(Tetum) The ability to collect, analyse and disseminate accurate and reliable Timor-specific research data is the foundation from which Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries-Seeds of Life (MAF-SoL) operates its programs. The groundbreaking, grass-roots research conducted over the past 13 years has resulted in MAF-SoL’s development and MAF’s release of 12 more productive varieties of staple crops on which SoL phase 3 is building the National Seed System for Released Varieties (NSSRV). The system will deliver good quality planting materials (both seeds and cuttings) to Timorese farm families. These varieties are selected specifically for Timor-Leste’s topography, geography and socio-economic structure. Recently, MAF-SoL has increased its use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across all tiers of its projects, from on-farm trials to monitoring and evaluation.
ICTs at On-Farm Demonstration Trials (OFDTs):
Commencing in 2013, OFDTs have been utilising mobile technologies such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and Samsung Galaxy smart phones, and open source software, such as Open Data Kit, to directly enter the data they collect in the field. This allows for immediate data entry, reduced the risk of error and timely data upload to the internet once a connection has been made (usually upon return to the district office or research station). Once stored in the cloud, researchers can access and share their data to enable rapid analysis and comparison.
As each data collection point is recorded by GPS, a map can be quickly generated of OFDT locations. The map below shows the location of soil data logged at the end of Feb 2014.
Each OFDT researcher conducts a number of on-farm demonstration trials, each with a number of surveys. To date, 730 mini-surveys completed, logged and updated to the cloud, almost twice the 400 uploads achieved the previous month.
The smart phones also record information related to the date and location of the establishment of OFDT sites, soil characteristics, primary information about the collaborating farmer households’ circumstances, crop growth observations and harvest data. The phones also double as a camera, correlating images with the data obtained.
All research staff in Dili and the districts have been issued GPS devices that record GPS points (longitude, latitude, elevation) to capture the location of MAF-SoL activities.
Increased use of ICTs at weather stations:
MAF-SoL operate weather stations at various locations across Timor-Leste. These Hobo stations are cost effective being easy to use and maintain. Timorese MAF-SoL agriculture staff are now competent in installing, operating and maintaining these stations.
The Hobo weather stations measure rainfall, temperature, humidity, solar radiation and wind speed. The data is sampled every minute and logged every 10 minutes. MAF-SoL staff visit the locations approximately every 3 months to collect data and perform routine maintenance. The gathered data is then used for cropping systems analysis and made publicly available through the MAF-SoL website.
MAF-SoL has also invested in installing weather stations in remote sites such as Atauro Island, and Oecusse enclave that transmit weather data daily to the internet via satellite and telephone networks. The real-time upload ensures immediate access to the data and assists in early identification of sensor failure. The live weather is also made publicly available through the MAF-SoL website.
MAF-SoL Cropping Systems staff have developed a practical Microsoft Excel tool to collate and analyse the extensive volume of weather data being collected. It is set up to build daily weather data from sub-daily data and to prepare it for other applications such as the APSIM crop modelling software. A template of the file is available on request from Samuel Bacon, Cropping Systems Advisor (email@example.com), and can be readily adapted to most forms of raw weather data.
MAF-SoL is also pursuing an exciting strategy aimed at making Timor-Leste agricultural data, including climate and soil information, available both on and off line via Google Earth layers. The aim is a freely-accessible platform that can be utilised both in the field and the office to strengthen researcher and extensionist understanding of the areas in which they are working.
ICTs in Monitoring and evaluation:
New technologies provide researchers at MAF-SoL opportunities to be more productive, and accurate, while exploring alternative methods to conduct research.
Historically, social researchers took to the field with packs of printed questionnaires that were used to interview farmers on various aspects of their agriculture activities. While the benefits of grassroots and one-on-one data gathering were clear the method was often flawed by the opportunities for error; responses of the farmers were handwritten on paper, transported to an office or research station and then manually entered into a computer for analysis. With a large survey, electronic data entry can be prolonged, and there is an ongoing risk of inaccuracy when entering the data from the questionnaires into data management software.
Conducting e-surveys, surveys with small handheld electronic devices such as tablets or smartphones, have distinctive advantages compared to more traditional methods. Beginning in 2013 MAF-SoL trials indicated it may take some time for researchers to familiarise themselves with the new technology, but once confident, conducting interviews electronically is faster, easier and more accurate than traditional methods. Sections of the questionnaire that don’t apply to the respondent can be easily skipped, and it’s easier to ensure all applicable questions are answered and the answers are plausible.
With handheld devices researchers can utilise visual support (photos or drawings) to improve understanding and clarify questions related to the pictures.
While the 2013 SoL 3 Mid-term Survey was conducted in the traditional ‘pen and paper’ manner, tablets were used to take GPS coordinates of the locations where farmers were interviewed and to measure plots. Later in the year, e-surveys were administered to learn the results of large-scale distribution of cassava and sweet potato cuttings; to assess distribution to vulnerable households and to further capture information about savings and loans activities of members of Farmers Associations. With those initial surveys using tablets proving positive the majority of surveys in 2014 have been conducted in this manner.
ICTs and Training:
To ensure all staff have the skills to handle the new technologies, MAF-SoL has arranged several GPS trainings wherein staff record locations and accurately measure the area of farmers’ fields. The information is entered into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and Google Earth and can then be access by all research staff.
Edmundus Fahik, Mathematics Trainer, has also run several smart phone trainings, teaching various staff the capabilities of their new Samsung Galaxy devices.
Presently research staff, district seed officers and community seed coordinators have been provided with smart phones and training.
Anibal da Costa, MAF-SoL’s Dili-based Training Coordinator, uses SMS to confirm training dates with staff. “Our staff are most often out in the field, so SMS is the most reliable and appropriate form of communication”, he says “but as more and more staff are using smartphones, there’s a potential to explore other innovative applications in the near future”.