Handing power to poor rural communities in Asia and Africa is something many agencies and charities are striving to achieve. However, intermittent electricity supplies and unreliable connections to digital communications mean the opportunities offered by open data are still out of reach for many smallholders and rural dwellers.
For one organisation it is challenges like these that inspired a campaign to link smallscale farmers to the potential available from access to agricultural open data sources. Thanks to its work an Indian newspaper recently declared, “Women who have never used a mobile phone are now making video films!” Prahhat Khabar, the Hindi News service, might have been shocked, but for the team at Digital Green it is just another example of the way digital technology and open source data help empower rural people.
Rikin Gandhi, Digital Green’s CEO, says “Open data help lay the foundation of Digital Green’s participatory video approach as we leveraged the national sample survey data to study the effectiveness of peer-to-peer knowledge sharing over the classic training and visit model, and use ICT mediums to train farmers on improved agricultural practices.”
The Prabhat Khabar report describes the quiet digital revolution taking place in Bihar and highlighted the major role women played in creating farm-based information videos. Thanks to Digital Green, the women, helped by local experts, took agricultural information from open data sources and added it to their video about crop production. This was then uploaded to the Digital Green website to be seen by farmers across the region. Using mini projector systems the films have been shown to audiences in thousands of villages. It is a blend of new digital technology linked to the draw of traditional film-making – all made by rural people for rural people. And it delivers a strong, relevant and changemaking formula.
Gandhi puts this approach into context, “As of April 2016, Digital Green has reached more than one million farmers over 12,000 villages in nine states in India, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan. We have helped facilitate the production and dissemination of more than 4,000 localised videos in 28 languages, which are available on our on-line video library on a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license. We captured data for every individual at every point they interact with our approach, be it screening attendance or adoption of a new agricultural practice, through an open source data management system, and share relevant data right down to the village level on our publically available analytics dashboards.”
Explaining its unique service the Digital Green website states, “Our data management software, called Connect Online - Connect Offline (COCO), and Analytics dashboard suite are customized to operate in low-resource settings. They are used to collect and analyse near real-time data on dissemination, adoption, and community interest.”
Taking advantage of open data, the COCO database, through the Analytics suite of dashboards, provides information on field operations, performance targets and other metrics relevant to the daily needs of rural life. COCO requires no additional software installation or maintenance. With affordable smartphones and tablet devices becoming increasingly common, the latest version of COCO has been developed to function on phones, tablets, laptops and desktops.
Digital Green has a number of services to help farming communities in Africa and Asia. Farmerbook, for example, is an open-access platform which displays detailed timelinebased activities for each participating farmer, along with their villages, plotted on Google Maps. The application illustrates the practices that individual farmers adopt on their fields, as well as stimulating healthy competition among participants, village leaders and communities through the sharing of performance data and community feedback. It is not only limited to facts and figures.
On its website Digital Green describes a new service for rural visitors. “To see how our core work in the field can connect with external audiences who could learn and engage in issues related to rural development, we have created a social game, Wonder Village, which is hosted on Facebook.”
Through Wonder Village, players set up a simulated village economy and have opportunities to relate with actual farmers. Players are placed in a resource-constrained setting and pursue quests, such as setting up small maize farms and supplying raw materials to farmers’ markets. The game follows a “freemium” model, which allows users to play for free and then purchase virtual currency to advance more quickly.
“Wonder Village has the potential to be an effective awareness-building and fundraising tool for the development sector,” states Digital Green. Gandhi is convinced that open data is at the heart of Digital Green’s work, “Our strong belief in open data has driven the creation of publicly available analytic dashboards and the video library, benefitting social organisations and rural communities worldwide.”
Digital Green has attracted support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and received funding from ministries and international development agencies. It continues to build engagement with rural communities in the production of participatory and local videos. Open data has helped apply important, scientific and researched agricultural innovations, but delivered through the voice of local people - videos of the community, by the community and for the community.