Thursday, April 3, 2014

Food for thought: Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems Towards 2020

(blog post initially posted at the Agro-Know blog)

We recently came across a really interesting publication by the European Commission’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), titled "Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems Towards 2020". The publication is available through the EU Bookshop, which is always a valuable source of  policy documents and reports.
SCAR was established back in 1974 and is responsible for the coordination of agricultural research efforts across the European Research Area, including questions of advisory services, education, training and innovation. SCAR set up a Strategic Working Group (SWG) of civil servants from the European Commission and the EU Member States to reflect on the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (AKIS) - you can find a really interesting publication on AKIS, titled "Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems in transition Findings of the SCAR Collaborative Working Group on AKIS" in the OECD iLibrary. SCAR consists of more than twenty (20) Collaborative Working Groups (CWGs) and Strategic Working Groups (SWGs) formed by Member & Associated State representatives. The role and the structure of the WGs are described in the report that we are referring to.

Cover of the "Agricultural knowledge and innovation systems towards 2020" report
Cover of the "Agricultural knowledge and innovation systems towards 2020" report
The report itself is based on the need for revisions to be implemented in the current approach followed by AKIS, in order to ensure that it will meet the requirements for actually feeding an increased number of people in the following years making the best use of the available resources. In this direction, the repost reflects on "how innovation could be organised in the European research and innovation policy, using the framework of the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability, and how this could be connected to agricultural policy and the Horizon 2020 research framework programme". The role of ICT in this context is really important and highlighted through the document, along with the role of the innovation which is a necessary component of the whole process. The report is providing interesting aspects on topics such as agricultural research policies and innovation in agricultural research, proposes approaches for engaging the agricultural researchers in targeted research & innovation, discusses alternative approaches and revisions to the existing ones, proposes approaches for stimulating the entrepneurship; all these filtered through the experiences of the 37 member countries represented in SCAR. However, the most relevant part for what we are working on in Agro-Know is presented in Chapter 6 of the document.
Chapter 6 is developed by the International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS), co-authored by Ilse Rasmussen, an Agro-Know long-time friend and colleague in projects. The chapter focuses on the role that ICT in general and more specifically the social media may have in the transformation of AKIS and the innovation approaches proposed throughout the document. In fact, this chapter provides a useful overview of the hardware (e.g. mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets), software (such as software tools and platforms) and other aspects, which are described and analysed in some cases.  I am always interested to see commonly used platforms like Facebook, Flickr, Slideshare and Twitter used for serving agricultural knowledge sharing purposes - in some cases in a unique way, such as AgChat. In Agro-Know, we massively use such tools for the dissemination of the projects that we participate in and apart from that, for the dissemination of the AK-related news and events - and it seems that even these free (but widely used) tools are doing a great work. Additional ICT tools, such as the Flash Meeting platform, Google Hangouts and other platforms are also frequently used for virtual project meetings, online Workshops and delivering presentations; the Webinars @ AIMS series is a fine example of using an online platform for such purposes. Apart from that, there are platforms serving online course management and delivery for various levels of education, such as the agriMoodle platform, which is also developed by Agro-Know - in fact this refers to a number of Moodle components developed by AK for meeting the requirements of the agricultural learning communities.
The VOA3R platform for networking agricultural researchers, students and practitioners, providing virtual space for creating user communities, sharing resources and networking and on top of that access to million of agricultural research publications is another example mentioned in the report. We feel proud as AK to have been involved in each development, adaptation (under the GRNET umbrella) and also have plans to adapt it to meet specific requirements of existing communities and reuse it in this way.
agINFRA_logo_newThe low adoption of the ICT tools in agriculture, which is highlighted in the report, was something that we have also faced in the projects that we have been involved. For example, in at least two cases, there were agricultural training curricula developed, organized and made available through online course management platforms; however, access to the courses by the end users was usually limited due to various reasons including the lack of appropriate equipment, the lack of a stable internet connection and last but not least the lack of basic knowledge of using a computer and/or the software used for the delivery of the courses. Other issues such as the language barriers which did not allow users to access resources in other languages than their own were solved by solid solutions proposed by projects like the Organic.Lingua, which transformed the Organic.Edunet Web portal into a fully-multilingual portal which serves a relatively high number of languages through automatic translation features and cross-language information retrieval through a fully multilingual user interface. Other issues, such as the agricultural information scattered in several different databases, repositories and websites is currently being investigated (and solved) by the aggregation and linked agricultural open data approach and the integrated cloud/grid based services proposed by the agINFRA project. This is being taken one step further by the SemaGrow project, that aims to enhance the real-time performance of the global agricultural data infrastructures, by proposing a linked data-based approach. Agro-Know is actively involved in these projects and the last two have been discussed during the G8 conference on open data for agriculture about one year ago, as two of the most promising ones funded by the European Commission.
Agro-Know is also involved in initiatives such as the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), the Coherence in Information for Agricultural Research for Development (CIARD) and the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP), while it also closely follows other related networks and initiatives, such as the Research Data Alliance (RDA) and more specifically the Agriculture Data Interoperability Interest Group and the Wheat Data Interoperability Working Group. All these initiatives have more or less a common goal; to identify the requirements of the agricultural community related to access to agricultural data and to allow and/or to enhance access to open and linked data, making use of infrastructures that can support the management of large volumes of information and knowledge and disseminate related open access policies and information between stakeholders. CIARD aims to "to develop common standards, share knowledge and contribute to coherent, effective and open institutional approaches to agricultural knowledge" and could be the link between the individual agricultural data providers, individual researchers, policy makers and other stakeholders, and the data infrastructures that are available for facilitating access to agricultural resources. In this direction , the CIARD R.I.N.G. (Routemap to Information Nodes and Gateways) acts as a global directory of web-based information services and datasets for agricultural research for development and could provide this link that could also be a key component of the processes proposed by the report. More information about the RING can be found in the CIARD RING handbook (PDF).

These are only some examples of existing tools, services and initiatives which can be used in this large-scale effort towards the reformation of the AKIS mentioned in the report. It is really important that all these initiatives previously mentioned are taking into consideration the previous work done in this context so that existing material can be adapted, adopted and reused in order to meet the requirements of the constantly growing sector of the agricultural information and data management. The upcoming "Global Consultation on Open Agricultural Knowledge for Development", a  joint CIARD/GODAN meeting in Rome (22-24/4/2014), will provide an opportunity for the members of these two large initiatives to meet, exchange ideas and find some common ground for joining forces and working toward opening up access to agricultural knowledge and information.