VESEL: Village e-science for Life

Lead Research Organisation: Institute of Education
Department Name: Unlisted


In the United Kingdom Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is part of our everyday life from chatting and taking pictures on a mobile phone to writing an essay for college and being able to buy goods in the shops or on-line. The situation for rural communities in Africa is very different. People there rely upon farming the land to provide food to eat and sell and yet they lack valuable information, for example about their soil, the weather forecast or the location of the best market for their goods. They also lack basic literacy skills and have little or no knowledge about ICT. Technology ought to be able to do a great deal to help these communities to improve food and water security, education and health. But what is the right technology and how can we help these communities to use it effectively? This is the question at the heart of this project. A team of UK experts in telecommunications, renewable energy sources, sensor technology, education and design will work with local experts at Nairobi University, organizations such as aidworld, agricultural information providers and teacher training organizations in Kenya. This collaboration will enable us to define the most urgent information requirements for a rural farming community and to design the appropriate technologies to meet these needs. This may mean providing sensors to give information about soil quality, cameras to take pictures of crops or the internet for up-to-date weather information and communication with other villages and the world beyond. We will work with trainee teachers to help them to use technology within the community and set up the school as an ICT hub. We will work with children to see how they can help their families to use and maintain the technology to best effect. Our aim is to fuse educational and environmental objectives to empower local communities.
Description The disadvantaged socioeconomic position of rural African communities, such as those found in Kenya, results in their experiencing a disadvantaged digital information infrastructure, a lack of Information and Communication Technologies and a lack of the associated skills and practices required for their effective use and integration.

The objective of the VESEL project was to explore the use of ICT by bringing it to groups of rural farmers in order to promote e-Science and provide the local community with access to information to improve their agricultural effectiveness and their quality of life. Our research objectives at the start of the project were threefold:
1) To explore and develop participatory methods for developing novel solutions in rural communities with particular emphasis upon educational barriers.
2) To identify the most appropriate technologies, develop and test.
3) To explore the transfer of lessons learnt from one community to another, for example between Kenya and South Africa.

The VeSel research team worked with two communities within Kenya: a group of farmers in Kiangwachi on the fertile slopes of Mount Kenya area, and a group in Kambu, a small town in the south of Kenya, half way between Nairobi and Mombassa that suffers from drought. The research project ran from 2006 to 2009, and the communities have continued to use the VeSel technology to support their practices.

It was essential for the project to identify suitable local partners at sites that could be used to develop working prototypes within three years. In order to identify potential sites we needed to know:

• the key local needs
• the existing resources and infrastructure, such as, water, telecoms, power, transport
• the physical environment
• the organizational, community and political context
• the local participants' educational and literacy levels
• the groups history and future plans.

At the start of the project in November, 2006 members of the research team from Nairobi and the UK visited potential communities known to the University of Nairobi researchers. During these visits, data was collected by observation, interviews and focus group discussions over a period of one week. One of the main concepts of the project was a strong commitment to user centred participative methods. We wished to involve users in all stages of the lifecycle not just in summative evaluations and it was anticipated that iterative and agile prototyping methods would be used. When we explored the viability of the different communities we recognized the context and challenges involved with collaborating with local user groups in developing countries. In particular it became clear that in addition to identifying communities whose problems might be amenable to the VeSel initiative, the participative methods that were a central methodological goal required recognition of and understanding across cultural divides involving for example, different rituals and values; and the agile methods we would need to use presuppose direct access to end-users.

The VeSel design approach recognised the importance of the socio-political and technical constraints that may influence the design and use of a system. It put users and beneficiaries at the forefront of the design process from the outset.

For each community a scenario was developed. These two Scenarios were use to underpin the development of the VeSeL Resource Kit, to inform the technical development strand and to develop a test-bed 'technology enhanced shamba' within the UK. It was useful to characterise VESEL research as a 'ubiquitous computing' project in terms of both testing and training, with a focus on innovative technologies deployed in a flexible, distributed fashion. This encompasses both mobile and fixed resources of various types (people, mobiles, sensors, and servers. From the point of view of the end user, this means viewing their communities, farm fields etc. as a computing environment with 2-way communication, processing, storage etc. there was considerable enthusiasm for the proposal that the entire 'resource kit' could be carried on a bicycle, for mobility and generalizability.

The technical aims of the VESEL project became clear enough for technology development to progress. A proof-of-concept demonstration of a small sensor network for the technology enhanced shamba was set up at Kew Gardens to measure soil conditions for plant growth. Work on a community Knowledge Management system to provide a content infrastructure was also initiated and the specification of the power needs for the VeSeL Resource Kit were also produced.

Version 1 of the VeSeL Resource Kit was taken to the communities half way through phase 2 of the project and 18 months after the project had started. Initially we provided a Macbook laptop for each community, with solar charger and GPRS modem, which provided the only stable Internet access in the areas. These laptops were intended to establish baseline Internet access in the communities in order to enable access to agricultural information, and facilitate two-way communication with UK-based researchers and the world at large. By introducing a laptop first instead of the already-widespread mobile phone, our intention was to demonstrate the capabilities and activities provided by browser-based Internet access, and then later to use mobile devices to access these same services. The laptops could also act as a content hub, which could be used to serve data to mobile devices even in the absence of an Internet connection. The hardware resource kit was accompanied by basic on-site training by University of Nairobi researchers, supported by printed and digital training materials designed by the UK team and translated into local languages.

Once ther VeSel Resource Kit arrived with the two communities the VeSel team, both in Kenya and in the UK continued to work with the communities to evaluate and further develop the VeSeL Resource Kit. The potential for the use of sensors was explored through prototyping using simple soil moisture sensors with community members and the Knowledge Management System was further extended to encompass mobile devices. In addition to working with communities in Kenya, the VeSel team also introduced an identical VeSel Resource Kit, including some simple sensors, to a primary school (ages 5 - 11 years) in a rural location in the South of England. This initiative was intended to engage school communities across both countries in collaborative learning activities focused around science, in particular energy generation and plant growth.
Exploitation Route The method of working with the two communities could usefully be applied elsewhere
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education

Description We linked the community in Kambu with a school in East Sussex. Each community had identical technical kit and were encouraged to post photo stories to their school blogs to exchange information. Concurrently, we ran an activity in schools and at public events that uninvolved automated and manual posting of data, photos and text to a blog. One instance related to sustainable energy. Participants tried to design a wind turbine to generate enough power to charge an iPod. Data automatically went through a google spreadsheet to the blog.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education