In an isolated agricultural area five hours out of Dhaka, where floods and poverty are commonplace, Rimi is worried about her cow. The cow was a huge investment, and Rimi has noticed several bloated ticks attached to its neck. Where can she turn for trustworthy information on how to treat the infestation? In the near future, purpose-built systems based on mobile phone technology could help Rimi get the advice she needs.
A five-year partnership between Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology, Oxfam and local Bangladeshi organisations, known as PROTIC (Participatory Research and Ownership with Technology, Information and Change), is working with women like Rimi to build a portal that could provide real-time information for rural farmers.
Many rural Bangladeshi women work as farmers, minding crops andcattle on their own while their husbands work in the city. The women wantaccess to comprehensive, timely and accurate information, on topics rangingfrom weather warnings and disaster recovery to agriculture and fisheries, rightthrough to family health. Monash University’s Dr Larry Stillman recentlyreturned from a regular field visit to Bangladesh, where he met with some ofthe women involved in the project.
“We were speaking about the potential uses for smart phones,when one of the women figured it out. ‘I could take a selfie of my cow!’ shesaid. If she sent through the photo and talked to the information centre we’redeveloping, the animal husbandry specialist or vet attached to the projectcould potentially provide a diagnosis in voice, text and pictures. It wouldbe almost instantaneous and also shareable in the future with hundreds ofthousands of people,” Dr Stillman said.
Only a small number of the farmers have smart phones at themoment, but Dr Stillman predicts that as prices drop, it won’t be long before smartphones become commonplace.
“They have 3G coverage in most rural areas in Bangladesh, sowhatever we develop should function on that network. The other thing we have totake into account is that the levels of literacy are quite low, so we’repotentially looking at interactive voice and vision applications” he said.
Researchers at Monash University will work with theircounterparts in Bangladesh to develop a range of technologies and systems tofacilitate this significant project, but additional funding is required. DrStillman is hoping to secure philanthropic backing for further field work inthe villages and support for the Bangladeshi researchers, among other things,all of which are vital to PROTIC’s success.
M.B. Akhter, Programme Director at Oxfam in Bangladesh, said theproject will bring optimism, space and opportunity for the women to learn newskills by using mobile phones and digital technology.
“It’s a means of personal and community empowerment, away fromtheir daily poverty, suffering and gender discrimination, and it will also helpnon-government organisations to deliver better information and services,” MrAkhter said.
Dr Stillman said one of the most important aspects of theproject is that the people who will be using the service will have the finalsay about what is developed.
“It’s a real partnership,” he said. “The community is involvedright from the beginning – in the design, and the testing. It’s quite likelythat the community will even end up running the information service. Someonewill need to be there, managing it, so it will provide employment as well. Thisis something we will be talking to the Bangladesh government about,” DrStillman added.
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