Issue 14

From Zurich to Wayanad, Can The Data Modelling Highway Restore Farmer Science and Soil?

20 farmers, 18 male and 2 female, in crisp mundu and sari respectively, arrive in small groups by 9.30 a.m. at Thanal’s agroecology centre in Thirunelly Panchayat, Wayanad, a district in northern Kerala. Arun R S, working in organic and natural farming at Thanal, passes around recycled pencil and paper and says to the group, “We want to be able to learn from each other, let’s start by writing down the problems we face in our fields and we will find solutions for it.” 

Historically an Adivasi district, Wayanad, from Vayal Nadu, implies a paddy field in Malayalam. So farmers here are rice-growers, who also sow cash crops like ginger, cardamom, coffee, tea, vanilla and pepper. Agriculture, mixed with forest and a little bit of tourism, is the economic heartbeat here. But with the rising cost of chemical inputs and constant fluctuation in the international price of produce, farmers’ income and well-being has been greatly affected for decades. Between 2003-2007 alone, Wayanad had some of the highest numbers of farmer suicides in Kerala. In 2004, when 130 farmers committed suicide, Thanal, an organisation focused on environmental awareness, started work alongside farmers to restore income and land. This project in turn became the agroecology centre in Wayanad in 2009. By 2010, a Rice Diversity Block was started with 4 native paddy varieties.

As of October 2021, they have conserved approximately 300+ traditional varieties, out of which 180 are from Kerala. Arun takes the 20 strong groups for a hands-on session to make cow dung-based biopesticide. Workshops like these help rethink biomass quality and focus on the whole agri-lifecycle from seed to soil. Sudha chechi (Malayalam for sister, often used when referring to older women), working with Thanal as a farm caretaker, facilitates communication between farmers and the local tribal residents. Farmers reach out to her with questions like, “what medicine can be used to protect cardamom leaves from worm attacks?” Sudha, with her knowledge of medicinal plants and their uses, tries to provide solutions. 

Thanal confronts micro-queries and shows actual proof of change. What if they also collated data and made it available in a completely different part of the world, useful for conservation research as well? Thanal’s website is rich with information, but what if data modelling can empower each of their farmers to upload data directly?

Restor, a collaborative effort between Google and the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, is an organisation collecting data from such micro-movements and locations, to create models. Their website pitch is, “accelerating the global restoration movement by connecting everyone, everywhere to local restoration. Restor connects people to scientific data, supply chains, funding, and each other to increase the impact, scale, and sustainability of restoration efforts.” 

How is this done? The land is mapped using GIS, short for Geographic Information Systems. This allows a user to convert their patch of flat land or agri-field into a beautiful, multi-layered map right from their computer, using GIS software such as QGIS or ArcGIS. 24 year Giacomo Delgado who has been working in Switzerland’s Zurich HQ of Restor as a community and outreach associate for several months now, says, “We are creating state of the art models, as well as pulling best in class models created by other organizations (e.g. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)’s land cover map).

But is this software accessible to a common farmer or conservationist? “QGIS is being widely used across the country by NGOs and common people. ArcGIS is very expensive and is often only made available at universities,” says Dr. Divya Vasudev, co-founder of Conservation Initiatives, a Guwahati based Indian not-for-profit trust, working towards conservation since 2017. 

An example of a Remote Sensed image of a piece of land. The top image shows a normal picture, the middle image is infrared and the bottom image shows an image with elevation information.

“Visual Remote Sensing” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Advancing Internet access and GIS software becoming more advanced, open access, easy to use and in some cases, free or reasonable, has made it possible for Restor to collect data from 72,500 sites across the globe, as of October 15, 2021. 

Restor went public this October 13, by making its data and tools available to all, for free. Nyguthi Chege, an executive director at Kenya’s Green belt movement, says, “with this tool, we can easily determine which species are native to a region and assess the carbon that different ecosystems can store. Information that is so important to get restoration projects over initial hurdles and realize our vision.”

What can this mean for the Wayanad farmers and the agroecology centre working with them? Arun can now draw a boundary in the satellite map for farms transitioning to organic farming. He can then update the database with their restoration status, ownership and intervention type. Conservationists and farmers across the globe can observe how the farm changes over a period of three years and learn from it.

Is it a whole new world wide web, especially for those individuals and communities isolated by access, distance or movement until now? The politics of data ownership, modelling access and ease of use is unfolding in real-time as case histories. 

The field is yet, open.

Cefil is a student of Mathematics and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. 

The featured image is by dhruvaraj, licensed under CC BY 2.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 6

Book Review: How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

In How To Make The World Add Up, Tim Harford, presenter of BBC’s radio show More or Less and an economist by training, writes a compelling case for the field of statistics. Through the course of the book, Harford explores how statistics can help us understand the world around us in clear and simple ways. He also addresses scepticism about statistics, and tells us why it shouldn’t be dismissed as a means of masking lies and spreading misinformation. 

Harford tells us ten simple rules that we can follow, to better understand the facts and numbers that are presented to us through media. He uses several relevant anecdotes, from the pages of history books to the ongoing pandemic, to tell us how and why we should dig deeper into the information that we receive. Throughout the ten rules and the book, there exists a recurring theme – to be curious. Whether it’s rule 1, that asks us to pause and consider our emotional reaction to a piece of news, or rule 4, that prods us to look for comparisons and context to put a claim into perspective, Harford ultimately urges us to be smartly curious about everything we consume. 

While the book does not draw on technicalities from the field of statistics (don’t worry, there are no mentions of p-value or R-squared here!) it urges the lay reader to consider what statistics professors regularly tell their students. For instance, rule 3 asks us to reflect on the labels of different data components, in newspaper data diagrams and academic papers alike. Similarly, rule 5 explains why looking at the source of data collection (and consequently, the motives and limitations of the data collectors) is necessary. While these rules are mostly straightforward, they are rarely followed by consumers of media. Harford recognises that it is not feasible to ask a reader to judge all the media that they consume through these ten rules. Instead, he proposes the use of these rules as a tool to form a “preliminary assessment” of a news source. If there is no effort made by the author to define terms or give the source of the data, there may be a reason to doubt their claims. At the very least, it should urge you to do a quick Google search to validate the information. The simplicity of these rules can help us easily dig deep into dubious claims made on our social media newsfeeds and television news channels.

The book also delves into specific problems around us, such as algorithmic bias and political polarisation, and tells us how we can figure a way out of it. Without giving too much away, Harford asks readers to appeal to their curiosity to question the types of media they choose to consume and believe in. While statistics might help us establish a correlation between a person’s political belief and the kinds of news channels they follow, Harford gives us a way out of our echo chambers. As he explains in rule 6, we need to develop a skill to recognise what data is being obfuscated or left out in the articles we read and the videos we watch. If we put our political beliefs on pause for a while and analyse our news sources, Harford believes we might come away with more information than we possessed before.

Harford also uses several interesting anecdotes throughout the book to keep the reader engaged. These include controversial studies, where statistics played an important role in establishing credibility. One such study links smoking cigarettes to lung cancer – a contentious claim made by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill in 1954. Harford explores how the response by the tobacco lobbyists is a tactic that is used by several politicians: namely, raising doubts about the statistical procedures used in the study. The author helps the reader realise the importance of statistics in understanding consequential matters around us by providing many such case studies.

Overall, the book is a relevant and useful read in a time when we are constantly bombarded with more numbers and data analyses than we know what to do with. Harford urges us to rethink the bad name that statistics has been given over the years––a way to come up with dubious studies and clickbait news headlines––and consider it as a magical way of breaking down the hordes of incomprehensible numbers we receive in everyday media. Over time, if we manage to apply even a few rules out of the given ten to the media we consume, we might be able to better understand the nuances and complexities packed in the underlying research. In this manner, the book lives up to its name and truly helps make the world add up.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).