Collaborate, Create, Communicate

New tools for agricultural information specialists: highlights from the IAALD session

Among the main themes of the IAALD Congress, a special track was reserved to experiences with new technology tools for agricultural information. On Tuesday 27 afternoon, three papers were presented and  discussed at the IAALD Congress:

  • the use and management of RSS feeds by a network of agricultural information specialists in Southern Africa
  • interactive Web TV for agricultural advisory services in France;
  • integrated information sources for agriculture in GIS-based decision support tools.

The papers illustrated three very different technologies and the ways they are used to address the well-known issue of bringing together information from different sources, whether data or human expertise, in targeted, cost-effective ways.

The RSS feeds experience demonstrated how feeds from a variety of sources at regional and national level in Southern Africa are brought together into the SADC News and Events Service, catalogued and redistributed via the Web.

The SADC NES aggregates, filters and generates newsfeeds for the SADC region, about agriculture related themes. The portal exploits feeds from the SADC AIMS web portal, websites from within and outside the region, but also supports the manual addition of news stories to the feeds.

After the first assessment, SADC found out that to be effective, the feeds had to offer users the desired content, be relevant (this can only be assessed by humans), and keywords were added so that the themes could be narrowed down to be more specific.

The challenges in this were not technical ones, RSS being a pretty simple technology to use and reuse, but rather in the advocacy work in adopting RSS and in general Web 2.0 technologies to ease redistribution and reuse of information. What is perhaps worth observing is that it was suggested to the system managers to create a controlled vocabulary for the keywords, so even if they call them ‘tags’, these are not used in a folksonomic sense. Which presents the risk of creating right from the start a close classification system that would allow for little expansion in the future.

The interactive Web TV case showed how ACTA Informatique took advantage of the fairly good penetration of broad and medium band connectivity across rural France and the existence of a Web TV channel to organise round tables with experts online, broadcast via Web video, and using Web conferencing and feedback mechanism to involve viewers in the program. The programs were then made available in an online archive: views show that they are still being used and consulted. This experience was considered successful and repeatable, taking into account growing familiarity with the technology and the pervasive constraint of time availability on the part of farmers and entrepreneurs. Animating the interaction during the program recording was a challenge, which, however, does not seem to jeopardise the possible future success of this initiative.

One of the question focussed on the time of recording the program, which poses a challenge to participation as during the day farmers are away from computers. The playback in the archive has been very popular, the evidence that there is value in this initiative.

The third experience presented the PROGIS software, a GIS-based decision support tool that can integrate information from several sources in several fields of agriculture, for example when a farmer has to decide which crop to plant in a specific area, the system can pull out agroecological information as well as names and contacts of local experts in fertilization or water management. The system has been successfully applied to the logistical chain to ensure monitoring of the process from field to distribution point.

At the end of the presentations, the chair summarised the questions that the introduction of new technology would pose to agricultural information specialists:

  • what do we as information specialists see as new tools rising at the horizon?
  • Next time there is a new technology emerging, is there a method to understand its potential and harness it?
  • Is infrastructure always a constraint?

One participant made the point that these technologies are not suitable for individual use in Africa, but they certainly have value if used at a collective level, for example at the level of farmers’ organizations, because of the skills and infrastructure needed to be used effectively. In conclusion, assessing the information that is really needed in the field and packaging it in ways that users can effectively use remain the key principles at the core of successful initiatives.