A gap in my understanding?

Ethan Zuckermen, Geek CorpsThe astonishing enthusiasm for discussions of all things gap-filling shouldn’t be surprising. We need to know what grows where, where it is most diverse, and where we haven’t explored in sufficient depth. Seems to me that most of the underlying datasets depend on outsiders coming in (or sitting in front of their models) and figuring it out. Would it, I wonder, be possible to turn that model on its head?

What if farmers texted the name of the crops (and varieties?) they grow to some spiffy app that collected the coordinates of the sending phone and the data, maybe even using some assumptions about language based on coordinates to translate the crop name?

Telcos could underwrite the effort by donating the cost of the SMS to the apps number. Farmers could be encouraged by offering additional credits on their phone, subject to some scrutiny. And gap-fillers would rejoice.

The big downside, as I see it, is that there is no immediate benefit to the farmers supplying the data. Eventually they enjoy some of the benefits that filling the gaps will undoubtedly bring. But in the meantime, who’ll pay?

11 Replies to “A gap in my understanding?”

  1. Yes, I think that crowdsourcing is the key, but I am not so sure SMS is the right technology. Who is going to SMS the whole inventory of a homegarden?

    An alternative would be to design open-source GIS courses for local universities and attach field projects to that, so that students go out and map crops as part of the course. This is an idea I got from Jon Hutton, in a slightly different context.

    The other idea would be to harvest data from the ethnobotanical and agricultural scientific literature. The authors of this article harvested allele frequencies from the literature to create a global map of a sickle cell gene. We could something similar with economic plants. How far would that get us?

  2. Citizen science in Sweden on kitchen garden crops and bird observations (etc) exploded with feedback from amateur citizens with no particular incentives outside the pleasure of participating. The Swedish POM from the national genetic resources program launched the call to amateur horticulturalists for interesting old crops they know of or grow in their own garden – and received more feedback than they have the capacity to respond properly to. There is a web site (http://www.pom.info/english/survey.htm) where people can submit their information. Plantearven in Norway (http://www.plantearven.no/tips-oss/) have a similar web form to use by amateur citizens in Norway for reporting interesting genetic resources. Based on the feedback received in Norway and Sweden, the national genetic resources program is working to get an overview and to visit the most interesting reported plants to evaluate if they should be sampled and included to the NordGen genebank collection.

    Yes, I think that crowd-sourcing could work in Africa also. I am not sure if reporting by cell phone using SMS is the best way. Unless they are smart phones with a camera and a GPS positioning built in…?

  3. Ah ah… As an aside, I was wondering kinds of “what if people would tag trees on google.map with the species ID”? Would help to find the potential nearest member of a given species next to you…

  4. Our opensource Android app for foraging could quite easily be transformed to gather crop-diversity info. But this is smartphone of course. As with Noah to get people to actually participate is a challenge as is the use of naming in multiple languages.

  5. Why not students? Google street view was built by photos taken by students, if you can put that on the agriculture universities curriculum, for students to identify, coordinate, and maybe characterize 50 species, you probably will get a global species mapped within 5 years, match that to Genesys and you will find the GAP.

  6. What about adding a viral aspect to it? Im not sure exactly what this would mean but something like once you send in a pic of your crop and what you call it the neighbors get a msg saying “Your friend grows ____ check out this picture of how nice it is! What do you grow?”

    I also very much like the google tree idea. Too bad it would not work for annual crops (with out knowing when and where google does picture updates).

  7. I’m running an agricultural service in Kenya – we provide agricultural advice and essential information for decision making (weather forecast, market prices) by mobile phones. The project is called M-Kilimo and was originally sponsored by RF.
    We have a database of farmers all across Kenya – we know they location, what they grow and size of the farm. At the moment we have a database of 30.000 farmers, but plan to expand up to 100 k in the next few months. We are searching for the way to commercialise this data source.

    1. Hi Natalia, what your company/non-profit(?) is doing sounds excellent. About going commercial, there are all kinds of ifs and buts and maybes. I’ve been part of a mostly academic-government project for the last two years which is, broadly, ICT and agricultural extension . It was supposed to help agri extension, but that aspect failed mainly because of bureaucratic turf wars. Going partly commercial while keeping the social objective as the central focus is being disucssed as a solution. Whether that happens or not, this project has an excellent tech platform, uses crop knowledge models, and has demonstrated web-to-cell and back again can work from the field. Regards, Rahul

  8. The Svalbard map of origin of deposited collections shows the problems of gaps. Yemen 3535 (I hope some of mine from N. Yemen) while Saudi Arabia has only 93 (despite their southern mountains being very similar to Yemen: and it was only 5 collections listed a month or so ago). China 17,428 but Mexico a whopping 95,913. I’d guess we need at least another 100,000 samples from China available internationally to fill a very obvious gap.

  9. In CIAT, we worked with a research group at the Universidad del Cauca in Colombia. Every single time they went to the field (regardless of the particular task they were supposed to carry out), they took a GPS with them, identified the crop and georreference the plot. Some extension workers in CIAT are doing the same.

    What was needed in this case is to (1) provide extension workers with the equipment and the knowledge on what information needs to be gathered (in fact, most universities already have GPSs and students/researchers can easily borrow them), and (2) harvest this data from these institutions.

    However, these things often work only when there is a written agreement or contract, or when there’s one person pushing up the initiative from the inside of the institutions.

    Further: ~600 trials are carried out annually in different locations only for wheat across India, each trial involving between 2-10 farmers (sometimes even more). Extension workers are constantly visiting these places during the trials. Give extension workers a GPS and…

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