WeFarm: a knowledge sharing platform for the internetless
One of the projects which we’re currently working on at Manifesto has got us very excited. WeFarm is a project from the charity Cafédirect Producers Foundation (CPF) which works with tea, coffee and cocoa farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
WeFarm was set up in 2009 to provide a communications platform that would allow farmers who were separated by physical distance and language to share vital knowledge without needing to use the internet (which has very low penetration in Africa and rural parts of South America and Asia). Kind of an internet without the internet, then.
How was this to be done? How do you replicate the knowledge sharing capabilities of the information superhighway without the use of PCs, tablets or smartphones?
SMS We Can
While landlines and internet connections are still rare in rural parts of the developing world, mobile phone penetration is incredibly high – as high as 58% in 2009 and as much as 89% today according to the ITU (the UN agency which gathers global statistics on ICT). So most farmers have the capability of communicating information point to point via SMS.
The challenge was to create a platform that allowed knowledge sharing between farmers via SMS which spanned continents and transcended language barriers.
Now what a farmer on the ground wants from such a service is the answer to a particular question that concerns her e.g. How do I control coffee rust disease? Asking such a question via SMS is straightforward enough. The person who is likely to be able to answer such a question is a another farmer, who can also provide the answer as an SMS easily enough.
But the farmer answering the question might be in another country and speaking another language – how to connect them together?
Fortunately, though we’re restricted to SMS for the two end points of the conversation, in between we can create a platform that manages the exchange of knowledge. We can harness internet technology to link questions with appropriate answers and get both translated into several languages.
The WeFarm prototype was designed and tested between 2010 and 2012.
It connected 66 farmers speaking 3 languages, in Kenya, Tanzania and Peru, and utilised an ingenious method of using volunteer translators as intermediaries between question askers and answerers.
Human translators are essential for a workable service since farmers will often use colloquial terms and phrasing that an algorithmic translator would misinterpret. The reward for the volunteer translators, who can be located anywhere in the world, is that they get to improve their language skills and see the immediate benefits of the help they’re providing.
Questions and answers were not discarded after a single use but stored in a pool with indicators of their usefulness.
Those with a regular internet connection could browse through all previous questions and answers via a web based platform – the same platform used by the translators (who also have the option of using a smartphone app).
The pilot was a huge success – over 5,000 messages were exchanged – and prompted WeFarm to set a goal of connecting all 270,000 farmers in the CPF network (which spans 13 countries) by 2015.
Which is where we come in…
Manifesto is part of a trio of agencies working to realise WeFarm’s goals by delivering the next generation of their knowledge sharing platform.
Someone/Else, another London based agency, is chiefly responsible for gathering requirements and designing user experience.
Conker Group, a technology company based in London and Nottingham, is responsible for building the database underlying the WeFarm platform and the API through which the web and mobile interfaces communicate with the database.
We’re responsible for building the front end – the web based UI – and making sure that the data is gathered from, and presented to, users in the right way.
3: crowd or magic number?
Working as part of a triumvirate of companies trying to deliver a finished solution is a new experience for us and has thrown up a number of challenges. All three companies are, of course, working on a number of different projects besides WeFarm and so the scheduling of meetings, workshops and conference calls alone is quite a task.
Added to which, each of us has our own particular style of working. Manifesto uses the Agile software development methodology whereas the other companies have different ways of managing their workflow and different ways of conceptualising the journey from list of requirements to working product.
Nevertheless, things are ticking along pretty smoothly. The discovery phase (on which Someone/Else has written an excellent post) and the creation of a development backlog are now behind us and we’ve already moved on to actually building the website.
To be continued…
Stay tuned for future posts where we’ll go into more detail on some of the specific challenges we’ve encountered and the success or failure of early solutions. We’ll also give you a developers’ eye view of working on such a bold, ambitious project.
Picture credit: Erik Hersman.