Mobiles for Fair Trade: Yael Schwartzman and DigitalICS - A MobileActive08 Interview

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Sep 09, 2008

Yael Schwartzmann is a social entrepreneur, a programmer, and a mobile innovator. She developed a mobile data collection application-- DigitalICS -- to monitor smallholder coffee farmers' compliance with organic, fair trade certifications and quality requirements at a rural coffee cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Yael will feature DigitalICS (pronounced Digitalix) at MobileActive08's SIMPlace.  In my interview with her, we discuss why mobile phones are so useful for agricultural data collection on compliance and certification, how the application works, where else it could be used, and why she is passionate about her work.

Here is the audio of my interview with Yael; an edited transcript follows. 

Yael Schwartzman:  For the last three years I have been working with coffee cooperatives. These cooperatives are built in order to help coffee growers with their transactional costs and training so they know the best practices in coffee growing and also so that they can commercialize their products to places like Europe and the United States. 

The cooperatives that I have worked with have several certifications. First of all, they have an organic certification, which ensures that all their growing practices are done without the use of chemicals and maintaining the stability of the Earth. They also have fair trade certification, which ensures the producers are being paid a fair wage for their product.

I use mobile phones to help coffee growers achieve these certifications. Each of the cooperatives has their own internal control systems that used to be done with regular paper forms.  I develop mobile applications for them to do the inspections using mobile phones, which allows them to take pictures and record audio and view all this information in a web application, which makes it a lot easier and faster to do the inspections and reports, therefore lowering their costs. Yeah, that is it.

Katrin Verclas:  So, tell me a little bit more about how data collection inspections were done previously and what ways do you see mobile phones improving the process? You talked a little bit about speed, but I can imagine that there are also improvements just in terms of being able to analyze data if you have a database and collect the data via mobile phone as opposed to doing it by paper. Talk a little bit about the benefits. What is the point of using mobiles?

Yael:  Let's see. The way that it used to be done before it was all hand written data. The inspectors go out in the field. They have to fill out inspection reports and those inspection reports can be a bit biased because there is no standard answer but open ended questions. Then, when they take these inspections to the main office where they are supposed to be evaluated by evaluators, it is also done by hand.  Then, all this data gets aggregated into a computer and reports are generated either in Excel or File Maker, which is a database application that this cooperative has.

 So, what I do with the mobile phones is the inspectors go and collect the data on the phone. This data gets automatically transmitted to a web application. Then the evaluators look at this data in the web application and can automatically generate reports.

This is great for three reasons. First of all, time. Time is money too. We are seeing in preliminary evaluations that the time improves by 60%, which is great, both in inspection and evaluation. The other reason why it is great is because we can abstract all this data straight from the inspection report, which can then be which can be used to ask for external aid, for example, to have a better record of each producer, what they have, what they are lacking, how to best utilize their resources.

It also helps for external certification because they send these reports straight to the Organic and Fair Trade Certification Agency.

Katrin:  What made you be particularly interested in this field? How did you get involved? Why do you find this so interesting?

Yael:  Ever since I started doing my undergrad work, I always wanted to use my skills for some social purpose. So, when I started doing computer science I did not quite know how would my social interest relate to computer science. Then I got to my Masters and I met Tapan Parikh.  First I was doing work in urban planning, so I also had some social perspective.

But I felt like it wasn't enough, like I've always been interested in doing volunteer work and in working with marginalized communities. So then when I met Tapan Parikh he was working with impoverished communities in India and when he had an opportunity to work with coffee producers in Guatemala, I jumped right in. 

Because for me it's the perfect combination of using my skills and what I'm trained for while also doing good in society, and serving a community of people that need it the most.

Also, I love being outside. While computer science was about sitting behind a computer, programming all day, not seeing a ray of light... all the applications that I develop I get to go out in the field at the coffee parcels with the coffee producers and not only interact with a different culture than my own and learn a lot, but also just be able to use technology to be outside which is great!

Katrin: Tell me where do you see this all going? Clearly there's a lot of interest in fairly traded organic agricultural products. So, you are working right now in how many cooperatives?

Yael: Right now I'm actively working with one cooperative and I'm waiting to see the hard data -the evaluation -  that I'm going to be doing next week.

Katrin:  Oh, interesting. OK. We need to talk again after that. So that you can tell us what you learned.

Yael:  [laughs] There is another cooperative in Guatemala that I started to work with. They've been on standby for two years, but I'm definitely expecting to be back there soon.

Katrin:  So, where do you see this all going? In other words: the potential is there, the market is clearly there in terms of market demand for organic fair trade products. So there's more responsibility on the cooperatives to be able to certify their products effectively because the market demands it. It seems to me that there's enormous growth potential, so tell me a little bit what you see the next wave will be or how is this developing beyond what clearly is still a pilot project.

Yael:  Well, I definitely see, like you said... There's definitely demand for this kind of technology. I would love to implement this system in the cooperative that I want to work with in Guatemala and any other coffee cooperative or any cooperative for organic products. That's one avenue. The other avenue that we're starting to explore is to use this type of system for microfinance loans. The microfinance institution volunteers can use my mobile phone application to collect credit requests together with pictures and audio of the entrepeneurs seeking loans. That's a second avenue.

Katrin:  What's the name of the product?

Yael:  For now it's called DigitalICS, which is like "Digital Internal Control System".

Katrin:  Digitalix.

Yael:  The mobile phone application [itself] was actually inspired by Tapan Parikh's dissertation on data collection for microfinance organizations. It uses a similar model although it's a program in Python so that it doesn't only have to be a Symbian phone, it can be used in any phone that you can install Python on.

The idea behind the programming ..... the idea behind the technical model is to allow other programmers with low programming skills to just put any type of form into the phone. So the framework is already there but if, for example, someone would want to make a different application for different type of product -- say cotton -- they would only have to write certain forms on Python modules and embed that into the platform. They wouldn't need to do any hardcoding.

 It's not as flexible as Open Rosa [a consortium to create open source, standards-based tools for mobile data collection, aggregation, analysis, and reporting] because there's still some hardcoded data, however, all the forms can be easily defined in a Python module.

The idea behind that is that if I were ever to collaborate with Open Rosa, we could easily just import one of their XML XForm applications into my application and it would work. 

The unique thing about me, which I don't know if it's good or bad, is that I'm like one of the only people in Latin America working on this. I've heard a lot of comments that I should just go to Africa where all the money and support is at but I definitely have like a... My roots are in Latin America so what I want is to develop human capacity in Latin America to solve the information needs here.

My idea behind it is that it can cover any data collection tasks that require some sort of evaluation and report generation, because those are the three steps that my systems encompasses.

So, it is data collection on the mobile, data evaluation on the web application, and then automatic report generation. I think that those three steps are common tasks in any line of work. That is why I was telling you about the micro finance project that I am about to start. It can also help NGO's do their data collection and report generation.

 I think the next step that I want to do, besides finding a good marketing strateg, is to see in which other sectors these mobile phone applications can be applied to.

Katrin: So let me ask you this. You are not concerned that there is quite a bit of data collection tools already out there? I mean, that is area where... And clearly Open Rosa tries to address that by starting to talk about standardizing the technology for mobile data collection. It seems to me because it is a common task that there are also a number of applications. So the competition is there.

Yael: I think that to my knowledge I am the only one that uses multimedia. So I am the only one that captures photos and audio and puts that together with the data for evaluation. That is my big pitch, you know?

Katrin: What kind of audio and photos are you capturing? Give me a use case of the application or the way that you are using it right now that is also using or collecting audio or video, or just photo?

Yael: I would love to add video at some point. It is just that the phones that I am working with, since it is a researching pilot, are from 2002, back when there where no videos. So it is just a matter of adding that video functionality.

But the pictures and audio right now, I think it is very interesting. For one side, it creates a parcel history where you can see every producer in sequel; like what their faces are, what their names are, how their voices sound. For me, that is a good commercialization channel.

 So, that is one way in which it can be used. If you look at my demo website, you can see at the top right corner a rotation of pictures. Those are pictures that the inspectors took during the internal inspections.

So, I think it is great to have the organization's history where you can see pictures of producers, their parcels, their coffee plants. So that is one way that we are using it.

 The second one... It is not cryptographic security, but at least it is some evidence that the inspector was actually there doing the inspections. We have had a lot of problems in the past with hand-written reports where the inspectors just sit in the office of the village and just fill out all the inspections based on interviews that they give to their producers.

This is wrong, because what they need to do is actually go out in the parcels, see how the plants are taken care of, see if there is any erosion, and see if there are any chemicals being used. So, if there is some evidence that the inspector was there on the parcel, it increases the credibility that the produce is indeed organic. So that is the other thing.

And then, the third thing, with the audio especially, is that it provides a channel for feedback; for direct feedback between the producers and the cooperative staff. This is great because there has been...I think that one of the big issues in rural cooperatives is since there is low literacy it is really hard to get bilateral communication between producers and the staff. So in this way, we have an auditive way, an oral way to get feedback. So for example, one of the things it is being used for right now is the inspectors give recommendations to the producer. Then the producer can say any suggestion or commentary back on the phone to get their opinion across. That goes directly to the cooperative staff.

The other thing that we are doing right now, and it is in its very early stages, is we are using this feedback mechanism for technology design purposes. So, what we do is we tell these inspectors that after they have completed the inspection, they should ask the producers how they feel about using this mobile system. So they give us suggestions on how to improve the tool.

More information:

DigitalICS Demo and documentation/publications


Meet Yael and other key stakeholders and practitioners at MobileActive08 in Johannesburg in October. Register now to attend!


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