Managing agricultural information: how to reach the unreached
In the opening speech, Dr. Louise Fresco, Assistant Director-General of the Agriculture Department of FAO, described agriculture in the 21st century as "an information-intensive sector of the global economy, moving away from an artisanal, extensive, traditional activity towards a more sophisticated, computerised sector where access to information is a necessity and not a luxury."
Through the information standards and systems adopted by WAICENT (World Agricultural Information Centre), FAO is already at the forefront of agricultural knowledge management. However, the poorest stakeholders have yet to see many of the benefits. As one participant in the consultation put it, we must now "reach the unreached", bringing information right down to the grassroots level.
To improve the quality of information exchange from the grassroots to national policy makers, WAICENT has launched an Outreach Programme. Groups at national, regional and local levels will be able to adapt and integrate existing WAICENT tools and methods to their own needs.
One project is under way in Ethiopia where the Ministry of Agriculture decided to establish a National Agricultural Information System. Using WAICENT expertise and material, such a system is being quickly and efficiently implemented A database on agricultural experts throughout Ethiopia took just one week to create by customizing a WAICENT model. An Intranet site at the Ministry of Agriculture has also been established. Woldemeskel Gebremariam, the National Project Coordinator, stated about the new technology: "We went from nothingness to a working system in under six months"!
With the prolific and highly decentralized use of the Internet to collect and diffuse agricultural information, there has been a growing pressure to streamline vocabulary. At the end of the consultation, delegates widely supported a proposal to enhance AGROVOC, the on-line multilingual agricultural thesaurus. In a show of approval, the Japanese delegation reported that they would be producing AGROVOC in Japanese. For document management, participants welcomed a plan to adopt the international Extensible Mark-up Language standard (XML). This is a unique system of textual encoding that can be easily understood by software on the Internet. Information can be re-used and preserved through multiple media without having to transform the underlying codes as is usually required. The Consultation also endorsed FAO's role as a clearing-house for agreed information management standards.
Having stressed the importance of standardizing information and then decentralizing access to it, COAIM delegates voted to hold another consultation in Rome in two years' time.
19 June 2000