04 May 2010

Integrating agricultural information : Issues and challenges

At the IAALD 2010 Congress, Ajit Maru from GFAR chaired the discussions around the theme of Integrated Information Systems. On the iNARS discussion list and IAALD blog, he shares some thoughts after the event:

'Integration' is a very loaded word. We have to consider what we mean by 'integration' and 'integrated information systems' around agriculture very carefully.

At the 'hard' ware level, we already have very integrated systems in computing and communicating devices but for the agricultural information specialist it could also mean integrating sensors, for example on moisture or solar radiation, with agricultural and farm databases for automated data collection and collation.

At the software level, it could mean integrating tools and applications, as was amply demonstrated by examples presented at the Congress. At the Congress we did hear about many ICTs, especially mobile, wireless and cellular, that hold new promises. However, we did not hear too much about how we integrate across media or offer useable information through mixed media, for example through internet radio using 2/3G devices which will allow us on demand audio that could provide guides to step wise process for extension workers or farmers. Or even how, we can connect postcards with farming queries to radio stations that are connected to the Internet to find answers and can broadcast them over radio.

We all know that the web helps integrate 'information' or more specifically 'data' sets of different formats. However, to me, integration of agricultural information goes beyond bringing information from different sources together. To me this integration should also contribute in some ways to make the information more available, accessible, applicable, especially to other applications, affordable, useable and relevant. Integration is about adding more value and 'integrated information systems' about making information more useable for a targeted group of users who may be diverse even across countries and cultures but have common needs.

There are many challenges when we use the above understanding of 'integration' as related to agricultural information. To me, a major issue is how we integrate work processes in agricultural research and innovation systems so that they are integrated with information and communication management in these systems at an organizational level.

A further challenge in the same lines is of integrating information and communication flows across organizations, many who may not belong to the same research and innovation system. We need to change many structures that define information flows in these organizations, so other collaborations and partnerships that are essential for integrating information systems emerge more rapidly and with vigour.

For example, we will need to change reward systems that equally recognize publishing papers in scientific journals with producing a radio, video, a blog or contributing to a database. We need to change how we institutionally recognize belonging to social networks and our contributions to them as they lead to 'learning'. We need to look at issues of accountability and hierarchy in how information is today generated and communicated in agricultural organizations. We need Institutional change where rules, regulations and norms enable rather than obstruct information flows, coherence and what follows both, integration.

Another major issue that we need to consider is that of ownership or in more straight to the point way, intellectual property rights (IPR) issues, when we consider integration of agricultural information. This becomes very complex when we consider our experiences around the IPR issues in agricultural technologies and products such as seeds.

To me the seed was something more tangible and thus more easily understood when IPR was considered but a genomics database with associated data of the environment in which the gene expresses itself can be very complex in this respect. We must remember that the environment data may be generated, collected or collated by someone who may not have the wherewithal to analyse and interpret genomics data and can easily loose out to those who have these capacities.

And maybe, this is the cause already now being echoed in reluctance to share information globally. But then how do we solve, without tackling this issue head on, global challenges such as of adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, managing trans-boundary disease or even trade in agricultural commodities?

Similarly, we have the issue of sustainability and security of integrated information systems. If they are of use to agricultural communities across geographic, economic, political and social boundaries, the core issue emerges, who pays for them both for generating the systems and maintaining them. We need a more global understanding of this issue. And, as someone at the Congress pointed out, what happened if a constituent of an integrated system turns itself off or moves out of the collaboration. How secure will such an information system be? We have seen many such initiatives die and its contents, developed with huge costs, lost.

We also need to consider the issue of capacities, building and nurturing them. Even within the agricultural information specialists community, the capacities to develop and manage these systems are inadequate. We need to develop capacities in many more actors not only in those who specialize information management but all in agricultural communities.

I hope we solve these issues as we progress in future in information and communications management related to agriculture.

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