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To help African farmers, making big data fit in their pockets

© George Steinmetz/Corbis

As the use of mobile technology in Africa continues to skyrocket, it’s changing more than how people communicate — it’s also changing how they grow their food.

In a recent special edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, Conservation International’s (CI) Sandy Andelman and Peter Seligmann write that improving access to ecosystem data can help farmers adapt to climate change. One program that is striving to do this, Vital Signs, is already helping national governments in Africa improve development decisions — but reaching individual farmers is a tougher challenge.

In this interview, Andelman talks about efforts to surmount this challenge — and revolutionize the livelihoods of African farmers.

Question: Walk me through the Vital Signs data collection process; how are these data gathered in remote locations translated into something useful?

Answer: We have teams of researchers in each country where we’re currently working: Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Some of these people conduct household surveys, using systematic questionnaires to ask people about everything from nutrition to where they get their water and fuelwood to their farming practices.

Other team members take measurements of the landscape itself. Soil samples are sent to the World Agroforestry Centre lab in Nairobi, where their composition is analyzed and organic carbon content measured. Trees are measured by diameter, height and canopy cover, all of which help calculate the amount of above-ground carbon a landscape holds. We also take measurements from satellite imagery to document land-cover changes like the conversion of forest to farmland.

Using a tablet, our researchers upload all this information to a cloud-based data management and analysis system. Here, the raw data are translated into indicators and maps for decision-makers — usually governments, but also other groups like civil society organizations and farmer cooperatives — to track how things are going.

Q: How do you present info to decision-makers in a way that makes sense to them?

A: We’ve been working closely with stakeholders in different countries to really understand both what information they want and how they want to see it.

Initially we imagined we’d create a dashboard that incorporated all the data, but it turned out that no one wanted that. They said it was too many different kinds of info in one place. Most government ministers and business leaders don’t care very much about the raw data. They want to know it’s scientifically credible, but really they just want an overall understanding of what’s happening.


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Also, in many of the African countries where we’re working, the main — or even the only — way people access the internet is through their cell phones. Right now I’m in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and everybody has cell phones. I’ve also noticed that cell data access is good pretty much everywhere we’ve been in the city. Internet access is touch and go. So cell phones are definitely a more reliable way to get information. And if you tried to view a whole dashboard on a tiny screen, you couldn’t make sense of it.

One visual approach that is getting the most traction with decision-makers is our new Resilience Atlas, a map-based tool that allows users to explore a range of data based on what type of information they’re interested in — rural livelihoods, production systems, ecosystems — so they can examine what’s happening to that system, and then figure out what to do about it.

Of course, some scientists want access to all this data, from the actual ecosystem measurements to the process we use to create the top-level analysis. So we’ve made the whole stream of information freely available to anyone with internet access who wants to look at it — except of course for people’s personal information, which we don’t distribute.

Q: In a recent special edition of Foreign Affairs magazine focusing on farming and digital technology in Africa, you talk about the importance of creating a system that would allow African farmers to access important ecosystem data on their phones. We’re not there yet — how can we make this possible?

A: Vital Signs currently is providing information to farmer cooperatives, extension agents and government planners who all support individual farmers. We’re also cultivating some important partnerships to get individual farmers the information they need to be productive.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is developing an app to integrate and analyze data on soil and climate so that an Africa farmer with half a hectare of land could use her cell phone to get information about the five most productive and sustainable uses for that small piece of land. The app doesn’t tell her what to do; it just gives her info that allows her to make more informed decisions.

In addition, the app can connect the farmer through text messaging or social media to other farmers — in their country, somewhere else in Africa, or even in the U.S. — who are farming in the same conditions. So farmers can expand their social network beyond local communities to share knowledge and experience with other people who are dealing with the same situations.

USDA is developing this app, but they only have data from a few pilot sites. We have data from a much bigger area. So through our partnership, they expand their geographic reach, and they help us connect with individual farmers.

Q: How do you see this work developing over the next few years?

A: I’m seeing a lot of interest in using the data to evaluate the assumptions underlying things like development plans — using evidence to target the most effective interventions and prioritize developing the places that will be most productive with the fewest unintended consequences for nature, and then being able to easily track how things are going.

Here in Madagascar, I’ve had a whirlwind three days of meetings about Vital Signs with everyone from the office of the president to various government ministries to the World Bank and other donors. The government of Madagascar needs better data; for example, the last census in the country was 35 or 40 years ago. It’s like driving a car without a gas gauge. So the response from everyone has been: “Vital Signs is exactly what we need.”

Another exciting thing is that technology is changing so rapidly. For example, with drones we can measure vegetation composition to determine the biomass and above-ground carbon stocks. In five minutes, a drone can collect most of the information that a team of three technicians collect in three hours on the ground. We’re also starting to use very high resolution remote sensing, which can read an area as small as a square foot. This combination will allow us to very cost-effectively scale up Vital Signs to — hopefully one day — essentially monitor the whole planet.

I also hope we can expand into other types of monitoring. Here in Madagascar, people have been asking how to monitor illegal harvesting of rosewood. We already have access to high-resolution satellite images for the whole country. The government and NGOs could use the imagery to identify places where even a few trees are being taken out, and then send in the drones — set up a real-time monitoring system in those vulnerable areas. Technology is really revolutionizing — almost on a monthly basis — the way we can understand what’s happening in our landscapes, whether in my vegetable garden in California, or halfway around the world in Madagascar or the Amazon. It’s incredibly exciting.

Sandy Andelman is chief scientist and senior vice president at Conservation International and the executive director of Vital Signs, a program led by CI in partnership with the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa. Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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