Nicaragua Builds An Innovative Agricultural Information System Using Open Source Software
An experiment in Nicaragua shows just how powerful Open Source software can be in leveling the playing field. The second poorest country of the Americas now has one of the best software solutions for displaying agricultural data in the western hemisphere.
It all started about a year ago. I was in Nicaragua doing anthropological research, when I was asked to give a talk at the yearly Debian Day in the capital city of Managua. I spoke on Latex, which really had nothing to do with agriculture, but afterward Denis Cáceres of Debian Nicaragua approached me. He had just begun working with a Nicaraguan NGO called SIMAS (Mesoamerican Information Service about Sustainable Agriculture, www.simas.org.ni) where he and others were in the process of starting a project to develop an information system for the regional offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, supported by the Spanish and Swedish cooperation agencies.
Agriculture is the base of Nicaraguan economy, so effectively managing and delivering information to the people is an essential part of development and also essential in the fight to reduce poverty. SIMAS, an NGO consisting of young Nicaraguan idealists, has tried for a some time to push open source solutions in various sectors of Nicaragua, but so far in vain. "For years, every other project of the Ministry of Agriculture have had one component called 'information system' to it", explains Falguni Guharay of SIMAS, "yet that has never really materialized, as it's hard to find any kind of system that can be easily extended to work with the different kinds of information sources and data that the Ministry deals with".
ALBAstryde: Combining Data from Different Sources in an Interactive Graph Including a Comment Function
Cáceres explains why exactly it needed to be open source: "See this system is supposed to grow. It may envelop the entire agricultural sector in a few years time. And to make sure that the source can freely flow and that no-one ever gets dependent on any single company or organization that can then hold the entire country hostage, this is the only way to move forward."
ALBAstryde Takes Over From Proprietary Software and its Promoters
Up until now, various Microsoft products such as Excel and Access have been used to manage most of the data. Attempts at making the information exchange web-based had failed so far: we were told that just a few users connecting from different parts of the country simultaneously brought the server to its knees. For example prices for some 59 products are collected on a daily or weekly basis from most major markets in the country, in the capital and the country side by Ministry of Agriculture workers. They then enter them into Excel and either send it by email or fax it to the Managua office of the Ministry. In Managua these numbers are then printed out and re-typed into an Access program, by the person in-charge of prices (using his personal computer with limited capacity). Now imagine, for example, that the minister or someone else from the ministry wants to know what bean prices have done in a certain city between certain dates. He sends an email to the person in-charge or calls him on the phone. The person in-charge then checks his computer, does the consultation in Access, comes up with the needed tables and personally sends an email back to the party that's interested in the data. Data such as seeds or harvest numbers are also managed in a similar manner, with many steps, retyping data and making accessing the information almost a privilege rather than a right, not to mention the inefficiency of the process or the danger of losing the data stored in few local computers.
The solutions to these problems were to be addressed by ALBAstryde. At first I thought of designing the system in Ruby on Rails, but after consulting with Phil Hughes, former publisher of Linux Journal who now lives in northern Nicaragua, I decided on Django.
Although currently the system only carries a handful of data types, the basic structure to add more sources is there. And while the administration hierarchy of Django allows the different types of data to still be managed by different parts of the Ministry, the user looking for the data does not have to care about that. So one can for example easily create a graph that shows rainfall, the price of beans, the total amount of production of beans and the availability of bean seeds from the county of León and check if there is any interrelation, even though these data are maintained by completely different parts of the Ministry. The numeric data can easily be combined with textual data (by placing comments on the graphs), the write ups from the wiki component, and PDF documents (added in a library section). And given that the input process is so much smoother and that nothing has to be retyped, it leaves time for the agronomists of the Ministry to add analytical comments and double check data entries.
Combining Text, Pictures and Interactive Graphs in a Wiki
Giving Even More Than We Were Asked For
The contract we signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and SIMAS was really only titled "Research about Creation of an Information System" and it specified that it was only to be a pilot project in two counties. The idea was likely to create another Microsoft-based system and so we would spend the time just mapping the need for computers and staff to operate them and make a rough design of what such a system would look like. Now that we had the contract we would go ahead and not just design but also program the system. Given that much of the data exists on a national rather than on a local scale, we decided to go ahead and program something that would work for the entire country -- without asking for more money of course.
Although we at SIMAS got quite excited about the system, we still had to convince the Ministry of Agriculture. Given that this is the second poorest country of the Americas many of the technical problems they had were due to years of neglect of their infrastructure. Luckily we were dealing with a group of activists who had just taken over the Ministry and they were trying to figure out how to radically change it. They proved to be much more flexible than what one would expect any government agency in the developed world to be. The contract didn't have to be formally changed: we simply started working on creating the national information system — three of us altogether: Guharay and Cáceres working on finding data and presenting it around the various institutions, and myself as the programmer.
Denis Cáceres of Debian Nicaragua
However, Cáceres points out that "reaching this was not just a goal of a few of us. No this is quite a significant for the entire free software movement here. We need to see this as part of a wider program of reaching out to the public sector and providing it with software that corresponds to the immediate needs of such institutions, which for the most part have had their doors closed to open source technology, mostly due to prejudices and poor knowledge of what it is about." Guharay states: "An enormous surge in the interest for free software can really be felt after this, but many times there just isn't the technical know-how on how to do it."
Third World Computing
As happens often in third world countries, some foreign expert comes and builds something or other only to leave to go back to Europe or the US without leaving anyone behind locally with the knowledge of operating or extending what was built, such is the case for the system used for recording rainfall (developed in the 1980s by a French programmer). To make sure this doesn't happen again, SIMAS found additional funds to employ three more Nicaraguan Linux enthusiasts -- Carlos Rocha, Byron Corrales and Adolfo Fitoria -- all three easily found at Managua's Linux gatherings, who through the eight months that this system was programmed, were able to study the source code enough to the point that they can extend it themselves.
Guharay makes the important point: "But it is not only the system itself, it is also the new government's approach to who should have access to the data it is collecting that makes a difference, take prices for example. Before they would have to come to Managua, or call from an influential source and then someone will sit there on a computer and generate the data for that person, with no one else having access to the data. Since the beginning of this year, we at SIMAS have worked with the Ministry in sending the prices of agricultural goods in Managua to two radio stations as a pilot basis. These stations then broadcast them to the peasants and cooperatives who thereby, often for the first time, have the information of the price at the capital market and get an advantage in the bargaining table. Up to now they simply didn't know what their products were worth when the big distributors sold them on the market." There are already 16 other radio stations interested in distributing the prices of Managua as well, currently all of this is still done by email. Once ALBAstryde takes over later this month, radio stations will be able to check for themselves, and not only prices from Managua, but from any market they believe is important for the producers of the area.
Left to Right: Rocha, Fitoria, Corrales, and Guharay
Moving Forward From Here
Cáceres believes that "the next step is to get the system completely adopted by all subdivisions of the Ministry, and that is not only of doing the programming and converting the data. Amongst many directors there is still this kind of thinking 'my database, my data, my password' and that's quite difficult to change. But once that is done, we'll extend the system to include other public institutions of the rural and agricultural sector, and first after will we try to open it to civil society, like cooperatives and associations on the content delivery side."
Rocha is looking forward to that part "As the Internet becomes available in more and more parts even of the poorer parts of the country-side, a social network which combines official data delivered by the ministry of agriculture with citizen provided data about their own production becomes more and more feasible, but only if the government chooses to continue building on its open source expertise rather than letting the money-hungry proprietary software companies sell them a series of small and incompatible products."
After taking a look at the product and seeing how convenient it is to have the systems on Open source software, the in-charge of the Informatics department confessed to the SIMAS team "you know that we did not really support you from the beginning because we did not trust free software, but now that will have to change. The Ministry and SIMAS need to work together and maybe soon we will migrate to Linux systems, because we see that this system really works."
ALBAstryde is itself open source, released under the GPL v.3, and its source code can be downloaded from http://albastryde.googlecode.com