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Posted by on Apr 6, 2011

SMS, higher education, data distribution, and developing nations

This is in keeping with the #MobiMOOC conversations circulating at impressive rates as per the discussions for the course, but I was thinking a bit about a particular thread of identifying user needs specifically for African mobile users and networks of interest; this led me (being a completely self-absorbed individual!) to my own community, the plant science one. I was thinking that developing a sturdy community of both knowledge construction and application wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. The plant science world, at least the taxonomic bit responsible for identifying and classifying all the world’s plant biodiversity as per the stipulations of  the Conventions on Biological Diversity (CBD), generally sits within higher education or the botanical garden non-profit/ museum/ research institute space. These dedicated folk run around the world and get in the field and identify as many of the plants they can, but essentially we are dealing with a bottleneck in terms of manpower, a limited number of people (and available funding) to perform  a monumental task (exponentially larger than the group itself). To some degree, mobile can help here, but only if it can bridge the divide between the knowledge being constructed (ideally) in universities and the application of that knowledge in the regions themselves. Plant science and its related applications of agriculture and horticulture offers  a fairly linear example here, one that mobile can help with significantly. So working with the limitations of mobile users in Africa (mostly SMS phones, some w/camera; vast majority not smartphones), technological affordance,  and the natural needs of the population (and their enthusiasm for these types of solutions), the pieces are there for an aggregated solution, one that could serve to accelerate the classification (and preservation) of the biodiversity of particular regions.

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To link plant science departments at universities with the needs of local applications (agriculture, etc.), one could use Frontline SMS (or its equivalent), make the storage hub for that data the university itself, and network farmers, professors, and even amateur gardeners alike in the discussion. Give them access, stimulate participation, and watch the network self-regulate and self-empower. The needs of both sides are clearly defined.

  • Plant scientists: I don’t have enough time or resources to travel the scope of my country looking for plant species to identify, classify, and preserve. I need applied examples of agricultural research I want to perform.  I need more people.
  • Farmers: I want to know what to plant in this soil. How to produce the most yield. Which market to sell my produce for the highest return. How to irrigate efficiently. Etc.

Incentives for participation

  • Scientists: more eyes=more impact=more recognition
  • Farmers, gardeners=more information=more economic benefits + my name on a plant (if a new identification).

So, the university (ie, a few computers) could act as the accumulated memory of these conversations (via Frontline) and this memory could be used at national levels, plotted to maps (via Ushahidi), used in evaluation and impact of existing efforts, distributed in turn to farmers at local levels. A nice information flow throughout society. It also represents an interesting reaffirmation of universities in Africa (basically during this thread, I am thinking of Ghana, Senegal, etc.. places where there is a relatively strong network of universities outside the capitals). They reaffirm their role as knowledge memory/storehouse, develop a renewed vigor in terms of measurable impact, and the data alone offers a great opportunity for further scholarship. And this all has me thinking on how this could be applied to non-scientific disciplines as well (Literature departments towards literacy/artistic efforts, History towards Cultural Heritage preservation, etc.). More to come, I am sure!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgtGbx-GKqo]

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12 Comments

  1. Michael, this is brilliant. The ability to organize and map on a dispersed scale and without smartphones is great. I see the enormous potential for agricultural development, diversity preservation, and also how the pairing of mapping and sms could be urban tools as well. For the past few years I’ve wanted to develop an urban biodiversity project for Los Angeles. Because of the climate, soil, and social appeal in the early and mid-20th century, and because of the low-scale development — the sprawl — individual homeowners planted an astonishing range of trees and shrubs from around the globe. Older neighborhoods have rare and/or just beautiful specimens planted in yards and along the street. I only travel LA on a bicycle so I see these troves of urban treasures — and I grew up there and now see its role as an arrival city and the population densification as resources to connect with the botanical free-for-all that is the city landscape and bio-heritage. Your framework works wonderfully for applications such as this and if I can get some interest going of a few friends there I may attempt some beta testing with the addition of GPS — but most likely that will be in the fall after the dissertation. I’m still assembling the program for mobile design e-learning and while much of it requires apps and a smartphone, I’ve worried that I need a low tech and inexpensive solution for teaching m-design and this may be the direction to think in. Lots of potential. Many thanks, Dennis

  2. Dennis, just further evidence that I think we need to work on a collaborative project someday together. The urban angle is not one I had considered, but that makes perfect sense in keeping with disaggregated, spontaneous demonstrations of botanical biodiversity. Using the neighborhood/urban center as context. This is actually where L.A. is a good test case as the biodiversity would presumably mirror the cultural/ethnic diversity as well. All groups planting what has cultural/social/economic appeal in their cultural context. The human diversity lends itself to the plant biodiversity. L.A. as an arrival city is a fantastic metaphor and one I want to think about a bit more. We have seen (via http://plants.jstor.org/) some examples of botanical mapping of species/specimens over regions and it tends to be firmly entrenched on an economic model. Basically, real biodiversity in areas with human contact tend to follow economic routes (which presumably also mirrors the immigration routes/ports of entry/gateway urban centers as well). I suspect with more mapping we will see more evidence of this and to be able to do that via mobile devices is astounding. More importantly, to capture, preserve, and even accelerate the free for all of botanical biodiversity would be a fantastic development. Totally plausible in my opinion. Let me know if you get a beta test up and running or if I can pitch in on any part of the process. I have a few in mind myself for colleagues in Africa so I am curious to give it a go and see what works and what doesn’t. For L.A. I could see this work quite well. Also, consider listening in or participating in the #MobiMOOC. Open Course on mobile learning if you are interested. http://mobimooc.wikispaces.com/a+MobiMOOC+hello%21. Take care, Dennis!

  3. I know of photographers who shoot pictures of plants and botanists that determine these flowers from these pictures. (George Siemens of cck11 told this) You project is very great. I like to follow your project.Jaap

  4. Book-marked, I really like your blog! 🙂

  5. Michael, good idea. Let’s do something! Be great to work with LA since it’s our back-yard and has diversity and arrival problems just like the rest of the world even when they are often masked in first world prosperity statistics. If one considers the idea of urban reforestation, not merely greening, then the mapping also becomes a strategic resource for city planning — totally wild implications from community parks and micro-local plant propagation to carbon sequestering, to freeway recolonization, etc., etc. Too exciting. I probably won’t be back in LA until mid-summer; first Barcelona and Edinburgh in June. I’ll talk the project with friends and see if there is a way to set a pilot going without too much infrastructure. I’m scheduled to do a bamboo workshop in Barcelona and the project is a light-weight bamboo bridge for Nepal. I’m thinking how to do some modular structures that can be fabricated by villagers, meet their needs and integrate an aesthetic they can support and get behind. And probably the only way to ultimately do that is to do the class in the village — that’s the next step I think. Best, D

  6. Hello there Jaap!We are trying to work out a way on the project to crowdsource some of the identification parts without diminishing the rigid science parts. I think Ushahidi might help us a lot in this regard, but I need to investigate a bit more. Thanks for the encouragement!

  7. […] idea from Dennis Dollens, a fellow student at the University of Edinburgh and noted architect. See the comments here for his ideas. Great […]

  8. Hi Dennis,Michael mentioned to me over at mobiMooc that you are interested in using Ushahidi in L.A. I’ve set up a crowdmap for my MobiMOOC project, you’re welcome to try it out by texting a message to +1 909 333 6662 and mention a location. It’s being mapped at http://mobimooc.crowdmap.comI live in Los Angeles in case you ever want to meet up here, or collaborate on a project. Ciao, Sean

  9. Hi Michael & Japp,Have you seen Project Noah? http://www.projectnoah.org/ They seem to be doing something along these lines.Phil

  10. Thanks for that Phil (and Jaap)! Project Noah is something we are looking at either to use outright or perhaps tinker a bit with the model to see if it could be more specific to our work, but it is a great example of harnessing the power of citizen science. I think everyone is coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t enough botanists to identify all the world’s plants, so this type of activity with citizen scientists offers incredible opportunity both for science and for lifelong learning about science. Great stuff.

  11. Fascinated by this idea of arrival cities, Dennis. Something I hadn’t considered before as a factor impacting design and natural flow. The impact on the related facets of carbon sequestering, community park development, etc. is enormous and incredibly exciting to think about. I am (no surprise here) very interested in the learning potential of all of this, how this transmitted data throughout the city can inform/educate the individual. Staggering potential here. Where in Nepal are you were working? We have a partner in Kathmandu we work quite closely with and they are doing some good work towards biodiversity preservation as well as using solar powered computers, etc. Bamboo workshop sounds absolutely fascinating; incredible material.

  12. It will be difficult to find educated persons about this matter, but you sound like you no doubt know what you are preaching about! Appreciate it

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