Collaborative insights: Discovering gaps in the use of Earth Observation for climate-sensitive agriculture impact evaluations

January 30, 2024

One of the panel discussions at the inaugural GeoField convening, held in Rome in September, 2023.

The GeoField project marks significant strides in integrating Earth Observation (EO) data into impact evaluations, particularly in the realm of climate-sensitive agriculture. This initiative aims to leverage the cutting-edge capabilities of remote sensing to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of evaluating agricultural interventions, especially in the developing world.

The GeoField Community of Practice (CoP) recently convened in Rome, a gathering that brought together experts and practitioners from various facets of the ecosystem of EO for impact evaluations. This convening was not just a meeting of minds but a deliberate effort to delve into the intricacies and potential of Earth Observation. Our focus was to identify and address the gaps and needs within the Community of Practice, fostering a more collaborative and effective approach to using EO data.

The content that follows sheds light on an exercise that emanated from the May virtual convening and was revisited with a panel of experts in Rome. The intention of this exercise was to map out the primary strengths, needs, and potential areas for enhanced collaboration and communication within the Earth Observation for impact evaluation ecosystem. Participants from diverse user groups expressed their needs, pinpointed roadblocks, and suggested pathways for improved collaboration, shaping a comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem's current landscape.

In Rome, these insights and findings were further enriched through discussions with a panel of experts, each representing an important user persona within the ecosystem. These deliberations aimed to crystallize where collaboration and partnership are most urgently needed. By identifying these critical junctures, the convening hoped to pave the way for more robust and impactful use of EO in agricultural impact evaluations.

An overview of the May exercise

For a little more context, the May exercise that our experts focused their discussions around involved participants of the Community of Practice first self-selecting one of four user persona groups: Evaluator, Implementer, EO Experts, or Funders. Each of these groups then worked together to identify and list out what they collectively felt were the most critical needs for the use of Earth Observation for impact evaluations.

The first observation generated as an outcome of this exercise is not related to the specific needs, but rather focuses on the weight of needs from each of the persona groups. For each need that was identified, participants were also asked to list who in the ecosystem they felt could help to resolve the issue.

Below we can see the needs from other user groups visualized. Each line represents requests from a user group to the target user group (weighted by number of requests). Each user group is also marked with the number of their needs from the community (Out), and the number of incoming requests from the community (In).  

Understanding diverse stakeholder needs

Beyond understanding the burden of requests within the ecosystem, this exercise brought to light critical issues and needs across various stakeholders. Evaluators expressed a need for better understanding and communication of Earth Observation data amidst its rapid evolution. Implementers are grappling with budget constraints and staff capacity, emphasizing the need for more practical planning in EO-based projects. For Earth Observation experts, the disconnect with field realities and translating technical information into applicable knowledge in agriculture remains a challenge. Funders are seeking more local insights and often lack specialized expertise in EO applications.

These identified challenges highlight the critical need for cross-disciplinary collaboration. For effective EO integration in agricultural impact evaluations, it's essential to bridge the gaps between technical advancements and on-ground implementation. This includes enhancing evaluators' comprehension of EO data, supporting implementers in overcoming resource limitations, and ensuring that Earth Observation experts are attuned to the specific needs of agricultural practices.

Our panelists

To provide deeper insights into the discoveries highlighted by this exercise, a team of experts was assembled for a discussion in the final session of the Rome convening.  

The panelists were:

  • Petronella Halwiindi (Farm Africa)
  • Tomoko Harigaya (Precision Development)
  • Daniel Stein (IDInsight)
  • Foster Mensah (CRSGIS)
  • Hamissou Samari (MCC)
  • Moderator: James Haithcoat (DevGlobal)

Insights from experts

At the heart of the Rome convening was the need to make technology more accessible and relevant, especially for implementers and small-holder farmers. Tomoko Harigaya, one of our esteemed panelists, emphasized the importance of bottom-up problem identification. This approach aligns technology with the real needs of those on the ground, focusing on practical applications rather than theoretical models.

Echoing this sentiment, other panelists like Foster Mensah highlighted the pitfall of developing solutions that don't align with actual needs. His call for a demand-driven approach underscores the necessity of engaging directly with implementers to understand their needs and to refine our language in documentation for better accessibility. Similarly, Hamissou Samari stressed the significance of focusing on local experts. His insights pointed out a common oversight in technological projects—the lack of effective mechanisms for feedback and communication from local communities. He also noted the importance of demystifying technology for these communities, emphasizing collaborative decision-making processes.

Petronella Halwiindi brought an additional perspective, highlighting the communication gap between technologists and implementers. She observed that while there is a consensus on the need for a demand-driven approach, there is often a disconnect in understanding what this truly entails. Technologists often present a list of capabilities that may not resonate with the implementers due to overly scientific vernacular. She advocated for a simplification of language to make technology more assessable and relevant, particularly when working with small-holder farmers.

Foster, addressing the balance between the need for standards and flexibility, suggested tailoring methodologies around specific use cases while standardizing language and terminology. This approach ensures adaptability to diverse needs while maintaining a coherent framework for communication and understanding.

Daniel Stein’s response to building trust in technology, data, outputs, and models was particularly enlightening. He emphasized the importance of repeatedly validating remote sensing data with ground truthing and communicating the direct value of analyses to interpretable outcomes like crop yields and income. This approach, he argued, would build confidence in remote sensing data, particularly in scenarios where ground truth is unavailable.

Lastly, Hamissou touched upon the presentation of information to funders, emphasizing the need to provide not just reports but also raw data for fact-checking. He pointed out that replicability is crucial for funders who often use an evidence platform to assess the impact of various projects and initiatives.

The power of collaborative action

This exercise demonstrates the power of collective effort in identifying and addressing sectoral challenges. By bringing together diverse perspectives, the Community of Practice has laid a foundation for a more integrated and effective approach in applying EO to climate-sensitive agricultural evaluations. The discoveries from this collaborative exercise underscore the importance of ongoing dialogue and partnership across all stakeholders in this field.

The insights from the Community of Practice exercise are not just findings; they represent a roadmap for future action. Addressing these needs and challenges through collaborative efforts is key to unlocking the full potential of EO in agricultural impact evaluations, especially in the context of a changing climate.  

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We will soon begin outreach for communities of practice. We hope that these become a space for impact evaluators, remote sensing experts, and field organizations to brainstorm and problem solve about how Earth observation can lead to program insights that solve real world, long-running challenges of climate adaptation and agricultural development.
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