Wisdom of stakeholder crowds in complex social–ecological systems


Paper by Payam Aminpour et al: “Sustainable management of natural resources requires adequate scientific knowledge about complex relationships between human and natural systems. Such understanding is difficult to achieve in many contexts due to data scarcity and knowledge limitations.

We explore the potential of harnessing the collective intelligence of resource stakeholders to overcome this challenge. Using a fisheries example, we show that by aggregating the system knowledge held by stakeholders through graphical mental models, a crowd of diverse resource users produces a system model of social–ecological relationships that is comparable to the best scientific understanding.

We show that the averaged model from a crowd of diverse resource users outperforms those of more homogeneous groups. Importantly, however, we find that the averaged model from a larger sample of individuals can perform worse than one constructed from a smaller sample. However, when averaging mental models within stakeholder-specific subgroups and subsequently aggregating across subgroup models, the effect is reversed. Our work identifies an inexpensive, yet robust way to develop scientific understanding of complex social–ecological systems by leveraging the collective wisdom of non-scientist stakeholders…(More)”.

AI Isn’t a Solution to All Our Problems


Article by Griffin McCutcheon, John Malloy, Caitlyn Hall, and Nivedita Mahesh: “From the esoteric worlds of predictive health care and cybersecurity to Google’s e-mail completion and translation apps, the impacts of AI are increasingly being felt in our everyday lived experience. The way it has crepted into our lives in such diverse ways and its proficiency in low-level knowledge shows that AI is here to stay. But like any helpful new tool, there are notable flaws and consequences to blindly adapting it. 

AI is a tool—not a cure-all to modern problems….

Connecterra is trying to use TensorFlow to address global hunger through AI-enabled efficient farming and sustainable food development. The company uses AI-equipped sensors to track cattle health, helping farmers look for signs of illness early on. But, this only benefits one type of farmer: those rearing cattle who are able to afford a device to outfit their entire herd. Applied this way, AI can only improve the productivity of specific resource-intensive dairy farms and is unlikely to meet Connecterra’s goal of ending world hunger.

This solution, and others like it, ignores the wider social context of AI’s application. The belief that AI is a cure-all tool that will magically deliver solutions if only you can collect enough data is misleading and ultimately dangerous as it prevents other effective solutions from being implemented earlier or even explored. Instead, we need to both build AI responsibly and understand where it can be reasonably applied. 

Challenges with AI are exacerbated because these tools often come to the public as a “black boxes”—easy to use but entirely opaque in nature. This shields the user from understanding what biases and risks may be involved, and this lack of public understanding of AI tools and their limitations is a serious problem. We shouldn’t put our complete trust in programs whose workings their creators cannot interpret. These poorly understood conclusions from AI generate risk for individual users, companies or government projects where these tools are used. 

With AI’s pervasiveness and the slow change of policy, where do we go from here? We need a more rigorous system in place to evaluate and manage risk for AI tools….(More)”.

The future is intelligent: Harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence in Africa


Youssef Travaly and Kevin Muvunyi at Brookings: “…AI in particular presents countless avenues for both the public and private sectors to optimize solutions to the most crucial problems facing the continent today, especially for struggling industries. For example, in health care, AI solutions can help scarce personnel and facilities do more with less by speeding initial processing, triage, diagnosis, and post-care follow up. Furthermore, AI-based pharmacogenomics applications, which focus on the likely response of an individual to therapeutic drugs based on certain genetic markers, can be used to tailor treatments. Considering the genetic diversity found on the African continent, it is highly likely that the application of these technologies in Africa will result in considerable advancement in medical treatment on a global level.

In agricultureAbdoulaye Baniré Diallo, co-founder and chief scientific officer of the AI startup My Intelligent Machines, is working with advanced algorithms and machine learning methods to leverage genomic precision in livestock production models. With genomic precision, it is possible to build intelligent breeding programs that minimize the ecological footprint, address changing consumer demands, and contribute to the well-being of people and animals alike through the selection of good genetic characteristics at an early stage of the livestock production process. These are just a few examples that illustrate the transformative potential of AI technology in Africa.

However, a number of structural challenges undermine rapid adoption and implementation of AI on the continent. Inadequate basic and digital infrastructure seriously erodes efforts to activate AI-powered solutions as it reduces crucial connectivity. (For more on strategies to improve Africa’s digital infrastructure, see the viewpoint on page 67 of the full report). A lack of flexible and dynamic regulatory systems also frustrates the growth of a digital ecosystem that favors AI technology, especially as tech leaders want to scale across borders. Furthermore, lack of relevant technical skills, particularly for young people, is a growing threat. This skills gap means that those who would have otherwise been at the forefront of building AI are left out, preventing the continent from harnessing the full potential of transformative technologies and industries.

Similarly, the lack of adequate investments in research and development is an important obstacle. Africa must develop innovative financial instruments and public-private partnerships to fund human capital development, including a focus on industrial research and innovation hubs that bridge the gap between higher education institutions and the private sector to ensure the transition of AI products from lab to market….(More)”.

The Precision Farming Revolution


Book by James E. Addicott: “This book examines the precision farming revolution in Somerset, England. It reveals the reasons why local farmers invested in autonomous systems and traces the outcomes of adoption. It describes the local and global drivers of the fourth industrial revolution, from world population growth, climatic and ecological crises, profit driven farming and government agri-tech grants, to the Space Race era. A new cultural method of intelligence, ideas and thinking, new organisational and control powers, was precisely what precision farming offered farmers and off-farm firms, who were able to remotely monitor and control natural environments and aspects of on-farm activities. As a result of local farmers opting into precision farming systems the power dynamics of industrial agriculture were reorganised and this book will offer readers an understanding of how and why….(More)”.

GROW Citizens’ Observatory: Leveraging the power of citizens, open data and technology to generate engagement, and action on soil policy and soil moisture monitoring


Paper by M. Woods et al: “Citizens’ Observatories (COs) seek to extend conventional citizen science activities to scale up the potential of citizen sensing for environmental monitoring and creation of open datasets, knowledge and action around environmental issues, both local and global. The GROW CO has connected the planetary dimension of satellites with the hyperlocal context of farmers and their soil. GROW has faced three main interrelated challenges associated with each of the three core audiences of the observatory, namely citizens, scientists and policy makers: one is sustained citizen engagement, quality assurance of citizen-generated data and the challenge to move from data to action in practice and policy. We discuss how each of these challenges were overcome and gave way to the following related project outputs: 1) Contributing to satellite validation and enhancing the collective intelligence of GEOSS 2) Dynamic maps and visualisations for growers, scientists and policy makers 3) Social-technical innovations data art…(More)”.

The weather data gap: How can mobile technology make smallholder farmers climate resilient?


Rishi Raithatha at GSMA: “In the new GSMA AgriTech report, Mobile Technology for Climate Resilience: The role of mobile operators in bridging the data gap, we explore how mobile network operators (MNOs) can play a bigger role in developing and delivering services to strengthen the climate resilience of smallholder farmers. By harnessing their own assets and data, MNOs can improve a broad suite of weather products that are especially relevant for farming communities. These include a variety of weather forecasts (daily, weekly, sub-seasonal and seasonal) and nowcasts, as real-time monitoring and one- to two-hour predictions are often used for Early Warning Systems (EWS) to prevent weather-related disasters. MNOs can also help strengthen the value proposition of other climate products, such as weather index insurance and decision agriculture.

Why do we need more weather data?

Agriculture is highly dependent on regional climates, especially in developing countries where farming is largely rain-fed. Smallholder farmers, who are responsible for the bulk of agricultural production in developing countries, are particularly vulnerable to changing weather patterns – especially given their reliance on natural resources and exclusion from social protection schemes. However, the use of climate adaptation approaches, such as localised weather forecasts and weather index insurance, can enhance smallholder farmers’ ability to withstand the risks posed by climate change and maintain agricultural productivity.

Ground-level measurements are an essential component of climate resilience products; the creation of weather forecasts and nowcasts starts with the analysis of ground, spatial and aerial observations. This involves the use of algorithms, weather models and current and historical observational weather data. Observational instruments, such as radar, weather stations and satellites, are necessary in measuring ground-level weather. However, National Hydrological and Meteorological Services (NHMSs) in developing countries often lack the capacity to generate accurate ground-level measurements beyond a few areas, resulting in gaps in local weather data.

While satellite offers better quality resolution than before, and is more affordable and available to NHMSs, there is a need to complement this data with ground-level measurements. This is especially true in tropical and sub-tropical regions where most smallholder farmers live, where variable local weather patterns can lead to skewed averages from satellite data….(More).”

Digital Media and Wireless Communication in Developing Nations: Agriculture, Education, and the Economic Sector


Book by Megh R. Goyal and Emmanuel Eilu: “… explores how digital media and wireless communication, especially mobile phones and social media platforms, offer concrete opportunities for developing countries to transform different sectors of their economies. The volume focuses on the agricultural, economic, and education sectors. The chapter authors, mostly from Africa and India, provide a wealth of information on recent innovations, the opportunities they provide, challenges faced, and the direction of future research in digital media and wireless communication to leverage transformation in developing countries….(More)”.

How technology can enable a more sustainable agriculture industry


Matt High at CSO:”…The sector also faces considerable pressure in terms of its transparency, largely driven by shifting consumer preferences for responsibly sourced and environmentally-friendly goods. The UK, for example, has seen shoppers transition away from typical agricultural commodities towards ‘free-from’ or alternative options that combine health, sustainability and quality.

It means that farmers worldwide must work harder and smarter in embedding corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices into their operations. Davis, who through Anthesis delivers financially driven sustainability strategies, strongly believes that sustainability is no longer a choice. “The agricultural sector is intrinsic to a wide range of global systems, societies and economies,” he says, adding that those organisations that do not embed sustainability best practice into their supply chains will face “increasing risk of price volatility, security of supply, commodity shortages, fraud and uncertainty.” To counter this, he urges businesses to develop CSR founded on a core set of principles that enable sustainable practices to be successfully adopted at a pace and scale that mitigates those risks discussed.

Data is proving a particularly useful tool in this regard. Take the Cool Farm Tool, for example, which is a global, free-to-access online greenhouse gas (GHG), water and biodiversity footprint calculator used by farmers in more than 115 countries worldwide to enable effective management of critical on-farm sustainability challenges. Member organisations such as Pepsi, Tesco and Danone aggregate their supply chain data to report total agricultural footprint against key sustainability metrics – outputs from which are used to share knowledge and best practice on carbon and water reductions strategies….(More)”.

Study finds that a GPS outage would cost $1 billion per day


Eric Berger at Ars Technica: “….one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject has assessed the value of this GPS technology to the US economy and examined what effect a 30-day outage would have—whether it’s due to a severe space weather event or “nefarious activity by a bad actor.” The study was sponsored by the US government’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology and performed by a North Carolina-based research organization named RTI International.

Economic effect

As part of the analysis, researchers spoke to more than 200 experts in the use of GPS technology for various services, from agriculture to the positioning of offshore drilling rigs to location services for delivery drivers. (If they’d spoken to me, I’d have said the value of using GPS to navigate Los Angeles freeways and side streets was incalculable). The study covered a period from 1984, when the nascent GPS network was first opened to commercial use, through 2017. It found that GPS has generated an estimated $1.4 trillion in economic benefits during that time period.

The researchers found that the largest benefit, valued at $685.9 billion, came in the “telecommunications” category,  including improved reliability and bandwidth utilization for wireless networks. Telematics (efficiency gains, cost reductions, and environmental benefits through improved vehicle dispatch and navigation) ranked as the second most valuable category at $325 billion. Location-based services on smartphones was third, valued at $215 billion.

Notably, the value of GPS technology to the US economy is growing. According to the study, 90 percent of the technology’s financial impact has come since just 2010, or just 20 percent of the study period. Some sectors of the economy are only beginning to realize the value of GPS technology, or are identifying new uses for it, the report says, indicating that its value as a platform for innovation will continue to grow.

Outage impact

In the case of some adverse event leading to a widespread outage, the study estimates that the loss of GPS service would have a $1 billion per-day impact, although the authors acknowledge this is at best a rough estimate. It would likely be higher during the planting season of April and May, when farmers are highly reliant on GPS technology for information about their fields.

To assess the effect of an outage, the study looked at several different variables. Among them was “precision timing” that enables a number of wireless services, including the synchronization of traffic between carrier networks, wireless handoff between base stations, and billing management. Moreover, higher levels of precision timing enable higher bandwidth and provide access to more devices. (For example, the implementation of 4G LTE technology would have been impossible without GPS technology)….(More)”

Can we nudge farmers into saving water? Evidence from a randomised experiment


Paper by Sylvain Chabé-Ferret, Philippe Le Coent, Arnaud Reynaud, Julie Subervie and Daniel Lepercq: “We test whether social comparison nudges can promote water-saving behaviour among farmers as a complement to traditional CAP measures. We conducted a randomised controlled trial among 200 farmers equipped with irrigation smart meters in South-West France. Treated farmers received weekly information on individual and group water consumption over four months. Our results rule out medium to large effect-sizes of the nudge. Moreover, they suggest that the nudge was effective at reducing the consumption of those who irrigate the most, although it appears to have reduced the proportion of those who do not consume water at all….(More)”.