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Dude, Where's My Cow? The App.

BY Rebecca Chao | Thursday, March 27 2014

If you live in Jamaica, losing a cow is serious business. Now, there's an app for that. (siwild/flickr)

About six months ago, we wrote about a new initiative in Jamaica that sought to address agricultural and livestock theft, a problem that has put a $50 million plus yearly dent in the country's economy. At that time, the civic tech nonprofit, Slashroots, had partnered with the Mona School of Business & Management at the University of the West Indies to create a new fellowship program called Code for the Caribbean; similar to Code for America, it pairs talented developers with government agencies to create tailored apps that agencies actually need.

Now, that program has wrapped up and the fellows have collaborated with Jamaica's Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) to create two apps: one that allows police officers to use SMS to verify farmers' identities (and their produce) at specific roadside checkpoints and another that acts as an electronic billboard of produce stock and prices in order to fill an information gap that has often led either to agricultural overproduction or underproduction.

As it currently stands, farmers register with RADA and the Jamaica Agricultural Society who provide them with official receipt books to keep records of their produce; these receipts allow RADA to keep track of those who legitimately own the produce against a database. At random checkpoints, usually on roads that lead to markets where farmers sell their goods, police are able to stop those carrying produce or livestock to check for these receipts and then call a government hotline to verify these receipt numbers. However, calling the hotline is more often than not a bottleneck since operators overwhelmed with calls take much too long to return a police's phone call. Officers usually resort to befriending someone at RADA and calling them to get the information more speedily; but "suppose they are pulling someone over at 2am," says David Soutar, the designer in residence at Code for the Caribbean.

This bottleneck was a clear instance where technology could help, says Varun Baker, the engineer in residence for Code for the Caribbean. But even then, much of the work that he and Soutar had to do was related to adapting the technology to the months of research they conducted -- studying the ecosystem of agricultural and livestock theft or "praedial larceny," watching how officers worked, clarifying their needs and uncovering their motivations.

Currently, Baker and Soutar have developed a "mass prototype" for the SMS-based registration app which they call Clip and looking to scale its use. It has been tested on a large group of police officers who were "extremely excited about it," says Baker.

Soutar explains that, "There is already a buy-in [from the police community] because the inspiration for the overall structural came from existing initiatives that they have already undertaken."

To ensure that the app was representative of the diverse needs of the community, the testing for the app occurred in three regions of Jamaica: one area that had experienced high instances of praedial larceny; one with large commercial level farms and another area that had reduced instances of praedial larceny.

"Those three areas are great for testing," says Soutar, "since each have their own idiosyncrasies. Geographically, we had an advantage on our first test, one road in and out of the market in the St. Thomas community." That type of scenario makes it easier to enforce the receipt book system. But other areas have a more complicated structure. "In places that had larger commercial farms, in a highly urbanized farming environment...police officers have to use a different strategy of using the app and of setting up check points," says Soutar.

Soutar also learned from his interviews that praedial larceny varies in intensity based on regions and peak seasons for crops. "This summer will be mango season," he says, "so farmers are gearing up for potentially higher mango theft."

AgroCentral allows farmers to use the web or SMS to post product information and for buyers to contact sellers for more information.

The digital agricultural price and stock billboard, AgroCentral, is a separate startup that uses the Harvest API built by Code for Caribbean team. The API offers agricultural production, price and producer data. It is another instance in which Code for the Caribbean sought to use technology to mimic, and therefore economize, the customs of the community.

Soutar says that the farmers he spoke to have their own method of market research: they send their wives to the markets to "nose around to see what's selling," he says. "Say tomatoes are selling really well, then a farmer might say, we should plant some." Or, the farmer might notice a glut of tomatoes and speculate as to when to plant them to fill the demand for tomatoes when that glut is over.

The send-your-wife-to-market method, however, is clearly inefficient and insufficient in coordinating prices and production across the region. "You could buy tomatoes the same week in Kingston and then sell them in another parish, and you would make money because of the price differentials," says Soutar. It leads to information asymmetries and market failures, such as agricultural overproduction and underproduction.

The farmers already know that information is key. The underlying motivation for Code for Carribbean, says Matthew McNaughton, director of the Slashroots Foundation, is how to get the community and the government to understand how data can fix information gaps. The ultimate goal is to "facilitat[e] the capacity to use that information and to use the information to support decision-making," says McNaughton.

Correction: The article misstated that RADA stood for the Rural Area Development Authority. The article has been corrected to state that RADA stands for the Rural Agricultural Development Authority.

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