Cutting-edge technology to improve agricultural research

Twenty early-and mid-career agricultural researchers learned how to build mobile apps for data collection in international development projects and how to pass these skills to their colleagues in a workshop at the University of Melbourne.

While the spread of mobile computing has given agricultural scientists the ability to automate the data collection and entry, without the know-how to implement these new tools, many international agriculture research groups still rely on pen-and-paper to prepare data for analysis.

The workshop, run by Researchers in Agriculture for International Development (RAID), taught researchers how to design digital surveys and build mobile data collection tools using CommCare, a mobile app platform.

Workshop in progress

David McGill and Jenny Hanks of RAID’s management committee and the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences ran the event in collaboration with Jack Hetherington and Miriam McCormack of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and a team from AgImpact.

Dr McGill said streamlining the data collection and recording process of research with apps meant both time saved and better data quality.

“In the past, and even now, lots of researchers use paper-based systems to record data, enter it into Excel and then do the data analysis,” he said.

“We can take out a couple of those steps now using a lot of these cloud-based or internet-based solutions, which reduces your data errors by 20 to 30 per cent and frees up data analysis time by up to a couple of months.”

We can take out a couple of those steps now using a lot of these cloud-based or internet-based solutions, which reduces your data errors by 20 to 30 per cent and frees up data analysis time by up to a couple of months.

Dr McGill works with the University of Melbourne’s Mackinnon Project consultancy group on international research for development projects including livestock projects in Pakistan and an ACIAR-funded mobile acquired data (MAD) project. Dr Hanks is working on a project to improve the livelihoods of small-scale livestock producers in Myanmar, funded by ACIAR. Dr McGill says a key component of the workshop was sharing knowledge and experiences from presenters and participants alike.

“The big driver of the RAID network is to get a lot of early career researchers working in the same space and really learning from each other,” he says.

“So, creating that community-of-practice around international R&D itself.”

Participants at the RAID workshop
Participants at the RAID workshop

RAID holds several networking events and training sessions around Australia each year.

Caspar Roxburgh, an attendee who is investigating how farmers can improve maize and legume production in eastern and southern Africa with the University of Queensland’s QAAFI institute and ACIAR, said his research relies on interviews and facilitating knowledge-sharing between communities.

“All of my research to date has been using pen and paper to collect my data, and this workshop was all about upskilling Australian and international researchers in use of digital technology for that kind of research,” he said.

“I’ll definitely be taking it back to my team at the University of Queensland, but one of the things I’m probably more excited about is actually taking it to my colleagues overseas and particularly some of the junior members of our team.”

Caspar Roxburgh (right) and David McGill (left) at the RAID workshop

Mr Roxburgh says this increased scope for collaboration was even more valuable than the knowledge he gained in the workshop.

“I’ve worked in Mozambique primarily, and a lot of what we do is about capacity building. So it’s about trying to give them exposure to new activities and to build their skills in the business of scientific research,” he said.

“And so what I’m really excited about is that this is cutting-edge training that will put our overseas colleagues in an incredibly powerful position. If they have the skills to do this kind of collection it will make it much easier to collaborate internationally.”

And so what I’m really excited about is that this is cutting-edge training that will put our overseas colleagues in an incredibly powerful position. If they have the skills to do this kind of collection it will make it much easier to collaborate internationally.

RAID was established in December 2013 with support from ACIAR and is hosted by the Crawford Fund. More information on its activities can be found on its website and @RAIDNetwork on Twitter.



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