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Analysing text messages helps improve WeFarm advice

WeFarm provides an SMS text platform for small scale farmers in developing countries that don’t have access to internet. Using a mobile phone they can receive peer to peer advice on their crops and livestock.

(image courtesy of WeFarm.org)

WeFarm provides an SMS text platform for small scale farmers in developing countries that don’t have access to internet. Using a mobile phone they can receive peer to peer advice on their crops and livestock.

Ahead of the Big Data SIG event on 21st March, we spoke with the CEO of the Institute for Environmental Analytics (IEA), Colin McKinnon, about the organisation’s work in the agri-tech industry and support of London-based start-up ‘WeFarm’.

Climate change has made it increasingly important for these farmers to access simple and accurate information quickly.

WeFarm asked the IEA to analyse the texts that contained references to weather and climate, and recommend if there was a need to expand the advice in these areas. Allowing for irregular spelling and grammar, a comprehensive semantic analysis was undertaken. The results showed that climate information was clearly in demand.

Colin says: “We analysed their data traffic to look at what the patterns where, to find out which questions were regularly being asked. For example, a farmer can send a question such as ‘the monsoon is particularly long this year – what’s it going to do to the yield of my crop?’ or ‘it’s been a particularly dry year, what should I plant next season?’”

“Presentation factor is very important in data visualisation. It has to be intuitive, so we used word clouds to illustrate the most common topics in approximately 160,000 messages.”

The IEA also discovered the potential for WeFarm to provide educational and ‘recommend-a- crop’ services. Advice messages could be geographically targeted for potential climate impacts, such as El Niño.

Use of satellite data

Colin McKinnon, IEA CEO

Colin McKinnon, IEA CEO

Other agriculture projects include work with IEA Partner Sainsbury’s to accurately predict tuna stocks around the Maldives and analysing the weather impact on the growth of crops and an EU funded project examining the impact of climate on the agricultural sector.

Colin comments: “We work with a wide range of data sources from earth observation through to sensor data and social media and our expertise lies in fusing these disparate datasets into useable insight for customers.

“One good source of new data is the Copernicus Programme in Europe, which has satellites in orbit providing free optical and satellite data worldwide. The radar allows you to see through clouds – helpful for the UK – and to a certain degree, you can see into the soil. For agricultural applications, it can allow you to build cheaper applications depending on the resolution you require.

“The challenge is working with farmers and supermarkets to access the right data, but also to produce something that those in the sector can easily use within their existing software systems and ways of working,” explains Colin. “I’m hoping to make a few new partnerships at the Agri-Tech East event, with specific farmers or trade bodies for example. It would be great if we could find a common data challenge that we could build one of our demonstrator projects around.”

If you would like to register for the BIG Data SIG event at Rothamsted Research, please click here: http://www.agritech-east.co.uk/events/bring-out-your-data/