Across the Koraput and Wardha districts of India new vegetable gardens are springing up, tended by women on a mission. A determination to improve the diet of their children and friends is driving them to tend their own vegetables, adding nutritional greens to their daily meals.
This new wave of ‘grow your own’ has sprung from the use of open data, inspired by a research programme consortium called Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA). LANSA is funded by UKAid and linked to the open access policy of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) that aims to share data from most of its programmes worldwide, helping development activities everywhere.
R.V Bhavani, who works for LANSA says, “The gardens are managed by groups of ten to twelve women who share the produce. Surplus produce is given to neighbours, relatives or to the village school for inclusion in the midday meal. Household nutrition gardens have been promoted in all the villages.” As LANSA asserts on its website, “We are conducting innovative research to discover how agriculture and food-related policies, programmes and interventions can be better designed to improve nutrition.”
And the gardens are a prime example of how open data can help realise practical outcomes that make a genuine difference to the lives of women and children in rural India.
Poor nutrition for women has been a persistent problem in the region says Lawrence Haddad, senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute and associate with LANSA. To understand the problem, he has been investigating malnutrition levels among women in South Asia and been able to access information using open source data.
Tracing data back to the 1990s shows that many women in the region have been underweight. This condition has been, and often still is, higher than in many countries in Africa. Looking at previous research Haddad reports a pattern which suggests the key culprit has been women’s low status relative to men and their lack of ability to control decisions about resources, their own bodies, and their children.
“I was very interested in this issue because of my research on power relationships within the household, in nutrition, and in India. In the late 1990s people were beginning to put the Demographic and Health Surveys national data sets together, realising that the common features of these surveys allowed samples of tens of thousands of children to be constructed across countries.” says Haddad.
Access to those datasets enabled increased levels of research which has helped organisations like LANSA translate information into action. It is this use of open data that can counter the ongoing malnutrition rates in women and children in South Asia.
Much of the open data used by LANSA and similar organisations has been in the form of national nutritional surveys, employment records and demographic health reports. Together the data helps create strategies that improve healthy eating and specifically tackle causes of gender-based malnutrition. The empirical evidence provides an authoritative foundation for action, enabling nutritionists, government officials and activists to implement life-changing activities focused on producing results that increase the quality and range of food on offer to rural women.
Another example of LANSA’s approach to research which influences cultural behaviours while increasing nutrition levels for women, is seen in the organisation’s recent national seminar in India, entitled Strategies for Women and Child Survival. Using and combining health-related data has identified anaemia as one of the main factors linked to the high rate of mortality among women and children in India. At a recent event D.J. Nithya, a LANSA nutritionist, offered evidence on the connection between nutrition and anaemia in women and children.
His research demonstrated a link between iron and vitamin A intake and blood haemoglobin levels and anaemia prevalence.
But, by accessing open data sources, he was also able to point to other vital issues in some Indian regions. The data for these regions revealed that while there was sufficient iron intake in the diet there continued to be a high prevalence of anaemia. Nithya concluded that other factors had to be taken into account before planning a remedy to the problem. He pointed to lack of adequate sanitation and poor levels of hygiene.
Malaria was another factor effecting the high prevalence of anaemia. Even so, for most agricultural communities increased attention to nutrition was recommended to reduce anaemia. And as new measures are being put in place, such as enabling women to run community gardens, LANSA is undertaking accompanying study on the gardens initiative which can be input to the growing amount of open data on health issues in India.
Across the border in Pakistan, open data is also helping improve nutritional intake for women. Researchers have been asking the question: does women’s work in agriculture help or hinder nutrition in Pakistan? This question has assumed great significance owing to the steady feminisation of the agricultural labour force over the last decade, and the absence of nutritional improvement during the same period.
Researchers Mysbah Balagmwala, Hais Gazdar and Hussain Bux Mallah in their study on women’s agricultural work and nutrition in Pakistan address the limitations of relying entirely on open data. “While statistical data sources suggest that there might be an association between women’s work, and their own health as well as the nutrition status of their children, there is need for a more precise understanding of the linkages through which this relationship might operate.” Rightfully, their work returns to original field research.
But over the years, their findings will join the growing body of work available through open data which will more precisely and effectively inform methods to improve women’s nutrition. DFID sees this accumulation of knowledge as an essential resource in fighting poverty and hunger.
It is dedicated to sharing surveys, research and reports through its R4D website, which states: “R4D is a free access online database containing information about research programmes supported by DFID. R4D makes available the latest information about research funded by DFID, including details of current and past research in over 40,000 project and document records.”
To help sift through this mountain of knowledge facilities have been developed to make the datasets held within R4D accessible to other organisations and individuals. The aim is to enable as many as possible to reuse the knowledge funded by DFID and built up by experts around the world.
The hope is that that information can play a productive role in building and extending new humanitarian and development projects. The type of work conducted by LANSA, along with many other regional and countrybased expert groups, is contained within open data offered by DFID. And to ensure it can be viewed by all, from different countries and areas of expertise, DFID has invested in making information as accessible as possible.
As the website states: “Subject experts assign relevant keywords from controlled vocabularies such as AGROVOC, MeSH and the CAB Thesaurus. They also categorise and assign themes to each document. All of this data is available via R4D open data services.”
Back in the field LANSA is continuing the accumulation and practical use of open data sources. In its recent ‘Research to Policy’ consultation it brought together a varied group of agricultural-nutrition experts and activists to discuss research provided under its India programme.
Sangeetha Rajeesh and Christy Raja from LANSA illustrate how a research-based initiative is helping to improve the nutrition of rural children. The gathered experts heard about, “…the importance of including millets in the diet to improve nutrition. This came out strongly in discussion with the Director of the Tamil Nadu State Agriculture Department. She spoke of the need to meet the demand for pulses and wanted to understand what ‘shortfalls have been identified to address nutritional requirements’ and asked about cropping pattern changes required to meet protein issues for women and children since the State is experiencing a shortfall in the production of pulses”.
In this discussion LANSA shows how officials are not only asking questions about nutritional deficiencies, but also recommending actions and checking what research is available to help make decisions that can improve the lives of women and children.
Open data has not solved the problems of nutrition in South Asia, but has certainly played a pivotal role in educating decision-makers. It is the basis of many practical solutions that can be put in the hands of rural women– enabling and empowering them to improve the health of millions, village by village.