Musing lazily about omum water and open data and related things

Have you ever heard of omum water? Once I was old enough to be given it, omum water was my salvation every time I had any kind of stomach ailment.

It goes by many names.

Some people call it aqua ptychotis. In Bengal, people tend to refer to it as ajwain arak. In Tamil Nadu, it is more likely to be called omum water.

The Bengalis claim it as theirs. The Tamils do the same. [And being a Bengali Tamil, I don’t particularly care].

In fact I really don’t care about who claims the origin; while I know the patent system is broken, and terribly broken at that, I have enough faith in humanity to believe that no one will try and patent aqua ptychotis.

What I do care about is that people get to know all about it: what it is, how it works, why it works, where to get it, what not to do with it. [If you’re wondering why I added that last phrase, then ponder on why it gets called ajwain arak. As a vehicle for alcohol, it’s pretty serious.

Why am I writing about this now? Simple. My daughter got married last Friday; I’d taken time off starting last Thursday, and, once the festivities were over, let down my guard and managed to acquire a chesty cough. These things happen. That in turn meant I had to make a visit to the chemist, and, waiting to be served, noticed there were bottles of gripe water visible near the counter.

That took me back years. To my childhood. To a time when life was simple when it came to medication.

When I was young, everything began with cod liver oil, in those days it seemed to be chicken soup for the under-fives. Thankfully, it seemed to disappear quickly, even before the last of my siblings was born. I can’t remember dealing with cod liver oil since about 1965.

Life after that was simple. Stomach ache? A spoonful of omum water. Sore throat? Gargle with warm salt water. Cough and cold? Vicks Vaporub, with or without head-under-covers steam session, depending on how chesty the cough was. Cough continues? Vasaka syrup. Really bad? Benadryl. Fever? Blankets and rest. Sweat it out. Burns? Burnol. Mouth ulcers or small cuts anywhere on the surface of the body? Dab mercurochrome. Serious cuts, proper wounds? Upgrade from mercurochrome to tincture of iodine. Cleaning cuts and wounds? Savlon when you want it out of a tube, Dettol if you want it to sting. If it stung it was considered good, that the liquid was doing its work. Tooth powder? Monkey Brand, which was some sort of black crystal with salt. Tooth paste? Colgate or Signal or Binaca. Headache? Saridon. Dry skin? Nivea. Sprain? Iodex or Tiger Balm.

Life was simple. We used a whole pantheon of medications, drawn from a variety of roots. Some were traditional and local. Some were global and generic. Yet others were tightly branded. We learnt what to use where and when; most prescriptions were dealing with the generic name for the drug or medication, and the pharmacist converted it into the brand if and when needed.

There’s the rub. We weren’t always aware what kind of term we were using. Which ones were generic terms, which ones were local brands, which ones were global brands. Which meant that as soon as I left India, I had a whole lot of learning to do in order to get the simple things out of a pharmacy. Which was a good thing, perhaps, because it meant I never went to a pharmacy for years. It took me four years to register with a GP. And even longer before I went to a proper pharmacy.

As everyone and everything gets connected, as we all become able to publish our status, views and opinions, surpluses and shortages, the role of nomenclature will increase. Not just in medicine. In everything. Terms need to travel across cultures, and this will happen in many different ways. Generic names. Translations into local brands. Occasionally, translation into global brands. An expectation that every generic name will lead to choice when it comes to brand, rather than monopoly.

Those expectations can only be met if the generic terms get opened up and shared, locally as well as globally. Some of these terms are already in the public domain; others can be, but aren’t as yet. Open data movements aren’t just about what the government or the public sector holds, it will involve corporations. Corporate open data will become more and more important; initially we will see industry bodies (such as standards bodies or market associations) weigh in with the corporate open data, but in years to come all industry will be affected.

Every exchange needs that nomenclature, the low-volatility reference data that allows people to share transactional information. As we move towards a time when we are all able to expose our inventories, our wants and needs, our surpluses and scarcities, the vehicles of exposure will become exchanges. That’s what my friend and erstwhile colleague Sean Park kept pushing over a decade ago, as he visualised how digital markets would operate at scale.

Many markets are now digital; each market went through its gestation period, when term standardisation and normalisation preceded the ability to express transactions digitally. In some ways there is no difference between the dematerialisation of trades on a stock exchange, the mapping of the human genome and, for that matter, the explosion in standardised infrastructure in computing.

Terms had to become standard. They had to represent analogue things that were themselves more and more standardised, be they stocks or servers or gene signatures.

The terms had to become fungible. Exchangeable. Transportable across geography and culture and jurisdiction. Sometimes as-is. Sometimes expressed in translation. But transportable and fungible nevertheless.

We’re a long way from there. But terms like big data will remain just that until and unless that happens. We can have lots of data. But to have insights we need to have common terms, or at the very least portable terms, even if the porting involves translation or substitution.

People vested in the quasi-monopolies of the analogue world sometimes don’t want this to happen; term portability creates its own response to lock-ins. If all I know is a brand name, I am locked into the brand rather than the generic.

So for now I shall continue to ponder about omum water and ajwain arak and aqua ptychotis.

And wonder whether Wikipedia, or some other wikipedia, will solve the problem for us.









5 thoughts on “Musing lazily about omum water and open data and related things”

  1. First – i hope the wedding was all you hoped.
    On Open Data , I’m sure you are already aware of the Open Data Institute? If not, I’m sure your wisdom could help their journey.
    And on all those health products, its funny how those that stand the test of time are the least complex and the most natural isn’t t?

  2. Congratulations JP on the happy day, I saw some of the photos of the wedding and it looked really wonderful.

    I’ve recently re-discovered Epsom Salts, and it got me thinking about how these versatile and very effective natural products have often become overtaken in the last few decades by branded, shinier and significantly more expensive alternatives that in some ways are barely up to the job.

    There’s a value and economic question at the heart of nomenclature, and packaging, that relates to open data. I am passionately committed to furthering organic and generic opportunities for growth through the creation of dynamic and unimpeded information flows in my own work, but I feel the economics at the heart of this are still there to be addressed, for the same sorts of reasons that Epsom Salts were replaced by a hundred bath and kitchen products that were more seductive but arguably less effective and all came into being because of the lure of big profits.

    That seems to be the thing that stands between the healthy development of a sustainable open data linctus and we, as the patient consumers, who need the medicine.

  3. I happen to be watching the proceedings (in French) of the Charbonneau Commission “into collusion and corruption in the provision and management of public contracts in the construction industry”. Something like Law & Order in real life!
    Nomenclature and vernacular … fascinating stuff.

    When I first went to university (phil and psych, after a stint in uniform) one of the first projects I did for myself was what I called “history of a concept”. I picked “praxis” to start with. Fascinating. And rewarding in any number of ways. I then moved on to ideology. Almost as good. Something like doing cultural anthropology!

    But what I found most productive (We’ve over-thrown a democratically elected government on my watch. I was not a detached or unbiased observer of what we call “civilization.) was to drill down into argument/debate/discussion.
    I eventually found Jurgen Habermas and his work on “discourse ethics” gave me sufficient grounding for my project, variously referred to as “participatory deliberation” or “discourse-based decision support”.

    That this has progressed not at all? ah, well … #SocialPathology …

  4. JP,

    You said “[a]nd wonder whether Wikipedia, or some other wikipedia, will solve the problem for us.”

    So to are Clive Boulton and me.

    Recently we said:

    “The first [time we wondered about this was in] The Tipping Point Has Arrived: Trust and Provenance in Web Communications. We highlighted there the significance of the roadmap laid out by the Wikidata Project – in conjunction with the W3C Provenance Working Group – to provide trust and provenance in its form of web communications. We were excited by proposals to granularize single facts, and to immutabilize the data elements to which those facts are linked. We opined this to be critical for trust and provenance in whole chain communications. But at that time, the Wikidata Project was still waiting on the W3C Provenance Working Group to establish the relevant standards. No longer is this the case ….”

    More at

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