we face. Hypoxia, allergens, carcinogens, invasive species, photochemical smog, ozone depletion, and global warming can all find fault with nitrogen pollution from two of our most pervasive activities, energy and agriculture. It’s hard to imagine where effective solutions would even start, which is why the Packard foundation has turned to the public for help with a wiki.
Since the most robust strategies for addressing a problem as complex as nitrogen pollution can not be developed by Packard alone, the Foundation has launched a public forum for collaboration. Everyone with an interest in reducing nitrogen pollution is invited to join and work together to create effective strategies for addressing this pressing problem.
While foundations can lack transparency when choosing issues to support, this project brings together academics, non-profits, practitioners and the general public to find the most promising ways around the nitrogen problem. Walt Reid, Packard's Conservation and Science Program Director, tapped Worldchangers Jamais Cascio and Chris Coldeway to "garden" the wiki and recruit participants.

Wikis are a powerful way to suck up bits of knowledge into a single place, as Wikipedia has taught us well. The interesting thing about Packard’s approach, however, is that it isn’t just about building knowledge up, but also showing where the holes are and proposing strategies to fill them in. Unlike Wikipedia, this wiki has a normative edge. The goal is not to amass information but to probe for solutions.

The model relies on the "wisdom of crowds" to better characterize the problem and identify potential solutions. A handful of experts in relevant fields started stubs for nine strategies that include things like Farm Bill Reform and Nutrient Trading. Other experts subsequently elaborated on the stubs, and now, two weeks after its start, the public can edit too, and even propose totally new strategies.

Solutions are great, but only if you have someone to implement them. The novel stakeholder map of the nitrogen cycle points out likely leverage points for reducing nitrogen pollution and associated groups who are already hard at work. The list of groups and initiatives is diverse and covers the spectrum from civil service groups to international treaties. As if the wiki approach wasn't enough, you can cast your vote for the which strategies you think are most likely to succeed, and their cost effectiveness.

The results will be used to recommend new strategies and, in wiki spirit, made open to everyone under a Creative Commons license after the site closes on May 10th.
We will make the full product of this Wiki site available to the Foundation’s Trustees at its June Board meeting and the staff will use the product of the site in developing a recommended strategy for the Trustees to consider. We are documenting this process and will prepare a review of the experience and recommendations that could inform similar efforts in the future.
Wikis are gaining popularity in the philanthropic sector, but in other endeavors the crowd is already large and the wisdom plentiful. As a recent Nature article describes, we're starting to see 'key biology databases go wiki' in order to add new research as it becomes available, making the resource richer for all. As the model gains acceptance, it may be only a matter of time before wikis start popping up in research areas where the transfer of ideas is most often accomplished through journals, a process that is anything but expeditious.

Packard’s nitrogen wiki is an experiment in progress, and may very well require new approaches to direct the process and digest the product, which, if fruitful, might teach us to say, 'where there’s a wiki there’s a way.'

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Great idea. It looks as if we're just beginning to see the potential for collaboration via the web. Feedback:

1. The emphasis is on nitrogen pollution. Phosphorus pollution is a similar problem, perhaps with some similar solutions.

2. A related aspect of the problem is the probability that fertilizers will become more expensive, as energy becomes more expensive, N being produced by the energy -intensive Haber-Bosch process.

3. Phosphorus has the additional problem that supplies are limited. Several sources say that mined phosphorous will "run out" in a few decades. An unpublished article maintains that we are close to "Peak Phosophorus," and that as a result production will be declining and costs will increase.

4. Some of the links don't seem to work. For example, the link to "wiki" at the end of the first paragraph, brings up this URL in my Firefox browser:

I'm eager to see more on the subject.

Energy Bulletin

Posted by: Bart Anderson on 21 Apr 07



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