Allowing Plant Doctors to upload data at a local level in multiple countries.


Academic Research Tool

CABI, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International, is a not-for-profit organisation that works to solve important issues in agriculture and the environment, including crop cultivation problems for farmers in developing countries. Modular Digital has worked with CABI over the course of a decade, and we’ve undertaken a variety of projects for this large organisation. 

Plantwise is one of CABI’s flagship agriculture development projects. Its core aim is to help farmers in developing countries solve problems with crop cultivation through direct consultation with in-country plant doctors, who are mainly local experts and sometimes external specialists.

Plantwise gets plant doctors to work in the field with farmers, and in other locations such as village markets, in order to advise them on how to help crops flourish, how to combat disease, and the best practices for soil management and crop rotation. At the same time, the plant doctors collect data on the farms and farmers to build CABI’s agricultural development dataset.

The aim of this dataset is act as an academic research tool, and to assist government agriculture departments with their work. The data that the Plantwise project creates is also streamed directly via CABI’s academic publishing department into university libraries and government databases around the world.

The concept for the Plantwise app

CABI approached Modular Digital several years ago with the concept of creating a Plantwise app that would replace the previous system of analogue data collection by the plant doctors in the field. The idea was that instead of compiling their notes in paper form and manually uploading the data when back in the office, the plant doctors could do their consultation work and upload their data within the app whilst on location. The old analogue system led to inaccurate data, loss of data, and long timescales of data capture, and the app was seen by CABI as a way of improving these issues by an order of magnitude and transforming the operational effectiveness of the entire Plantwise project. 

CABI asked Modular to build an Android app that would work on an inexpensive Samsung Galaxy tablet that’s widely used in developing countries to capture the data that the plant doctors collected. The app needed to run seamlessly on this particular device, to be cost effective, to work in bright sunlight in the field, and also to optimise touchscreen technology for people with calloused hands from years of agricultural work. It needed to be a high contrast, simple-to-use app without complex menus or small buttons that could work perfectly without a mobile data connection in remote, rural locations in developing countries.

The app in detail

Modular used a key-code system to determine which particular plant doctor was submitting the data. Once they collected the data, it could be stored on the device, and when the device found a mobile signal it would upload the data to CABI’s systems. The final version of the app was eventually used by hundreds of plant doctors in 36 countries worldwide, and in multiple language versions.

The app would perform in-app analytics, telling the plant doctor how many farmers they had seen that month and what data they had collected. Coded multiple choice options were used (since plant clinics always use codes) to inform what work had been done with which crop types, and to note any recommendations that were given to farmers. The most frequently used crops would have in-app recognition so the plant doctors wouldn’t need to re-fill information multiple times.  

By developing a real understanding of how the app would be used in the field, Modular Digital applied a user-centric approach to help the plant doctors do their job and collect the data as efficiently as possible. Using the app, the plant doctor could make recommendations to individual farmers with a digital toolkit to help them complete the form quickly and accurately. The app used the camera on the Samsung tablet to take a photo of the crop in question; it could then send the farmer the plant doctor’s recommendations for that crop via SMS once a mobile signal was found. As a specific example of how the app would be useful in the field, it also permitted partial form completion, enabling the plant doctor to finish the form as a draft, automatically save it, and then complete it later. This was a valuable feature in the unpredictable weather often found in equatorial countries, where a sudden downpour would make paper data collection impossible. If it started to rain, for example, the plant doctor could close the device, and the app would save the draft form for the plant doctor to complete later. The app would then send off any recommendations to the farmer once it found a mobile signal and upload the final data to CABI.  

Data Collection Tool

As an additional feature to optimise the app’s functionality as a data collection tool, Modular also helped CABI build a data transport portal via a bespoke piece of geolocation software that took the data from the app and migrated it into CABI’s data storage facilities. In total, Modular worked with CABI on the app for an 18 month period with several iterations, with the advanced analytics built into the latest iteration. The Software Validation Protocol (SVP) was first undertaken in a test country, and refined before the app was rolled out into the other territories Plantwise operated in.

Whilst the original concept for the app came from CABI’s team, Modular Digital essentially designed the entire Plantwise app from  scratch, mapped the user journeys, created the essential user experience features and interfaces, and developed all the associated data collection facilities within CABI’s systems that were required for the app to work properly. 

Finally, as a supporting tool for the app, Modular built a Wordpress website as a marketing facility to communicate the Plantwise project to CABI donors and to the wider public, including multiple promotional videos and animations.

When we build apps at Modular, they are usually designed for a niche audience with specific user requirements. In the case of the Plantwise app, we made it highly customisable, so the app would harvest the data from the plant doctors in a format that could be modified if required, and the app would then store the data according to CABI’s system requirements at the time of capture. And since some of the data from the plant doctors was still being collected in paper form, we also made a desktop version of the app that enabled people to input data manually if required. 

If you are currently considering digitisation of a process and embracing digital to process data, why not give our team of friendly experts a call to discuss the concept in more detail? We’re always here to help with all your digital requirements, and the most successful projects often start with a great conversation.