Managing agricultural information: how to reach the unreached

Gathering market information
Zambia/17816/A. Conti

Reaching the unreached means bringing information down to grassroots and street level
Costa Rica/16581/G.Bizzarri

In a first-ever Consultation on Agricultural Information Management (COAIM), over 160 representatives from 88 member countries, as well as observers from non-governmental organizations, institutes and other UN agencies, met at FAO headquarters in Rome. The three-day event in June brought policy issues related to management and access to agricultural information to the attention of governments and decisions-makers.

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"!

Plenary session at the Consultation on Agricultural Information Management at FAO headquarters

The Outreach Programme was seen as a key tool for making global systems locally accessible and crossing the digital divide. Countries where other such activities have been completed include Lebanon and Venezuela. The delegations also praised FAO's development of its information programme and stressed the importance of multilingual coverage of all information.

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

First Consultation on Agricultural Information Management (COAIM)

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