Role of Free and Open Source Software for Agricultural Development

At the 2018 Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference, the CGIAR-CSI, in partnership with the Geospatial and Farming Systems Research Consortium (GFC), UC Davis organized a forum discussing the use of FOSS4G in spurring innovation in agricultural research and development. The FOSS community is working towards ending global hunger and building a more food-secure world by advocating the use of free and open source software for making technological advancements that will aid agricultural developments, like using satellites to prevent pre-harvest and post-harvest losses.

Jawoo Koo, a Senior Research Fellow at International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), reported that based on a current email survey by the CGIAR-CSI community, only 50 percent of CGIAR’s geospatial research use FOSS4G tools. While there is steady growth compared to previous informal surveys that showed only 30 percent of respondents used FOSS4G, Koo noted that the FOSS community’s involvement in the development of FOSS4G wasn’t much to report on, yet.

“There is definitely an impressive improvement in the use of FOSS especially since researchers have other software options to choose from. We are hoping these numbers will increase all the more since FOSS enables collaborations by seamlessly using the same research tool and analytical environment, which in turn favors and promotes efficiency.”

Jawoo Koo, IFPRI

Koo then invited a colleague from the CGIAR, Mansoor Leh, an International Water Management Institute (IWMI) water accounting researcher to share his experience in using FOSS. Leh uses python and R in his daily research work, which seeks to communicate information related to water resources and the services generated from consumptive water use in areas to users such as policy makers, water authorities, managers, etc.

“In agriculture, I’m looking at water availability for different sources. This includes finding out how much water is being used, lost, how much is being saved, and where we can have water savings over a basin. IWMI in conjunction with its partners (UNESCO IHE, FAO, and UNESCO WWAP) have developed the water accounting plus framework which assesses water accounts over a basin hence my team is aware of the necessary water resources information over an area.” Discovering the water balance of a location aids researchers in figuring out both the water hotspot areas, which have a deficit of water, and those with a water surplus. This information helps researchers advise smallholder farmers and policy makers on what plants are best grown in particular areas.

Professor Robert Hijmans of the University of California, Davis is enthused with the progress made thus far in the agricultural field through the use of FOSS.

“The current prevalent use of FOSS by our geospatial scientists ensures there is accessibility of improvised tools to farmers: FOSS4G is a community made up of over thousands of scientists, collaborating from different parts of the world, working toward a single goal: to improve the proficiency and customization of tools enhancing agricultural and technological innovations.”

Prof. Robert Hijmans, UC Davis

Even with the increased use of FOSS4G, however, the survey indicated that the agricultural research community’s involvement in the development of FOSS4G wasn’t much to report, yet. The survey further showed that only a few respondents customize or modify codes when it is absolutely necessary and unfortunately, these modifications are not shared with the community. Also, it was found out that researchers rarely provide useful feedback to the developers, except when there is a real inconvenience (e.g., reporting critical bugs). Based on this, at the end of Koo’s presentation, he made a call to action to the FOSS4G community: “Let’s engage and give back, even more, to the FOSS4G Community—to further contribute to and improve the tools we love and use every day!”

FOSS4G is seeking to aid farmers make not only strategic decisions and planning, but also to inform research organizations, governments, and donors on the best agricultural development tactics and solutions, moving forward.