Friday, October 14, 2016

What is big data?

What do you think big data is? Please fill this pool before reading the rest of the post!

Really, have you filled the pool?

I had recently a discussion about Big Data with my colleagues, and realized that most of them believe that big data is about a lot of data... what about you? It is true that until today there is no accepted definition for the concept of Big Data, the only agreement across definitions one can find is : Big Data is about so much more than the big amount of data.

I have recently finished reading this book, "Big Data : A revolution that will transform how we, work and think." A read for anyone who is interested in this emerging hot topic.

This book basically claims : 
It ushers in three big shifts: more, messy and correlations (the book’s chapters 2, 3 and 4). First, more. We can finally harness a vast quantity of information, and in some cases, we can analyze all the data about a phenomenon. This lets us drill down into the details we could never see before. Second, messy. When we harness more data, we can shed our preference for data that’s only of the best calibre, and let in some imperfections. The benefits of using more data outweighs cleaner but less data. Third, correlations. Instead of trying to uncover causality, the reasons behind things, it is often sufficient to simply uncover practical answers. So if some combinations of aspirin and orange juice puts a deadly disease into remission, it is less important to know what the biological mechanism is than to just drink the potion. For many things, with big data it is faster, cheaper and good enough to learn “what,” not “why.”

And why is it a revolution? 
A reason that we can do these things is that we have so much more data, and one reason for that is because we are taking more aspects of society and rendering it into a data form (discussed in chapter 5). With so much data around, and the ability to process it, big data is the bedrock of new companies.
The value of data is in its secondary uses, not simply in the primary purpose for which it was initially collected, which is the way we tended to value it in the past (noted in chapter 6). Hence, a big delivery company can reuse data on who sends packages to whom to make economic forecasts. A travel site crunches billions of old flight-price records from airlines, to predict whether a given airfare is a good one, or if the price is likely to increase or decrease. These extraordinary data services require three things: the data, the skills, and a big data mindset (examined in chapter 7). Today, the skills are lacking, few have the mindset even though the data seems abundant. But over time, the skills and creativity will become commonplace — and the most prized part will be the data itself.

What are the threats (or how societies will have to re-invent privacy)? 
Big data also has a dark side (chapter 8). Privacy is harder to protect because the traditional legal and technical mechanisms don’t work well with big data. And a new problem emerges: propensity — penalizing people based on what they are predicted to do, not what the have done. At the same time, there will be an increasing need to stay vigilant so that we don’t fall victim to the “dictatorship of data,” the idea that we shut off our reasoned judgment and endow in the data-driven decisions more than they deserve.
Solutions to these thorny problems (raised in chapter 9) include a fundamental rethink of privacy law and the technology to protect personal information. Also, a new class of professional called the “algorithmist” that will do for the big data age what accountants and auditors did for an era 100 years ago, when the cornucopia of information swamping society was in the form of financial data.
What role is left for humanity? For intuition, experience and acting in defiance of what the data suggests? Big data is set to change not only how we interact with the world, but ourselves.

So look at the pool again? Which answers would you choose now? If you are not ticking all of them, then get the book!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Reaching the last mile : how WeFarm is about to bring the revolution into communicating to smallholder farmers

Mondays morning can be though, but this week i had a fascinating one. I hosted a short presentation of WeFarm, a social entreprise that offers sms services for peer-to-peer farmer advice. Though many young people are tech oriented and many have access to internet and social media in Kenya, the vast majority of farmers still own feature phones, i.e. cannot access the internet. This is the gap that WeFarm adresses.

They have a very interesting business model :  all the sms are free to the farmers (at least on Safaricom), the services are funded by the organization that want to use the data WeFarm are collecting.  This is the first business model i have seen that is very realistic about farmer capability and willingness to pay!

At the back of WeFarm there are data analyst who develop machine learning approaches to improve on how feedback is sent to farmer but also to make their data valuable to potential customers. WeFarm is also hoping to introduce a peer-rating system where farmers will be able to 'upvote' good pieces of information, ensuring that other farmers receive quality advice and answers.
most farmers still have feature phones

It is a promising start up, clearly addressing the gap of bringing the information to the last mile namely the smallholder farmer. However, this morning we also raised many questions and challenges such as:
  • How can WeFarm work in pastoral areas where farmers are likely to be moving and what to know about conditions on the other side of the country and not per se from their neighbors?
  • How can expert knowlege be introduced in WeFarm business models?
  • How can accuracy of advice be improved?

We had an interesting debate from which both sides, WeFarm and scientists could learn from each other! Wanna know more, check up WeFarm's site (and if you are a farmer, register to their services! it is free!) 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

New poverty maps

For many years we had a simple poverty map based on 1995 data. However, today we are 20 years down the road, so we actually hope that poverty patterns have changed.

I recently discovered that Havestchoice made a new set of poverty maps (including density, gap, severity), at 1.25 usd and 2 usd poverty line for the year 2005.
Still quite old and not up to date to the new poverty lines of 1.9 usd and 3 usd per day... however it is a huge progress compared to the old data we did not dare to show anymore.

Find the data here

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How bright is Africa's future?

This is the question that some young Kenyan people asked me lately at the side of one of my work events. I was surprised by the question but got exited about finally being asked a relevant question about the world I live in. It turned out that i was actually talking to two bright young Kenyans who have decided to interview people they meet to create a YouTube channel to inspire other young people and show them pathways to contribute to brighten Africa's future.

So find here the first part of the interview.

And don't forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A reflection from the Bill and Mellinda Gates Foundation

Walking out the visitors center of Bill and Melinda Gates foundation visitors center, I realized that I have not written any new blog post on my blog for more than 6 months. Sometime daily preoccupation takes over life, and without noticing one loses those spaces for refection and for sharing those reflection.

I have just spent a week in Seattle, headquarter to Microsoft but also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to join a meeting on how to make big data work the agricultural sector in the developing world. After the meeting, i spend half a day in the Gates Foundation visitors' centre, a place that has the ambition to inspire its visitors to make a difference.

The center is fully interactive, inviting the visitor to learn more about who Bill and Melinda Gates are, how they came about founding the foundation and its guiding principle. I admired the simplicity with which complex problem such health, poverty and education are addressed, without loosing its essence. 

I particularly enjoyed the intersecting wheels of agriculture that only could make turn the whole machinery if soils, water, seed, market and support comes together. I am still wondering why some of our research still does not consider theses interactions... and yes if you ask me the equation is missing livestock... (feed (water + seed), animal health, breeds, market and support).

The agricultural success machinery
Also there is a very instructive video on which Bill explains why he does not invest into climate change mitigation and why he actually does in biotechnology such as  GMOs. His reflection is quite simple, what has a market and is a business opportunity should be done by the industry, what is not is supported by Gates foundation. Drought tolerant seeds for the developing world are not sufficient commercial for the industry to develop them, yet they might play a critical role in mitigating climate change for the most vulnerable people in the world.

There are many things i did not know about Gates foundation. For example, it is behind the AGRA initiative, the initiative that among others funds many small and medium innovative enterprises in the agricultural sector in Africa. Also they run a whole program in the US to support homeless people, especially giving access to homeless children and youth to access high level education. One big effort also goes into health, among others into the eradication of polio and malaria.

As i left the visitors center, i walked to Seattle downtown realizing that already 4 times i directly or indirectly benefited from Gates Foundation money, for my multi-dimensional spatially explicit ex ante environmental trade-off model, for this conference on big data for the agricultural sector in the developing world and finally by making the new chicken breed Kuroiler available in East Africa combined with the AGRA conference on social enterprises. All four experiences have lead to radical rethinking of modelling approaches (that boldly ignore the farmer), of data collection, processing and dissemination (are our data portal really the answer?) or of sustainable business models for the poor. 

None of us has the right formula to make the world a better place for every one even those we tend to forget. We are all on a learning through trial and error journey, but some of us are radical re-thinker who challenge the status co (and have probably learned through errors). I have been deeply impressed by the strong vision that Bill and Melinda have, to question the question and invest time, money and passion to see their vision implemented on the ground both in the US and the developing world. Their objective is not only to bring change but to inspire others to bring change or to be an impatient optimist. The visit at the visitors centre has open my eyes on how much their vision and investment has given me the opportunity to re-think my work, to challenge my own small status co, how much they have actually inspired me to bring change without me noticing. 

At the end of the exhibition, the visitor is asked to come up with her/his own plan to contribute to make the world a better place... I decided to make sure that my blog becomes lively again, that it may be an (unbiased?) voice from the ground in the developing world and a space where reflection (radical rethinking?) is possible. I hope you will join the new start of this journey!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Recycling soils?

Recently, i have been looking into more soil and soil health, a quite complex topic. I have learned that soil is formed over years and needs to be managed well in terms of nutrients in order to not loose it fertility.

I have been quite fascinated by this news item on Swiss TV.

In Switzerland, when fertile land is build on, the soil has to be taken off layer by layer and brought to a location with degraded land. It is quite expensive measure to save fertile soils. Whereas some people find it a great idea, environmentalists find it an illusion. As soil is a result of a long lasting process, it will be discontinued when the soil is "moved".

For me it remains a quite amazing idea to move soils!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Biodigester at the slaughterhouse

This is my last day in office before the end of the year. It is time to post my last post about my Ugandan trip, so that my blog can also serve as report! Remember during that last trip visited the slaughterhouse of Wambizi. As part of their waste management, they recently installed a bio - digester.

A biodigester is like a mechanical stomach. It is fed with organic material, which is broken down (decomposed) by micro-organisms (bacteria) is an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment to produce a renewable energy called biogas (methane and carbon dioxide) and other material that is mainly used as fertilizer.

What here the stories behind the Wambizi biodigester, how it has been build, how it is working, and how the resulting gas is used for boiling the water for slaughter.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Slaugherhouse visit in Wambizzi

As part of our field trip to understand better the pig value chain in Hoima, Uganda, we also wanted to understand better waste management from the pigs. However in Hoima there is no abattoir yet, as all pigs are slaughtered in backyards (what they call slaughter places) .

 Therefore we visited the Wambizzi abattoir, in the suburb of Kampala. I alwayswonder what i need to imagine when i think of an abattoir in the developing world, and i have seen too many extremes from dirty backyard to super modern infrastructure. Wambizzi was something in between. 

the marabu
There is no asphalt in the place, and so when we arrived, the place was muddy and Marabou's were eating some left over. We first were invited to join for a discussion with the manager and some cooperative members. We learned a lot from them.

pig waiting to be slaughtered
First of all it is a farmer owned cooperative, where farmer can get their pig slaughtered for a fee. Non cooperative member can also get pig slaughtered here, but the fee is higher. If requested the cooperative does also do some marketing, linking the farmer with alive pigs with a buyer of slaughtered meat.

the room where meat is hung after slaughtering
They used to have a cold room, but it was broken during the last war, this is more than 30 years ago... and somehow they have never found the means to reconstruct it. That's why they are slaughtering only in the morning and only pig for which they already have a buyer.

tables where meat gets cuts
The location of the abattoir is quite convenient near to Kampala, but there are competing land use claims and it is now located on the trace for the new highway. The government has asked them to leave the the place and they are looking for a new location. This is also an opportunity to modernize, however the eviction compensation will not be enough to support the emergence of an new slaughterhouse.

We also went on a tour in the slaughterhouse. Lucky me, it was after lunch, so no slaughtering anymore, just cleaning.

alive pig storage
Hot water is needed to take of the hair of the pigs, that's why the room where pigs are slaughtered is next to the one where water is boiled. Up until today water is boiled with water, but they are building a bio digesters which should recycle waste and give them enough energy to replace the wood. We will look at the bio digester in a separate post. 
hot water boiler
When a pig is slaughtered the blood is collected in a pit, where it is mixed with soap that is used to keep the place safe. The combination of blood and soap is not ideal, as soap inhibits the biodigesting process, and therefore the blood is just released into the near by river. Not only this is polluting but it is also a way to spread diseases.

room where the pigs are slaughtered and blood collected

Intestines are kept separately and sold to some people who cleaning them and sell them for dog food. This is an outsourced service that is not managed by the cooperative however it is lowering the waste and provides some job opportunity.
cleaning the intestines
The slaughterhouse does not have a incinerators, so hairs are sometimes burnt but mainly piled up on what is now about a 6 meter high compact mass. Pig hair do not decompose easily.
waste pile
 We have seen that the slaughterhouse is providing good services to its farmers and offers a clean environment for slaughtering pigs. It is challenged with waste management and is going innovative way to address those and their mobile biodigerster is an example of this.
room where the meat is hanging before sales

However, i have been shocked by their begging attitude, "look we are trying our best", "we support smallholder farmers" help us to get money. I know from own experience that meat markets are growing in Africa, and that there is margin in the business to be collected. But where does it go? Why is the slaughterhouse not able to raise at least some profit to develop further? In my discussions with the manager and the head of the cooperative i tried to investigate these questions? My conclusion was, it is simply the lack of entrepreneurship. I had a longer discussion with them about the fact that the new models donors look at are models that include silent capital, meaning no donation but very fair investment capital (with low or zero interest rate). It was an interesting discussion, which led to my very personal conclusion, that the problem here is the lack of entrepreneurship. If they would develop a business plan in which they can show that they have even just a very small return on investment, I am sure that they can win donors ready to donate part and lend part of the necessary capital to develop a new smallholder based slaughterhouse.

the field team Edmund, myself, Grace, Joanne and our driver, the abattoir manager next to Edmund

Both the manager and the cooperative head listened carefully, and i have hope that some of my reflections opened there mind to new models. I still have not figured out how to really support them in their process to become entrepreneurial while remaining on their very innovative waste management approach... Any idea? Then don't hesitate to contact me!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tobacco production and its challenges for crop modelling

Before the end of the year, I also would like to finish my reporting from this years field trip to Uganda, when we were looking at the pig value chain in Hoima.

We crossed the fields with the aims to understand better how feeds and fodders are produced and try to understand how we can model this best. A first step was to understand rice which i described in an older post. But crossing the fields we discovered another dynamics : tobacco.

the sheds to dry tabbaco
In the landscape you recognize tobacco at the many sheds used for drying the tabacco, but we also saw the trucks picking the dry leaves.

We asked around and discovered that tobacco was a very good business as it would all be contracted. That means, farmers have a guaranteed market for their product and the tobacco gets picked at farm gate. Also they receive on credit all the input beginning of the season and need to pay them with the harvest.

tobacco ready to be picked
This is a very good low risk offer for the smallholder farmer, and therefore could seriously compete with feed and fodder production as the pig value chain intensives.
drying tabbaco
Tobacco only grows during the longer wet season, so the the land can be used for other crops during the short wet season.

Our model will need to reduce the amount of land available for feeds and fodder production, to account for tobacco, also we might need to allow users of our model to define this amount of land, to give opportunities to decision makers to understand trade-offs between to tobacco and the pig value chain.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How does research contribute to mitigation and adaptation in the agricultural sector?

After some break from writing on this blog, I am just in time to contribute to the climate change debate, which i hope to be able discuss it different angles in the up-coming posts. So keep following the climate change tag.

Lots of climate related research we do is sponsored by IFAD, among others the project on pig in Uganda careful reader already know of. IFAD visited the research projects they have sponsored to understand if agricultural research in the developing world does support smallholder farmers to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Wanna know about their conclusions? Check out this movie!