Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New Crowdmap product is on the way

The folks that created Ushahidi are launching a public beta of their new Crowdmap product on May 6.  Crowdmap is a free tool available to anyone to support social mapping.  The application to sustainable agriculture has many possibilities and is something we want to explore in our partnership project.  Putting it in the cloud, as it were, makes it even easier for anyone to use.

Here is what the press release says about the new product:

Crowdmap is re-launching on May 6th as an entirely new, hosted service for mapping anything on the web, focused on a more social mapping experience with better support for multimedia, sharing, and mobile support.  All of this built on top of a new, robust API that means developers can create not just plugins but entire applications for endless ways to interact with each other.

This is sure to be an important contribution to the suite of free and open source tools for knowledge mobilization.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Entry # 2: Beginning to Understand the Village Knowledge Centers, April 21, 2012

Entry # 2: Beginning to Understand the Village Knowledge Centres, April 21, 2012

We were fortunate to have an extensive presentation by a knowledgeable staff member, Jegen, at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, who works under the umbrella of Information Education and Communication called, the Informatic Division within the organization. He gave us an overview of the current projects and use of ICTs that MSSRF is involved with.

MSSRF has set up block/district level “Village Resource Centers” (VRCs) throughout the country, with several linked “Village Knowledge Centers” (VKCs) scattered throughout rural communities.  MSSRF take information from the government, universities and other research boards, and undergoes what they call “value addition” to make this information useful, understandable and available in rural communities.  The information, training and services that are available are not limited to agriculture, but include computer training, health and nutrition services, after school certifications, etc. We were able to visit the VRC in Semeddu, 3 VKCs in the surrounding area as well as one field office where they distribute inputs such as seeds and fertilizers for farmers.

What was particularly interesting, in terms of technology stewardship for communities, is the way that these centers are established.  MSSRF does not select communities in which to build VKCs.  The community itself decides that there is a need, chooses a knowledge worker to act as the “tech steward,” finds the space in which to establish a VKC and then MSSRF will supply the technology and training for the “knowledge workers” to take care of the center (for free). The community has mobilized itself and has created all of the conditions necessary for the uptake stage, before MSSRF provides the technology.  As the next few months unfold, it will be interesting to see how this happens within the community. 

Staff use participatory rural appraisal, after the establishment of the knowledge centers, to establish the particular needs for that village.  These knowledge centers not only provide relevant information, but also pride themselves on capacity building (training and awareness programs).  A farmer database is created based on the record-keeping at each center, which keeps track of the farmer name, age, education level, gender, reason for visit, who accompanied them to the center and mode of transport to get there. This is important because it ensures that the services offered continue to be useful and relevant. On average, about 20 farmers make use of these centers daily. The centers have a collection of books on a variety of topics, computers, printers/scanners, daily newspapers and informative brochures.

Brief Overview of some of the ways that MSSRF gets information to people in rural areas:
-       Cell phones are provided to farmers with the help of MSSRF’s technology partner, QUALCOMM.
-       Texting/ Voice information system (IKSL IFCO- Air Tel Green Card)
o   Farmers can opt in to this service and receive text messages daily (in Tamil characters, unlike FrontlineSMS) and they also receive automated voice messages, for those who are unable to read.
o   Trends are monitored
§  To see if farmers answer the calls
§  How long the farmer will stay on the line
-       Phone-In Programmes
o   If the information is too important (or can not be simplified into a text) you can “opt in” to listen to calls that are made at certain times.
§  E.g., if there is important information regarding coconut, farmers will receive word and can call the number at a certain time to listen to the information.
-       24/7 Help Line (on average, answers are given within ½ hour)
-       Public Address Systems are set up within communities to inform farmers of news and upcoming meetings.
-       Notice boards outside of each VRC and VKC (meetings have incentives, like free lunch or coffee etc.).
-       In the evenings, MSSRF will also give projector presentations within the community, based on the needs/requests of farmers.
-       MSSRF also posts information in slides at the cinema before people view movies.
-       Scrolling news during local television programming
-       ISRO- monthly video conferencing (e.g., National Virtual Congress of Farmers)
-       Community Newspapers
o   Information is locally-specific
o   Distributed for free to every household every 15 days
-       Production of informative pamphlets for distribution
-       Creation of a region-specific “Rural Yellow-Pages” so that farmers are able to find/advertise nearby services
o   Distributed for free to every household within the “block” (20-25 villages)
-       Some regions make use of radio for weekly information based on relevant topics (e.g., drought season).

What’s next for MSSRF?
-       currently looking at testing ICROP
o   software/hardware + technical expertise to be used as a “forewarning” system

I hope to gain more insight into each of these in the next few months, as well as looking at other sources of information besides the extensive services offered by MSSRF (NGOs, local newspapers, Agriculture Extension, etc…)! 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Text messaging demo system now operational

Chandana Jayathilake at the University of Wayamba and Tim Barlott at the University of Alberta have now established a text messaging testbed in Sri Lanka to provide rapid response capabilities for the project team.

The testbed uses free and open source software FrontlineSMS to provide a flexible and rapidly configurable platform to support two-way and multi-way text messaging features for mobile phones.

The intention of the testbed is to provide a means for individuals or groups in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka to explore and evaluate new ways to enhance knowledge mobilization through text messaging.  This might involve text message alerts, networking and distribution of short messages to subscribers, information requests, and a range of other possibilities.

The testbed is available at no cost to interested individuals or groups in Sri Lanka or involved in agriculture in Sri Lanka for carrying out short term demonstration or pilot projects.  We hope that this capability will create partnership opportunities for the project to begin to work more closely with agricultural communities of practice in Sri Lanka and beyond.

Anyone interested in trying out the system can contact me or my colleague Nuwan Waidyanatha.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Introduction: Day 1 in India

Today Naomi and I had the opportunity to visit the MS Swaminathan Foundation headquarters here in Chennai.  We met with most of the members on the team working on the "Alleviating Poverty and Malnutrition in Agrobiodiversity Hotspots" IDRC supported project, which is partnered with the Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.  Our time today was mostly spent with me presenting my proposed research (with Naomi's help, of course).  The following is a brief overview of my proposed project.

The project is titled: Understanding Social Practices of Knowledge Mobilization for Sustainable Food Production and Provisioning among Small-Scale Farmers and Landless in Kolli Hills, India.  We are interested in looking at how knowledge about certain sustainable food production practices is mobilized This will include understanding how farmers gain access to information, how communities are formed around specific agricultural practices, what the role of gender is in this context, and the potential for the use of information and communication technologies.

I hope that my research in India will be able to inform the "Partnership development to explore innovative uses of low cost communication technology for knowledge mobilization in agricultural communities of practice” project, by developing a methodology for understanding how people network and exchange knowledge, that will allow the team to carry out an in-depth, rich description of knowledge mobilization practice.  This then, can translate into the potential for the adoption and use of low-cost ICTs.  

I hope that this first week will help us to get an overall picture of what kinds of avenues are available for farmers to gain information. More soon! 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Communities of Practice and Low-cost ICTs (part 1)

Our project is framed around the interplay between community and technology.  Interplay is an important word because it refers to the idea of a reciprocal relationship between social practices and technological affordances.  In other words, the kinds of activities that people engage in when it comes to knowledge mobilization are enabled and constrained by the tools used for that purpose.

Even the simplest tool, such as paper and pencil and could be considered an "ICT" (information and communication technology).  A farmer placing a note on a community bulletin board is a form of knowledge mobilization "enhanced" by ICT.  But the affordances of that particular technique or tool will limit its usefulness.  Sure it's inexpensive and simple, but it also limited in its reach and ability to attract attention beyond the line of sight of that bulletin board.

Yet, another farmer comes along and reads the note, then texts his friend to relay the information.  A second tool is introduced, this one also low cost and simple to use, but with different affordances.  In this case, text messaging using a mobile phone allows for that message to reach a wider audience through the act of the farmer relaying it.  The farmer and the phone act, jointly, as an intermediary for that message.  It is a profoundly socio-technical act that would not be possible without ICT.

For me, the first necessary step when studying possibilities for enhancing KM through ICT is to understand in depth the social practices related to KM.  These social practices always and necessarily involve some form of ICT (language, paper, pencils, SMS, websites, etc.) but seeing them for what they are and how they might be enhanced is the task of the researcher.  Enhancement then means looking at the affordances of the ICTs and working with the community members to identify how these constrain KM practices on the one hand, but also what kind of possibilities are opened up by introducing low cost ICTs with different affordances.

Social practice drives the process of inquiry, recognizing that social practices will likely (and sometimes necessarily) evolve when new affordances are introduced.

Our social practices working group led by Naomi Krogman and Mary Beckie, with the assistance of graduate student Suraya Hudson, is playing a key role in developing and refining a methodology for studying social practices related to knowledge mobilization.  With this methodology we hope to be able to develop rich descriptions of KM practices that can then be used as the basis for exploring possibilities of enhancing these through the affordances presented by low cost ICTs such as mobile phones.