Top Down, Bottom Up and Canadian Tap Water

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how the worlds of marketing and social change converge. In particular, I’ve been interested in how the web enables us to flip the traditional, top-down model of advocacy and apply a more open, crowdsourced model of change-making.

We see great examples of this model in the environmental sector, where the likes of or Avaaz work to empower, not control, their supporters. We applied a similar philosophy on the TckTckTck campaign, where we provided broad messaging, simple branding and lots of online tools to the flotilla of partner organizations, community leaders and zealous individuals behind the campaign.

I stumbled onto this slide show by (I think) a German design firm which uses TckTckTCk as an example of “Branding 2.0 for NGOs”. Tellingly, the Tck campaign didn’t have anything to do with the creators of this slide show. They discovered it, liked the approach and built the thing all on their own. It’s a great example of this kind of “open source campaign”–a slightly abuse of the term ‘open source’, but forgive me–in action.

Arbiters of Green

Yesterday I discovered Blue W.

Bottled water is bad for the environment. The alternative, carrying around a water bottle, is becoming more common outside of college campuses and Commercial Drive. One (admittedly small) challenge of carrying your own water is finding locations to get the bottle refilled. Blue W aims to solve that problem:

Driven by a genuine appreciation for the hard work of municipal water providers, and motivated by success of the U.S. company, we’ve developed the BlueW as a not-for-profit program for providing information on where to find healthy, safe municipal tap water – anywhere. Registered businesses represented on our map have agreed to refill your reusable container with water from their tap, without compelling you to make any additional purchases.

When you are thirsty, just look for the BlueW decal in participating shop and restaurant windows

It’s a great, worthy idea. However, it’s also classic top-down thinking. In order for a business to get listed on the site, you need to fill out a fairly bureaucratic registration form. Once you do, you receive “a Blue W information package containing the Blue W window decal and localized promotional print materials”.

This is a common approach for these social enterprises–the organization wants to build and manage a database of approved vendors, and establish itself as the arbiter of green. As another example, consider the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise project. The latter approach actually makes more sense–there’s legitimate due diligence to be done in identifying sustainable sources of seafood. But tap water?

The Blue W site–slick, with plenty of groovy animations–reflects this controlled, top-down philosophy. It’s neat and pretty, but rather buttoned-down. As a side note, this is the second site this week that’s had a splash page. The other, even flashier (or, perhaps, Flashier), was The Pixel Train. It’s 2010, folks, just let the user get to the goods.

Shepherding, not Dictating

What’s the right approach? Anybody could probably produce a richer data set more quickly using Twitter, Facebook, a custom Google map and a little crowd-sourcing. For starters, add a user-submission approach beyond businesses, where people can add water fountains, recreation centres and other public water directly sources to the map. Bonus points for building a mobile app that enables them to pinpoint a water source, describe it, snap a photo and have it magically appear on the site. Even more bonus points for seamless integration with Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp.

Plus, if it were my project, I’d find it hard to resist the pull of a cheeky pun for a URL, like, I don’t know,

The result would be a messier but more useful and richer tool. The project owner’s role becomes that of shepherding or guiding, as opposed to administering and dictating. By giving up control, they’d gain influence. The latter is much more valuable in the long run.

For more on this approach, consider checking out Web Thinking, a great manifesto by a couple of colleagues in the social change world.


  1. Darren – great post. I especially like your observation about’s top-down approach for filling out their database. Costly, and I would imagine, not scalable (or sustainable).

    A better approach might be crowd-sourcing like you mention, which would be “messier but more useful”

    I’m sure Beth has more to add.

  2. I agree, this is great Darren – so great, I’ve shared it with the Blue W pilot team in Guelph so that they might incorporate your ideas into their work.

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