Fall Armyworm Challenge, Part 3: Data Privacy and Production Considerations


In my last blog, I described the technical details of the WormAway early pest solar-powered detection system that uses computer vision, internet of things sensors and statistics to alert small farmholders of the possibility of a pest outbreak via SMS text message. Today I want to finish this blog mini-series by talking about two other considerations when designing a technology solution – data collection methods to ensure privacy and product supply chain considerations.

The WormAway system has two main data collection components: a moth-counting camera inside the trap and a soil moisture content measuring device. The communication system uses a community-based method to collect and report information since no one farmer “owns” the WormAway system and it can be placed in a 1 km area of land that contains multiple farm boundaries. The subscribers ability to use their own SMS-text mobile devices to receive alerts gives all individuals access to actionable information and empowers the individual to take the action they choose to prevent the spread of the pest once the alert is received.

WormAway is a novel approach to filling the information gap farmers often face when identifying and reporting new threats to their livelihood. WormAway includes a solution that removes gender and income barriers and provides timely, granular and relevant information in an easy-to-understand and culturally appropriate way. There is currently no one data privacy framework for all of Africa. However, it is important to the values of WormAway to give users similar protections as those available as described in the European Union (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into force on 25 May 2018. The GDPR seems to give users the highest assurances of data privacy in the world. When subscribers to the WormAway system sign up for the service, they are choosing to allow their mobile device geolocation data be collected in exchange for forecasting analysis. Users are giving WormAway informed consent to release location data in a limited fashion by authorized personnel only. This informed consent is essential to establish trust between users and the WormAway service provider. Our principle of informed consent is based on norms established when collecting data about humans for research purposes even though no data is collected about humans in our solution.

Location data about subscribers’ crop area needs to be protected and certain data privacy assurances are built into the mobile app component of the system. Location data will never be sold to a third party. Data should be regulated by the laws of the country where the data is collected, an idea also known as data sovereignty. Even though data privacy regulations and laws vary from country to country within Africa, the WormAway system ensures the subscribers’ geolocation data is protected during the data collection, analysis and reporting.

In addition to establishing data collection norms to protect privacy, the WormAway team is committed to being part of the solution to reverse poverty by giving work. (For more on this principle and to understand the inspiration for our sourcing commitment, see Leila Janah’s work). In order to align with this value, our team is committed to donating $0.01 for every download of the mobile app alert service to a charity(charities) that provide micro loans to smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa. We also plan to sell the systems at or very near production costs. If possible, our team would also like to use the local workforce in each country affected by the outbreak to assemble and/or distribute the WormAway unit.

Total system production costs are roughly estimated around $100 per unit. This estimate does not include impact sourcing costs – i.e. – hiring local workers to assemble and distribute the system, long-term maintenance costs, or the mobile subscription alert service. This estimate includes the following components: a box with cover, an armyworm pheromone trap with adhesive, 2 MPX front-camera phone for image capture, a microcontroller, voltage stabilizer and other electronic components, a solar powered battery charger, a soil moisture sensor and pole with mounting brackets. This estimate may be widely different once a prototype is made.

Since neither me or my husband that came up with this solution is an expert in this field, we’d love to hear your feedback. Would the system be effective and marketable in sub-Saharan Africa? Is sustainable early pest detection a step in the right direction to ending hunger in our lifetime?

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