Posted November 1999
School of Natural Resource Sciences, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE, USA
L. Van Crowder
Communication for Development Group, FAO Extension, Education and Communication Service
Agrometeorology Officer, FAO Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN)
Either directly or indirectly, new information and communications technologies (ICTs) will have a dramatic impact on our lives. The Internet, satellite technology, and geographic information systems are prime examples of ICTs that have changed the way we carry out our daily activities. Data and information on an almost infinite amount of topics are available in a timely fashion on the Internet at the click of a mouse. Our goal in this article is to address methods of communicating agrometeorological information, which consists of disseminating and evaluating information, and to provide examples of these processes. Given the dynamic nature of ICTs, some of the examples given here may be outdated in a short time, while new applications of ICTs that are currently beyond our imagination will be developed and accepted. We conclude by raising and responding to some critical questions about communicating agrometeorological information in the future. A representative list of Websites dealing with agrometeorology, not discussed in this article, is given as an annex to this article.
Agrometeorological information is part of a continuum that begins with scientific knowledge and understanding and ends with the evaluation of the information. Intermediate processes are collection of data, changing data into useful information and dissemination of information. While scientific knowledge and understanding transcends national borders, the remaining components of this continuum may differ from developed and developing worlds. The reasons for these differences are mainly a function of human, financial, and natural resources. In order for this information to be useful, it must be accurate, timely, and cost effective; i.e., the benefit to be gained from implementing the information is greater than the cost to obtain the information.
While it is conventional wisdom that "we live in the information age", this era, characterized by information "superhighways" that span the globe, is marked by a large gap between the "information rich" and the "information poor". Rural communities represent the "last mile of connectivity".
Some observers see the lack of telecommunication infrastructure in developing nations as a possible advantage in the long run. The low-level of infrastructure may mean that when new telecommunication infrastructure is installed, it will be digital and possibly wireless, from the beginning. Since Internet services rely heavily on the extent of network digitalization, developing countries just starting Internet services may be able to quickly develop digital networks. This has been the case in countries such as Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius and Rwanda, where a large percentage of the lines are digital.
"Telecentres" are increasingly being seen as a means to provide a wide range of telecommunication services to rural residents through a single access point. Multi-Purpose Community Telecentres (MCTs) are being established in various countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with various national and international partners. Located in a shared rural community facility, MCTs can offer telecommunication services such as telephone, fax, e-mail and Internet access along with training and support in their use. In the design of MCTs, attention is being given to specific applications and content for several sectors, for example; health, education, environmental protection, and agriculture.
In many cases, the effectiveness of ICTs for agrometeorological information dissemination can be enhanced by linking them to other communication media, especially media which are more accessible to farmers such as rural radio. In this way, a "multiplier effect" can be achieved.
Changes in radio technology will have an important impact on the dissemination of information. Low powered radio stations that can broadcast a signal within a radius of 20km are available at the cost of a moderately priced PC. Radios that do not depend on batteries or line voltage are ideally suited for use in remote locations. These radios have a built-in generator that is operated by a crank mechanism, one revolution is equivalent to approximately 45 minutes of playing time. A major limitation of this radio is the cost, currently around US$ 100.
The following examples from a variety of sources illustrate the different approaches that can be used to communicate agrometeorological information. It is not an exhaustive list. As noted earlier, this is an area of rapid change.
The California PestCast system is a joint effort of the UC-IPM Project, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/DISEASE/california_pestcast.html). The overall goal of this effort is to expand the application of computer based crop disease forecasting in order to reduce unnecessary pesticide usage. There are currently 15 disease models available for use in fruits, vegetables, and turf.
Several meteorological and climatological databases can be easily accessed from the Internet. An extensive list can be found at the Internet site of the Usenet newsgroup sci.geo.meteorology (http://www.scd.ucar.edu/dss/faq/). The mission of the High Plains Climate Center (HPCC) is to increase the use and availability of climate data in the High Plains region of the United States. The HPCC's activities include operating the Regional Automated Weather Monitoring system; conducting region-wide soil moisture and drought studies; developing connections with other climate centers; and developing computer software for the summarization and dissemination of important climate-related information (http://hpccsun.unl.edu). The Register of Ecological Models (REM) at the University of Kassel (Germany) is a meta-database for existing mathematical models in ecology (http://dino.wiz.uni-kassel.de/ecobas.htm). In South Africa, daily weather data can be retrieved for a large number of stations from http://www.sawb.gov.za/www/climate/bull.html.
From the FAO Internet site, the Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS) provides extensive agricultural and climatic information for most of the countries in Africa, including crop production areas, crop calendars, and satellite images (http://www.fao.org/es/giews/english/giewse.htm).
In Brazil, two systems have been developed by the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) for dissemination of meteorological and agrometeorological information. They are "VISUAL TEMPO" and "VISUAL CLIMA". The first system allows the user to have access, through different modalities (BBS or Internet), to real-time meteorological information as weather forecast or satellite imagery. Through the second system, the user can have access to the agrometeorological information as published in the dekadal and monthly bulletin. The software to get access can be downloaded free, (http://www.inmet.gov.br/frameset.htm).
Also in Brazil, the National Confederation of Agriculture (CNA), in collaboration with the Council of the Small and Mid-Size Enterprise Supporting Service (SEBRAE), has implemented an Internet system called "SIAGRO" providing useful information about prices, weather, databases on rural legislation and crop and animal protection laws and measures. (http://www.siagro.com.br/siagro/ClimaTempo.html).
The "AgroExpert" Disease Forecasting System developed by Adcon Telemetry GmbH (http://www.adcon.at/Products/AgroExpert.html) is a complex system intended to reduce the amount of chemicals used in the treatment of plant diseases. Basically, the system uses climatic data which is processed according to rules developed by plant protection researchers, to establish the optimum time for chemical treatments. The system has been used in northern Europe for the past five years. It employs a network of solar-powered weather stations to monitor rainfall, humidity, temperature, leaf wetness and other factors. Farmers can be contacted by phone or pager, or can access the system directly via a PC and modem to determine the optimum time for chemical treatment.
Under a FAO technical assistance project, a well equipped, decentralized system for agrometeorological and remote sensing data handling, processing and analysis, as well as information product generation compatible with relevant background databases, is operational in Southern Africa. Activities are carried out by trained staff in the Regional Early Warning Unit for Food Security and the National Early Warning Systems for Food Security within SADC (South Africa Development Community) countries. Facilities are being established in Harare, Zimbabwe, for the direct acquisition of Meteosat data to support rainfall monitoring across the region. The use of geographic information systems and the FAO-GIEWS (Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture) workstation for handling analysis of data from different sources on a common geographic basis exists at the national level within SADC countries.
Evaluation of the impact of information delivery systems can be done by surveys and by the use of focus groups and innovative end-users. The specific survey instrument or the techniques for gathering information may differ from community to community, but the goal is essentially the same: to evaluate the impact of the information and the information delivery system and to have a quantifiable basis to improve the system.
Standard survey procedures such as; purpose and importance, confidentiality, and follow-up must be carefully explained to the respondents. Survey results must be communicated to the necessary agencies that developed and funded the survey for evaluation of current programs and for future planning. The results may be published in the appropriate scientific journals. The initial respondents should not be forgotten in this communication process. By providing a summary of the survey results to the respondents, not only are the survey developers giving feedback to those who participated in the survey, they are developing a marketing tool.
Some of the questions below may not be relevant to a region, other questions may have to be added, and some questions may have to be deleted. The following questions serve as an example.
If yes, how has the information been helpful? (List several key components of the information delivery system; e.g., timeliness, caused the end user to think differently about the situation, easy to understand the different recommendations and their consequences, easy to implement recommendations).
If no, how has the information not been helpful? (List same options as above.) Possibly the end user knew how to deal with the management situation and the information was not needed.
If no, what improvements in the system would make users change their minds? Leave blank spaces to fill in responses. Again, responses may indicate areas for future research or changes in dissemination.
Continued improvement in communicating agrometeorological information to farming communities requires addressing the following critical questions.
Agrometeorologists change data into information through whatever tools are available, currently through the use of computer-based technologies. In addressing the first question, we must begin by considering the training of agrometeorologists. Training in this area should include an appreciation of the complex interactions of biotic and abiotic factors as plants and animals develop and grow. This addition to the traditional training of agrometeorologists is necessary to provide a larger perspective to the transformation of data into useful information.
The information needed for diverse groups of end-users growing crops or raising animals is basically the same. The differences arise from the human and financial resources available to implement this information and the methods of information dissemination. These differences must be considered in designing any information dissemination system.
First, as much as possible, agricultural advisory services must accurately document the added value and impacts of these services. This should be done as a proactive rather than a reactive position. The documentation should include the monetary value of the information, if used properly. Just because accurate information is disseminated doesn't mean that it will be used or used properly.
Included in this documentation should be detailed descriptions on changes in positive behaviour (impacts). This documentation may positively influence government funding or funding from other sources.
The information must be prepared by agrometeorologists in a way that the majority of users will easily understand. Then it can be adapted and sent to key communication outlets such as radio, television, newspapers, bulletins, specialized information networks and web sites for broad-scale as well as targeted dissemination. From the perspective of these media outlets, the information must also have a value, a different value than intended for the end users. Various types of users may buy the products advertised by the different media outlets or subscribe to information services.
Before the training needs of end-users and intermediaries can be addressed, the question of motivation for users to access and use the information should be discussed. While altruistic values to use the information can be a source of motivation, e.g., sustainability of the environment, they will probably have minimal success. Farming is a long-term business, and like any business, its practitioners want to be successful -- motivation should be based on sustainable profitability. Given this perspective, what information is needed? What information is already available? What information needs to be provided? Of the information that needs to be provided, what information is of primary importance, secondary importance, etc? Addressing these questions requires assessments of the information needs and resources of specific groups within the diverse user community. In order to facilitate the communication of information to the user community, social scientists should interact with agrometeorologists to provide a structure for the information that is suited to the target audience.
The Internet will play a major role in agrometeorological information either through direct or indirect access. In developing countries, Multi-purpose Community Telecentres will be the focal point for many types of information, some of which will come from the Internet. These Telecentres can be the source of agrometeorological information that can be disseminated over rural radio stations in local languages. Remote sensing data and geographic information systems are being used in southern Africa to provide information on agricultural production conditions and food security.
While information can be disseminated, is it being used? A methodology was presented to evaluate the impact of information. This methodology can be applied as a written survey or through interviews. Evidence is presented that people would be willing to pay a fee for agrometeorological information if it has value, in both the developed and developing world
Critical questions have been raised but clear responses are linked mainly to the scientific, technological, and social developments that will take place in the 21st Century. It is clear that information and communication technologies will improve in the future as will accessibility. What will limit the generation and dissemination of agrometeorological information in the future is the same that limits it today: the interaction of people, from scientist to extension worker, in the continuum from basic understanding to practical applications. Thus, to prepare for the future now, we have to better integrate the human capital available at all levels of organization. Specifically, we recommend that information and communication technologies be a component of the training of agrometeorologists in order to provide the best possible advice to farmers.