Frequently Asked Questions
What is TechNotes? What are you building?
See our vision at About TechNotes.
What’s the status of this project?
As of July 2021: we are in the process of developing a reworked alpha prototype that gives a good demonstration (vertical slice) of our platform and content.
This looks like a huge undertaking. How could you ever get enough content or keep it up to date?
Yes it is an enormous undertaking, but so was building Wikipedia (or Rome). Our vision is the aspirational, long-term vision, not the plan for Day 1. We understand that this will take a decade or more to build. We don’t yet have the resources to realize this plan, but we want to do what we can to make it happen.
Starting with a small focus and iterating quickly will be key, and the project will depend on getting funding and on earning the interest of enthusiasts who are excited to contribute.
We’re not starting from square one. Although Wikipedia has different goals, we can use Wikipedia articles as a starting point for any TechNotes articles, because both projects use a compatible content license. Google has done incredible work to organize data about patents around the world and their entire patent data set is available under an open license. The Global Power Plant Database covers approximately 30,000 power plants from 164 countries. Government databases like the National Technical Reports Library and NASA Technical Reports Server contain a wealth of valuable technical information that is highly underutilized due to the difficulty of finding and reading the data. And so on.
We have the data. TechNotes is not about creating new data; it’s about organizing existing data to make it more useful and accessible. Blueprints on microfilm in a government warehouse, grainy PDFs on a technical report server, research findings in a paywalled journal, and patents devoid of context are all neither useful nor accessible. Let’s do better.
What’s more, we’re building something that may not be feasible today but will be feasible tomorrow. We’re skating to where the puck is going. As machine learning advancements continue, we expect to be able to develop tools to greatly speed up the process of building and maintaining this kind of resource, in a way that was barely even imaginable in 2001 when Wikipedia was started. See this 2020 MIT News article entitled “Automated system can rewrite outdated sentences in Wikipedia articles” for just one example. These machine learning tools are expected to be a great avenue for collaboration with researchers.
What content will you focus on at first?
Although over time we want to cover virtually any topics related to technology, at first we plan to focus on technologies related to the ongoing green economy transition, such as renewable energy technologies (e.g. emerging photovoltaic tech, geothermal energy), energy efficiency (efficient building technologies, district energy systems), zero emissions vehicles/transportation, and so on.
How is it different than Wikipedia?
We’re huge fans of Wikipedia! But as far as we know, there is no resource available today with similar goals/content to what we envision for TechNotes, and Wikipedia is no exception.
Even if you could print Wikipedia in its entirety…you’d still be a far cry from a manual enabling a community to rebuild civilization from scratch. It was never intended for anything like this purpose, and lacks practical details and the organization for guiding progression from rudimentary science and technology to more advanced applications. ~ Lewis Dartnell, The Knowledge
TechNotes has different goals:
Guidebook: “Wikipedia is an encyclopedic reference, not an instruction manual, guidebook, or textbook” (per What Wikipedia is not). In contrast, TechNotes does aim to provide the sort of content traditionally found in instruction manuals, guidebooks, and textbooks.
Fully Detailed: “A Wikipedia article should not be a complete exposition of all possible details, but a summary of accepted knowledge regarding its subject” (per What Wikipedia is not). In contrast, TechNotes does aim to provide as many details as are useful.
Original: “Wikipedia articles must not contain original research” (per No original research), whereas TechNotes does allow some people to publish original findings (e.g. technical measurements) and collaboratively build things like open source hardware designs.
Opinionated: A core policy of Wikimedia is that all content must be presented with a Neutral Point of View, whereas TechNotes officially advocates for certain positions that will accelerate technological innovation (IP law reform, adoption of open standards, etc.). TechNotes also allows for user-contributed articles that advocate for a particular point of view (“Never use any screw drives other than Robertson or Torx”), if they are clearly marked as opinion pieces and provide compelling empirical evidence to support their claims.
And, TechNotes will employ different strategies:
Structured data: TechNotes will have much more structured data and metadata than Wikipedia; for example, every technology will potentially list what other technologies it depends on, allowing the automated creation of an accurate “tech tree” or web. (Wikipedia has some of this semantic graph data available via its categories and its WikiData sister project, but it’s limited and not deeply integrated.)
Specialized Software: TechNotes will run on a new platform that we develop specifically for implementing an open engineering library. As such, it will have more specialized features than a generic wiki.
Internationalization: Wikipedia allows creation of articles in any language, resulting in wildly varying content from language to language (e.g. compare “List of screw drives” in English, German, French, and Spanish). TechNotes will always have the same content available in every supported language, with the English version considered the “source” version, and all other languages being direct (manual or automated) translations of the English version. (English is the lingua franca of science and engineering, and this approach will provide the most content to everyone, while still providing a mechanism for non-English speakers to contribute in collaboration with translators.)
Crediting Contributors: TechNotes will experiment with more ways of providing credit to contributors; for example, individuals who contributed the most to particular articles or content may have their names featured prominently directly on the page, and the volunteer editors of specific topic areas will be featured prominently.
Review Process: TechNotes will likely have a review process by which contributions are reviewed by editors before appearing on the site (like how contributions to open source software projects are reviewed), and/or by which certain content can be certified by a relevant organization, such as how the NIH 3D Print Exchange indicates when designs are reviewed/approved for clinical use.
How is TechNotes different from _________?
To the best of our knowledge there is no directly comparable site, nor has there ever been. If you know of one, please reach out to us - we’d love to learn about it.
Google Patents: probably the most useful site for reading patent details online. However, it’s scope is much narrower than TechNotes (see “Doesn’t the patent system act as a shared repository of this sort of technical information?”), and most importantly its patents lack context. When viewing a patent on Google Patents, the information is complicated and technical; there are no answers at all to key questions like: How important is this patent? What products use this patent? What alternative mechanisms can be used in lieu of this patent? What license is this patent available under? Is the patent owned by a patent troll?
Hackaday: an excellent news blog that covers engineering/maker news. Some of the topics are similar to what TechNotes will cover, but Hackaday is a blog focused on articles about recent developments and not a comprehensive database. We hope that Hackaday will often link to TechNotes in the future.
GrabCAD / Thingiverse / Instructables / Hackster.io / Hackaday.IO: these websites allow engineers (GrabCAD) and makers (Thingiverse/Instructables/Hackster.io/Hackaday.IO) to post designs and instructions for hobby projects; they generally don’t provide articles or technical data about commercial technology. For example, they might have a tutorial on building a small wind turbine for your backyard, but they don’t document commercial wind turbines (how they’re built, how they compare, how to choose and buy them, engineering advances over time, etc.).
At first, we expect these sites to be complementary to TechNotes; if you want to learn how a commercial wind turbine works, a great way to do so is to build a small-scale model of your own, so we might link to such an article from TechNotes. In the long term (years down the road), we may launch a sister platform for sharing user designs which would compete directly with these sites; we feel that’s important because all of these sites are owned by commercial companies and they are not true “open data” (e.g. GrabCAD and Hackaday.IO prohibit commercial use; all prohibit bulk downloading of data; etc.).
wikiHow: wikiHow is an amazing resource for “how to” guides that we really admire. It will tell you how to cook a potato in a microwave oven, but not how to build your own microwave nor how a microwave works; TechNotes is focused on the latter, not the former. What’s more, wikiHow is run by a private company and is not as open as TechNotes; the illustrations on the site are generally “all rights reserved” and the entire site’s content may not be copied for commercial purposes, so you couldn’t copy and use their “Build a Wind Turbine” article in a wind power startup, for example. In contrast, TechNotes has a mission of accelerating technical innovation, so will welcome commercial use of its content, which will be 100% open data.
Stack Exchange (Stack Overflow / Ask Patents / Engineering SE etc.): these question-and-answer sites highlight one of the problems that TechNotes is trying to solve: it’s often very difficult to find answers even to seemingly simple technical questions. As they are Q&A sites and TechNotes is a comprehensive library, these sites and TechNotes will complement each other well.
Doesn’t the patent system act as a shared repository of this sort of technical information?
- Many important inventions predate patents (e.g. writing, beer/wine, furnace, woven fabrics, nails/screws, coins/money, eyeglasses, lever, mirror, compass, steel, lightning rod, ladder, rope, wheel, wheelbarrow, hammer, chisel, anvil, pit latrine, sanitary sewers, arches, Gregorian calendar, concrete, masonry, ovens, smokehouses, bow & arrow, crossbow, oil press, sailboat, bookbinding, scalpel, tampon, plumb bob, street grid systems, canal locks, bridges, knitting, paper, scissors, vaccination).
- Patents don’t cover things that were never patented (e.g. The World Wide Web, Fourier transform, penicillin, the polio vaccine, tissue culture, monoclonal antibody production, anaesthetic ether, Curie’s process for production of radium, the karaoke machine, the friction match).
- Patents don’t cover things that are/were protected by trade secret only (e.g. WD-40).
- Patents almost always have very low-resolution illustrations that are inferior to modern CAD files, vector illustrations/animations, or 3D printer files.
- Patents can’t be edited to add more useful details, illustrations, or lessons learned.
- Patents can be hard to search for and understand (we want to solve this problem by algorithmically showing the relative importance of each patent, adding expert commentary to important patents, showing what patents are used in what products, and annotating patents with licensing information where available).
How will you ensure it is accurate and authoritative?
Our goal for TechNotes is to be like IMDb (which is an impressively authoritative and up-to-date media database with entries for approximately 6.5 million titles and 123 million actors and production staff). We have many ideas on how to make TechNotes accurate, authoritative, and up-to-date, but since nobody has done this before, we expect to need to experiment with different approaches to find what works best. We will likely require (quick and easy) registration in order to contribute, and will most likely use a review process for all contributions as well as a reputation system like Stack Exchange does. We will also likely have a process for expert certification of an article, like wikiHow does. And of course, we’re excited to explore how machine learning can be used to automatically update articles and correct errors (see “That’s a huge undertaking…” above).
What about intellectual property rights?
TechNotes wants to document and preserve knowledge about all technologies, from old and boring to emerging and innovative. When it comes to emerging technology where an organization has spent a lot of effort to develop something and has a uniquely innovative product, our goal would only be to share already-public details of that innovation, place it in context (compare its pros/cons to antecedents), and raise awareness of it. TechNotes would not publish leaked proprietary information or trade secrets.
However, highly commodified technologies are different. When many different manufacturers make fairly similar products (consider low-end smartphones, most appliances in your home, most things at a hardware store, cars, airplanes, and so on), each company spends huge numbers of hours of research and development to create a product that is, say, 95% similar to competing products and only 5% proprietary innovation. With TechNotes, we want to publish and make accessible that 95% “common knowledge” that is of little proprietary value so that we can unleash an even higher level of competitive innovation - lowering the barrier to entry and allowing tens of thousands of hours of saved R&D time to be spent on actual innovation instead of inventing what has already been invented many times over.
What content won’t be included?
General scientific and mathematical content will be excluded, with a focus on engineering and technology specifically. Over time, that may change. (How is that “engineering and technology” cutoff defined? Using David Billington’s definition: “Engineering or Technology is the making of things that did not previously exist, whereas science is the discovering of things that have long existed.”)
Some other types of content such as descriptions of weapon technology will also be prohibited.
Will it be open data?
We want to maximize the value that TechNotes provides to humanity, and we don’t want to unfairly exploit the contributions of volunteers. All of the data will be open data, like Wikipedia, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Additionally, some of the code that powers TechNotes will be open source.
What’s the technology stack?
We believe that TechNotes will be most successful if it’s built using software that’s purpose-made, rather than using an existing tool like MediaWiki. We’re building the first prototype using software that we call “Neolace” (built with Vertex Framework + Neo4j + TypeScript + Node.js) for the backend, and Next.js for the frontend. The architecture and specifics are subject to change as the project plan evolves and the prototype is built out.
How will it be funded / earn revenue?
The software that powers TechNotes has a unique feature set, and we will be selling it for use by organizations for knowledge management. Imagine for example that your corporate research lab wishes to have a private copy of the TechNotes database with private/internal annotations attached to key articles.
Over time, sources of funding may include (but are not limited to):
- Affiliate marketing or advertising
- Monetizing community-developed hardware designs (on a strictly voluntary, collaborative basis)
- Bounties (corporations, nonprofits, and individuals can pay contributors to contribute specific content)
- Some features available only to users/companies that sponsor the site
- Monetizing spin-off software
How can I help?
At this point, we want feedback on the overall project plan and to build a team of partner organizations and individual volunteers who are eager to participate. As we secure additional funding, we will also be hiring a small team of core staff.
We welcome any business, government, nonprofit, or academic organization that wants to partner with us (especially those that want to sponsor/fund the project or contribute data).
In terms of volunteers, we’d love to hear from you regardless of what specific skills or help you can offer. We don’t know exactly what we’ll need, but at this point we would really love to hear from:
- Engineers, researchers, or enthusiasts who can contribute or edit content - particularly related to our initial focus area (the green economy transition: renewable energy, zero-emissions vehicles, efficient buildings, etc.). If we receive enough interest in some other topic (e.g. aerospace technologies or pandemic preparedness) we may be able to start a second initial focus area.
- Anyone who has constructive feedback for how to improve our vision, for what features TechNotes should offer, for how to build it, etc.
- Experienced software developers who want to help build the application itself (see “What’s the technology stack?” above)
- UX Designers
- Graphic Designers
How can I contact you?