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.
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!