Over the last month or two the Agricompas science team have been making visits to rice fields in the Tolima region in Colombia. Travelling the five hours from Bogotá, the journey is a reminder of just how big this beautiful country is.
The two scientists are using these trips to better monitor, understand, and support the collection of accurate crop data. Inspections of soil and water took place, as well as looking at our cutting edge technology that collects weather data as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
These trips are in close collaboration with another member of the project consortium, Fedearroz. Their technicians were on hand to demonstrate data collection techniques and to reflect on best practices and quality control measures.
Dr Gil and Dr Bojacá inspected the rice crop, which is just starting to germinate. This is the fifth cycle of rice crop data that the EcoProMIS project is collecting from both the Tolima and Casanare districts.
The rice seed in Tolima is just starting to germinate
In addition to these five cycles of data, we have access to a much larger historical database of rice farming, and our team is combining this information in order to create and strengthen our crop model. This model is thus becoming more reliable (‘robust’) as we add more data, including phenological, weather, and satellite imagery.
As we prepare to enter the fifth year of the project, it is exciting to see how a huge amount of collected data has now been processed through our science and IT work into useful practical outputs that will directly benefit farmers.
Via mobile apps, these growers are able to access yield calculators and other tools to help them maximise their farm output and move towards our shared goal of sustainable optimisation.
Our science team will continue to make these regular visits as the project grows from strength to strength and we look towards rolling out this unique service to rice growers in Colombia and beyond.
By Richard Strange, Head of Engineering at Agricompas
As individuals we all grow in wisdom and capability when we take time to reflect on our actions and find lessons to apply to tomorrow’s challenges. We look at our achievements and the memories that are anchored around them. We use them to guide us in becoming better in both our professional and personal lives. Modern business is very much the same. In the modern world, when a business moves, the byproduct of their actions is data.
Agricultural Data Gap
Whether it is a financial officer’s log of transactions, the record of work hours from an employee’s timesheet, or the number of clicks a website receives each day. It is rare to find a part of a business that isn’t measured or collected, either directly or by proxy through other measures. Yet in agriculture, little information is available around many crucial farming practices that often mean the difference between a bumper crop or financial devastation for families and communities.
It is not enough to say that you have an employee, or a website, or an invoice. The crucial questions are if the employee is doing their work, if the website is drawing attention, if the invoice is correct. Yet farmers are not able to answer critical questions about their own farms. They have sown their seeds, yet cannot say how many are germinating. They apply fertiliser, yet cannot tell if it is cost-effective. By leaving agriculture behind in this wave of data-driven business, the world is abandoning millions of farmers in data poverty, and powerless to compete against their wealthier first-world counterparts.
EcoProMIS Collects Quality Data
In leading the EcoProMIS project, the aim of Agricompas is to make a difference by empowering farmers with the knowledge they need, from sensor to survey to satellite to weather to drone data. But with each additional source of data, the difficulty of pulling them together increases exponentially. I’m the Head of Engineering at Agricompas, and I’m responsible for all the data EcoProMIS gathers. My job is to work out how we pull all this information together, understand it and then provide the information to those that need it.
There are two approaches to tackling a challenge like ours. Firstly, you can manually handle the data, with a team of analysts pushing round files via email, shared folders and collaborative spreadsheets. This does come with the advantage of immediate productivity and visibility. But there’s little certainty over the quality and completeness of data, and no way to be sure what information is where. The second option is to invest time and effort into a fully-fledged platform for data. It must allow the scientists we work with and the farmers that we support to put in and take out the information they need effortlessly.
Advanced Data Platform Prevents Errors
Only recently, the failure of the first, manual approach was highlighted by the loss of the records of 16,000 positive COVID-19 cases by the UK government. Was it a catastrophic server failure? the act of a malicious hacker? The truth was far more mundane. An analyst had opened the spreadsheet holding the list of COVID-19 cases in an old version of Excel, slicing 16,000 rows of data off without ever realising their mistake. Suppose this approach cannot work reliably in the hands of a team as well-staffed as the Public Health England team. How can we trust our own information in a similar system? We owe our growers and our own team better than that.
Over the last six months, the EcoProMIS team has been carefully creating a central platform that can look after farmer data responsibly and safely. A system of databases, redundant servers and security measures means that data doesn’t get forgotten, doesn’t get destroyed and doesn’t get leaked. Over the coming months, we are combining our suite of analytics, models and AI with new apps.
These apps will allow farmers to provide and see their data about their farms and help them make the right agricultural decisions. We already have the first app in early tests, with a knowledge presentation app in the works for release by the new year.
As we evolve our platform and grower apps through close feedback with early users, we will be able to put more power back into the hands of growers, irrespective of their literacy or agricultural experience.
Agricompas and the EcoProMIS project exist to level the playing field and make agriculture fairer for farmers in the most challenging economic, environmental and social settings. I am incredibly proud of what our technical team has achieved to make that happen.
A few years ago, a man became famous when someone shared a video of him dancing at a public concert. His spontaneous and unusual exhibition although original was not the only element to become popular on the web.
Analysis of this video provides some insights on how new technologies are adopted and is instructive for how we at EcoProMIS are working with farmers to develop our platform.
The Dance Grows
What at first seems to be a solo dance, a moment later prompted the participation of a second member. The second dancer’s role was not limited to emulating the pioneering dancer. On the contrary, we can see how number two receives instructions on how to perform the dance, while also providing feedback to the pioneer.
Further evidence of the new arrival’s genuine interest is how he invites others to join this spontaneous duo. Like the second, the third dancer follows the movements of the first dancer, while improvising according to the music and rhythm.
What began with an eccentric loner, in a moment becomes a choreography performed by three dancers. We see how the attention generated in the audience, which was initially low, begins to grow.
Soon, the group increases in size again, this time not just by one more dancer, but about five more, and in the blink of an eye, the group reaches at least a dozen. This sudden growth of the group of dancers triggers the arrival of new members and in less than a couple of minutes it grows even further.
Dance as Metaphor
This video, more than simply being an inspiring dance at a music festival, has been considered as an interesting reference about how a forerunner or pioneer (a particular product or technology) can trigger a crowd action.
Like dancer number two and three, we see that there are minority groups with a greater willing to test and use new products, such as EcoProMIS. These enthusiasts are ‘early adopters’. In addition to taking the risk of testing this new product, they also provide feedback on early stage development.
The evaluation of the user experience includes both the users’ perceptions as well as their practice patterns. The feedback process therefore goes beyond simply asking for ‘musical preferences’ to actively inviting users to join the ‘dance’.
The image above is useful to take the dance metaphor further. It adds the complexity that between the Early Market and the Mainstream Market, there is an open space, called ‘The Chasm’. This is the gap that needs to be traversed before a new product reaches large scale collective adoption.
We saw in the video that as the first three guys are dancing there is a gap before additional members join the group. Once the dancing group crossed the chasm, the new members (the ‘pragmatists’ and ‘conservatives’) arrived en masse.
If a small initial group is willing to dance, to test the product and to provide feedback, it suggests that the chasm will be crossed and the product can work with other consumers, becoming part of the mainstream market.
Dancing with EcoProMIS
As has been mentioned before on this blog, the EcoProMIS project is working on cutting-edge technology with crop models, an advanced digital platform and data collection with satellites and drones. Like the first dancer in the video, our work is pioneering, bold and at times eccentric!
It is essential for our project to invite others into a ‘dance’. That is why, in parallel to our product development, EcoProMIS is prioritising activities to test our services.
What this means is that throughout the five year project we are inviting Colombian farmers to participate via surveys and meetings. For example, in the coming months we are planning multiple workshops, where each farmer can access the early versions of our mobile apps and knowledge services. These ‘early adopters’, like dancer two and three, will take that initial risk of joining in, while also providing critical early feedback.
This ‘dance’ of feedback and testing will ensure we can better tailor the EcoProMIS platform, apps, and knowledge services. By doing this, we are able to identify the best options and to contribute to our larger goal of improving sustainability and productivity with Colombian oil palm and rice growers.
Often in the realm of research for development there is a tendency to focus on results. Indeed, this is the focus of results-based management (RBM), arguably the leading management methodology for international development. In an effort to uphold accountability and transparency (especially in the face of fiscal austerity), RBM defines clear results and products and demonstrates how interventions achieve those results.
But results are just the beginning. Results tell us what products and services the project provided. In order to tell the full story, we also need consider how these results generate and sustain impact. Impact on the other hand explains the changes in behavior we see as a result of those products and services, and how they contribute to holistic improvements for individuals, communities and landscapes.
Why measure impact?
Simply put: we want to tell the full story.
It’s one thing to report on the number of farmers that participated in EcoProMIS trainings – a result. When we measure or forecast impact, we explain how those farmers used those trainings to improve their productivity and livelihoods. We learn about how knowledge services shared on mobile applications help to improve on-farm management decisions. We can estimate how financial savings amongst farmers help improve gender equity, household nutrition, and education outcome.
And that’s where I come in. I’m Elizabeth Sweitzer, the Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist for EcoProMIS. Known by most as an “M&E Specialist”, my work revolves around assessing performance. I am based at CIAT in Cali, Colombia. I help EcoProMIS measure the progress of interventions, the efficacy of knowledge services we provide to farmers, and more to help tangibly understand results and impact.
My work also helps us understand the nature of results, for example were they positive or negative? Intended or unintended? What was learned in the process, what will we change moving forward? In doing so, I help to understand, forecast or even measure the impact of the project.
How do we measure impact?
During the project, we keep robust monitoring systems verified by a ‘logframe’ (logical framework) to test the attainment of our results. Process evaluations keep track of how we are doing, and provide opportunity to pivot course where needed. Learning questions are defined and keep us on our feet, helping us reflect. We also plan to be able to tell the “happily ever after”, by developing plans to measure the sustained impact of our interventions, how people change over time and what practices they truly adopt and make habit of.
EcoProMIS team conducting interviews with growers
Measuring impact with EcoProMIS
Working alongside a team of researchers, implementers, managers, extension agents and more, we work to find dynamic tools and mechanisms to measure this impact for a number of different stakeholders. As EcoProMIS is made up of a dynamic team of specialists with backgrounds in socio-economic, environmental, business, and management backgrounds, we possess dynamic ways of measuring impact.
Our metrics come from a host of different qualitative and quantitative studies, and are promoted by an idea that iterative monitoring and evaluation is essential throughout the project lifecycle and even after. We look forward to measuring lasting impact and helping farmers develop sustainable, profitable, and productive lifestyles.
At EcoProMIS, we are well aware that our project is both exciting as well as full of demands, requiring careful planning and communication. In my last blog article I explored how we are managing the complexities of a five-year international agri-tech project.
I mentioned in that previous article that to help manage complexity, we have implementing a new cloud-based project management system. Today I share a bit more about that process and how we have introduced ‘Gantt’ to clarify roles and responsibilities, manage expectations, and design a robust and logical workflow.
Cloud to the Rescue
The EcoProMIS team is spread over seven organisations, based in multiple sites in both the UK and Colombia. There is a six hour time difference. Because of these logistical realities, we have chosen to work with cloud-based digital communication and project management.
So, like most of us during this time of global working-from-home, we have been extensively using digital communication tools. How grateful we are that these tools are widely available! It would have been a very different picture just a few years ago.
In practice, this means that for daily communication we use a mobile chat app, the usual email correspondence, and we are slowly getting used to Microsoft Teams (having previously used Slack for years, this is a bit of an adjustment).
In addition to these daily conversations and regular team meetings, there is still the need for an advanced system of project management. For a project of our size, this is a gi-GANTT-ic need. So over the past weeks and months, I have been setting up a Gantt chart system for our EcoProMIS project management.
For those who are unfamiliar, a Gantt chart is a way of seeing a project’s lifespan in a single image. It shows all of the tasks in chronological order. Further details can be added, such as who is responsible for each task, and which tasks are dependent on others.
Most projects have a timescale of 3-6 weeks. EcoProMIS however, is a five year initiative, so the scale and detail required in our Gantt is significant. I have certainly enjoyed the challenge of creating it.
Open Source Trial
In order to choose the most appropriate and affordable Gantt software, I tested six different products. Most have the same features and similar pricing, so it was difficult to navigate the options.
Initially I settled on Open Project, an open-source product that can be self-hosted. Having access to our own servers and our own world-class IT team meant this seemed like an easy option, and the open-source values resonate with our vision to make positive change in the world.
Unfortunately, the maintenance for this self-hosted option was excessive and beyond the availability that our team had. I made the reluctant decision to start again and transfer to a paid system hosted in the cloud.
Remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic means we are working from home.
Leaving Open Project behind, I settled on a dedicated and affordable product called TeamGantt. It is a responsive and clean-looking Gantt chart, with all the features that we required. In early June I rebuilt the entire project plan from scratch on this new system. This was frustrating but ultimately served to refine the end result, which is now working well.
The EcoProMIS Gantt structure is based on quarterly tasks and milestones. This is because each quarter we deliver tangible outputs and report on these to our funder, the UKSA.
A Dynamic Map
It is an important point to state that the Gantt chart is not a static document that once created is filed away somewhere. Part of the purpose of the chart is that it is alive, a tool or dare I say ‘friend’ of the project. It is used as a dynamic and responsive communication and management resource.
In practice, this looks like using the Gantt chart in a screen-share during our meetings, to communicate expectations around each others’ roles, and to plan timelines and scheduling.
A Gantt chart is also a reference point for everyone in the project to use. At any stage and any time zone, our team can login in to the website and see their own tasks, their colleagues’ tasks, and how the entire five year project fits together.
Likewise, it can serve new arrivals to our team. For example, recently I met with Rodrigo Gil, our new Crop Modeller, to look at the Gantt and show where the project has come from over the past three years. This forms an essential part of new colleague induction.
Effective Project Delivery and Culture Change
All of this work and technicality is ultimately to aid the smooth delivery of a complex multi-faceted project. Our new cloud-based Gantt chart is a great asset to the team, and I believe will improve our ability to reach the demanding goals and cutting-edge targets of EcoProMIS.
The colourful and clean digital interface is appealing and immediately gets attention. The details of the task interdependencies and scheduling of roles and timeframes, means that all partners are better equipped and more accountable in their work.
I also note that by introducing an effective Gantt chart, it can bring an organisational culture-change. Using an accessible Gantt chart contributes to a change in mindset from loose project delivery and inefficiency; to a much tighter project, with greater cost and time efficiencies and hopefully a happier, more connected workforce, better able to deliver our mission to support the Colombian rice and oil palm growers.
It was six weeks ago that I joined Agricompas, becoming the EcoProMIS Project Manager. It was also exactly six weeks ago when the COVID-19 lockdown began here in the UK.
For all of us, these are unfamiliar times and starting this role has been a surreal experience. While I have engaged immediately and enthusiastically, social distancing has meant that I have not been able to meet any colleagues, let alone collect my new laptop! Instead, the last six weeks have been a constant roll of virtual meetings, Skype calls, and digital file sharing.
An Exciting and Demanding Project in Colombia
The Ecological Production Management Information System, or EcoProMIS, is an exciting and complex project, bringing with it great opportunities as well as unique challenges. Spanning two continents, time zones and languages, and working in remote rural locations, our work is full of management and logistical challenges. Add to this our use of cutting-edge technology, collecting vast amounts of satellite and UAV (drone) data, crop modelling, and IT architecture, EcoProMIS is a demanding initiative.
Sam Adams joins EcoProMIS from ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute
We work in a diverse consortium, which is a major strength of the project and also requires ongoing and clear communication and project management. The consortium includes the national federations of rice (Fedearroz) and palm oil (Cenipalma) in Colombia and CIAT, a scientific centre. Pixalytics work with the satellite EO (earth observation) data and IWCO with IT. Solidaridad provide socio-economic expertise, while Agricompas provides management and leadership.
The context of lockdown has added to the complexity of our work at EcoProMIS. The corona pandemic has been a huge shakeup for our whole planet and I know that we are all facing increased complexity in both our personal and professional spheres.
For a Project Manager, I believe that one of the key functions is to help bring structure and clarity to complexity. That has certainly been a big part of my work over the last six weeks. To help deliver this clarity, while ensuring we meet our milestones on time and to budget, I have prioritised four tasks that will benefit the optimisation of our project:
Information Gathering and Project Management
My first task has been information gathering. The time difference between the UK and Colombia means that the mornings are frequently used for research and learning. Each afternoon, as my colleagues in Colombia start work, I look forward to regular phone calls to build connection and hear each other’s priorities, needs and challenges.
Secondly, the complexity of our project and its layers of work packages, milestones and tasks, are benefiting from a new and improved project management system. Based on the cloud, this is being shared with our entire team so that there is clarity over each other’s tasks, responsibilities and schedules.
Increased Internal and External Communication
The third task to help manage complexity has been to introduce a new system of internal communication and reporting, ensuring it is regular and sustainable. I am pleased to say we have a new and clear reporting schedule that mitigates the challenges of complexity through maximising transparency.
This updated communication schedule will both connect us professionally and connect us personally, as we create space for listening and for cultural exchange. Another way I am doing this is by using more Spanish in our meetings (¡Estoy haciendo lo mejor que puedo!).
Finally, we are engaging in more external communication. A new communications plan is being developed and this blog has been kick-started with a regular schedule of stimulating content to look forward to. Likewise, our social media channels have been revamped to further aid our storytelling. You can follow the EcoProMIS Twitter account here. By the end of the year we aim to launch a movie telling the EcoProMIS story.
A Time of Hope
Coronavirus has certainly added to the complexity of all of our lives. At the same time, it presents a forced slowing down and with this, an opportunity to take a breath, to catch up with backlogged tasks, and to reorganise and improve systems.
I feel that I have joined the EcoProMIS team at a golden time, not at a time of hopelessness, but one of reflection and hope. In this period of lockdown, it is a gift for us to bring new systems of management and storytelling, and by doing so navigate our way through complexity so that on the other side, we are stronger.