Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What Plumpy’Nut Taught Me

Online collaboration may be the wave of the future but it’s not so easy to convince people to do it. As I learned last year, lots of public health folks were willing to talk to me about the Plumpy’ Nut patent but most were reluctant to act as journalists themselves, to help dig for the story, pull the various threads together.

Many were intrigued by the patent issue but didn’t want to join in publicly because they didn’t think they were expert enough. A few, no doubt, also felt the need to play it safe. After all, who knows what future employers (or donors) might think? As always, the people who knew the most were often the least interested in going on the record—in whatever format.

This is the second post in a series that started with “Rethinking Why I Blog.”

I learned about the Plumpy’Nut patent in October of 2007. I was attending a nutrition conference in which I picked up some hallway grousing from a humanitarian group that had been told it could not whip up its own version of Plumpy’nut, a carefully fortified peanut butter that has done wonders in the fight against severe malnutrition.

There was a patent on Plumpy’Nut, taken out by its manufacturer Nutriset (and the French government, I later learned.) Even though the recipe is widely available and easy to follow, making a batch on your own in many countries would land you in plenty of legal hot water.

Fascinating case. Before then the only reports I had heard or seen about Plumpy’Nut were glowing accounts about its proven qualities to save young children’s lives.

My first impulse was to dig deeper and write a freelance piece. But here I hit a snag. The rule was no freelance while on a Nieman fellowship.

So then I thought about it a bit and rather than ask for an exception, I decided to use this as an experiment in online collaboration. Normally I would hoard the information until I could come out with a fully-fledged piece. Otherwise, I would risk being scooped.

Instead, I decided to share it all, from the beginning, starting with the first disgruntled vibes I picked up at that conference. I envisioned a group blog where a bunch of interested folks could pursue the story—each contributing a different piece. And so launched what I hoped would be a group blog at Patents and Peanut Butter.

Talked to a number of students at Harvard’s School for Public Health. All were unfailingly polite, many offered suggestions, a number were intimidated by the blogging software. Most found it easier just to talk to me and let me write whatever I wanted on the blog.

Talked to several faculty members, including Richard Cash, who helped develop oral rehydration therapy back in the 1960s. Like Plumpy’Nut, ORT is a dead-simple recipe that saves lives. Unlike Plumpy’Nut, ORT is not patented. Anyone can make it. Many manufacturers do, but so do folks at home.

Several legal types thought the Plumpy’Nut patent wouldn’t stand up to legal challenge. I learned about “prior art” and “non-obvious” innovations.

Once again, the old habit—of journalist interviewing source as opposed to source commenting directly on a web site—was hard to break. I was perfectly willing to break it. But most people I talked to were not.

And so the blog sputtered along. I continued adding notes as time and opportunity allowed. But the hoped-for group blog did not materialize.

And yet, after a few months on the Internet, I did start getting inquiries and a few people from around the world added their two cents—some of them anonymously (which brings up all sorts of other issues.). Most of the interaction was still via e-mail. Most people didn’t feel comfortable posting comments on the Internet—despite repeated encouragement on my part. A few got into the spirit.

This was not the instantaneous burst of community magic that I had hoped for. But a kind of long-amplitude wave eventually did materialize. My old Plumpy’Nut posts kept getting traffic. Maybe I had brought a fast-food mentality to a slow-cooking world.

And indeed, a year after the blog went up (and many months after I stopped posting anything new), I received an e-mail from Martin Enserink at Science, who was working on a story about Plumpy’Nut and wanted to include a sidebar on the patent controversy.

We exchanged some information—though I couldn’t tell him much more than what I had already posted on the Internet. And Enserink's article—a piece of real journalism—has advanced the story. That’s where I learned, for example, that the real sticking point in the patent controversy may be the French government—and not Nutriset.

On balance, I learned more by sharing the Plumpy’Nut information when I did than if I had hoarded the information. And other people—whom I would never have known about otherwise—learned a few things through our exchanges or just by lurking on the blog.

As for news gathering, this felt kind of like a disorganized (or is it self-organized) relay race. Sometimes I was the leader passing the baton, sometimes I was receiving the baton. And sometimes, much to my surprise, I was just one of the bystanders (formerly known as the audience) cheering the race on.

Next: Authentic Sharing vs. Selfish Sharing

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I would like to draw your attention to that we recently launched.
It allows instant co-browsing on any document, something like a collaborative Zoho share.
You upload your document and invite your friends to view it with you, and it is free.