mFisheries: Participatory governance through an engagement platform
Remember that mobile application designed for small-scale fisher folk in the Caribbean? mFisheries was first developed by the Caribbean ICT Research Program as a way to support a weakening small-scale fishery industry in response to a request of the Trinidad and Tobago’s Distance Learning Secretariat to the University of West Indies. The app was developed with a high focus on the fisher folk needs, which is why the testing period proved to be a success. For this reason, the initiative got support for a second stage to expand its functionalities and reach through a grant provided by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union.
I recently had the pleasure of having a conversation with the team leader, Dr. Kim Mallalieu and the team’s graphic and instructional designer, Candice Sankarsingh, about the lessons they learned in the development of mFisheries and about the new stage of the project. There’s much to be learned from this initiative, not only for fisheries and agriculture, but for the use of ICTs for inclusive processes in all type of sectors, so I encourage you to follow up with this project and inspiring team.
What are the biggest lessons you took from the testing cycle of mFisheries that you are implementing now?
There are two main lessons. One is that in the early stages of ICT adoption in small-scale fisheries, the physical challenges of cellular coverage at sea, phone ruggedness and cost of data service constrain the target use cases and application space.
The second lesson is that users must see that there is value in doing the things that they have always been doing differently with this technology. This value must be tangible, immediate, convenient and with minimal or no disruption to their regular activities. Users aren’t interested in your need for data collection. They just want something that works. If you said it would work, that’s what they hold you accountable for.
Can you describe what the second cycle of mFisheries is about and what you are working on as part of the new grant?
This focuses on target application spaces for which there is a policy directive and existing legislative and/or managerial frameworks for which ICT solutions are essential.
The new stage focuses on four components:
- Customization and localization of mFisheries for different jurisdictions in the Caribbean.
- A multi-agent engagement platform for the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organizations (CNFO).
- ICT-supported co-management.
- We’ll be creating a number of toolkits so that what’s been done can be replicated and customized elsewhere. We will share lessons learned, and will report on the framework and various instruments we are creating.
Tell us more about the multi-agent engagement platform.
The engagement platform is a (responsive) web-based site that works as a virtual “office space” for a number of agents across a distributed network of representatives and members of national fisheries organizations in the Caribbean. This is where these agents “build the business” of who the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organizations (CNFO) is and conduct key operations of the organization. These agents generally do not have formal training in organizational management or processes but they all agree that their survival in, and contribution to, the chain of operations in the sector depends on their visibility, amongst other things. The website aims to facilitate dissemination, consultation and deliberation for this network of Caribbean fisher folk organizations.
Our approach is to build institutional capacity ”in-situ”. There is a lot of money thrown at capacity building, which is typically event-based, through workshops and training sessions which are displaced from day-to-day operations. This type of training is appropriate for thematic content but far less so for skills-building, particularly so for essential skills that are not used every day. Our philosophy for capacity building is to provide training on a longitudinal basis, which is an aspect we assess is missing from the equation of participatory governance: hand-holding to the point where a civil organization of this sort can become independent. Our structured program of in-situ support is aimed at building organizational resilience through the capacity to perform a portfolio of ICT-enabled tasks that are standard for commercial organizations but often weak in civil organizations — particularly ones which include members with low formal and digital literacy.
How do you envision participatory governance being facilitated by this platform?
The CNFO is the civil organization that is the voice of the fisher folk in the Caribbean. Individual fishers are members of primary fisher folk organizations, and many of those comprise the national fisher folk organizations. National representatives who are supposed to be the voice of the fishers in each country make up the organization. The CNFO has itself a seat on the Caribbean fisheries policy agendas and organs. The Organization is represented in international forums, including many facilitated by the FAO.
In terms of governance structure, the CNFO Engagement Platform will have the potential to capture the voices from the primary fisher, local fisheries organizations, national organizations, Caribbean organizations all the way to national, regional and international forums. So our team is assisting the CNFO with their formalization activities; for example, they’re currently working on their constitution that will be finalized over the coming month. That consultation, deliberation and finalization process has been facilitated through the platform we built for them.
So the platform is being used already?
It is, actually. Though the Working Group areas which are the hosts for the Engagement Platform are set up for restricted access to CNFO members and other specific communities. At the moment, Working Groups include CNFO Formalization, Action Learning Group, CNFO Eastern Caribbean Committee and the ICT Working Group. The structured capacity building programme is under way within the CNFO ICT Working Group comprising members who facilitate and support online meetings conducted on the site within the larger CNFO community.
The general site, under development, is also being used for multiple purposes. This is providing an opportunity for us to understand the users better — it feeds into our agile design and development life cycle.
Who are the users of this multi-agent engagement platform?
Everything in our strategy is structured and tiered, so for now, we are only looking at the Coordinating Unit, the executing unit of the CNFO, which comprises about five people who are spread over several countries. Our emphasis at the moment is the CNFO ICT working group that has been established on our request . We shall be working with them closely over the next six months. We are also providing support for the national representatives to ensure that they can utilize the basic functionalities necessary to participate fully in structured online meetings. So we are focusing our attention over the next six months with a team of about 20 individuals. We expect the major impact will be with these people, and that they will carry on independently after that.
Two specific external targets we are aiming for are, first, a public outreach presentation delivered by CNFO representatives. This will align with the CNFO formalization process. The second thing is that the CNFO will facilitate an online consultation with a wider stakeholder group, which will include key agents from the Caribbean fisheries sector. Those are the external targets in the next six months, but our primary focus is building the capacity inside and building the framework with which the CNFO can plan, execute and report on activities conducted in the online Engagement Platform, towards their work plan.
What challenges do you foresee in the coming months?
In terms of the CNFO, success relies heavily on the commitment of the CNFO and their members to executing their work plan. Our role is to support this plan through the provision of enabling ICTs for increased efficiency, effectiveness, reach and recording. The CNFO has existed loosely for many years and they’ve had many plans, which have been challenged by the fact that it is an organization of volunteers. The fact that members are in different countries has exacerbated the issue. It’s been difficult to coordinate and collaborate. The fact that they have been operating with limited communication and information capabilities remains a challenge. To compensate for that, we are collaborating with the CNFO to develop an elaborate system of instruments that specify meeting protocols that guide the management and flow of meetings. So despite the fact we have a lot of people who are meeting at the same time, they will be able to manage the use of the communications resources to ensure productive and efficient meetings. Another constraint of course is that we are only using open source tools, under open licenses. So we don’t have sophisticated web-conferencing, we use Google Hangouts. In the background we are doing studies on quality of service and quality of experience, but in the meantime this is a multidimensional approach to understanding the problem.
This is what you are trying to solve with the platform as well; would you expect that with improvements on the communications the commitment would strengthen?
Exactly, those two things are very tightly linked, because if the experience is full, the commitment exponentially increases.
So tell me a little bit about your team, who makes it up and what different roles are being filled.
The team is made up of seven people who are predominantly in the university (The University of West Indies). I’m the lead investigator and am in charge of the overall and component strategy, the strategic engagement and the assessment strategy. I also oversee the systems and instrument design, the research execution and analysis and the engagement platform monitoring and support. We have a web developer and a mobile developer, as well as an operations coordinator, a system analyst, and administrative and field assistant.
Candice is in charge of the graphic and instructional design, a role focused on understanding how the users think and feel about what they see, and then bridging their needs and expectations with the engineers. There’s a lot of interpretation on what their work operations are and then incorporating that into the design of the platform so that we create an app that does not disrupt their normal operations.
A big part of that is that our philosophy is on capacity building. And capacity building is not something that happens on its own. It is like in universities and schools, learning is a thing that requires a very structured and deliberate design strategy and implementation. So we are translating that understanding, that reality into the non-formal learning environment. So yes, it is non-formal but we have very specific things we want them to be able to do and demonstrate they can do.
What would you recommend to developers who also want to create platforms to enhance fisheries in our region?
- Know your target user.
- Develop based on your target user’s needs.
- Test everything.
- Screen initial users and make sure that they have a ready need and vested interest.
- Ensure buy-in from several Boundary partners.
- Go for the low hanging fruit. Is it easily recognizable, readily enforceable?
Thank you to Dr. Kim Mallalieu and Candice Sankarsingh for so thoroughly expanding on this project. We plan to follow up with this work, as there is much to learn from this type of process for implementing ICT solutions for any sector.
For anyone out there working on engagement platforms or on web or mobile applications that enhance agricultural work, I’d be very curious to hear your reaction to this work.
Images courtesy of CIRP, taken by Ravi Deonarine