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NODE: Remote Data Monitoring for Agricultural Storage and Processing

With low cost, GSM based technology, we can affordably monitor stored crops in real time, ensuring quality for both farmer and consumer.

Photo of Gordon McCambridge
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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

The NODE is a low cost, GSM/GPRS enabled, Arduino based, ruggedly designed, universal data monitoring unit. The NODE works by combining the basics of an Arduino and a cell phone along with other maker level sensors attachments to create low cost custom monitoring solutions. The NODE is ready to tackle a whole host of issue areas, from vaccine shipment tracking to monitoring remote solar arrays. With the NODE, we have been working with Zimbabwean farmers to help improve monitoring during the storing and processing phase of the agricultural cycle. While many observers think of fields as the most critical space for agriculture, our work with farmers in Chinhoyi has shown us that the storage and processing phase is perhaps the most perilous, with variation in storage practices leading to swings of thousands of dollars in ultimate crop sale price, and theft as a constant threat. Our concept is that by connecting the NODE to various sensors, for example for humidity, temperature, and occupancy, we can create a low cost system to allow farmers to quickly respond to threats to their stored crops. While a technical tool, a NODE end user could see an alert SMS requiring his or her response. Further, this NODE system will hopefully allow us to tackle a secondary challenge for farmers in market uncertainty. With a crop history dataset, we hope the NODE will allow farmers to better communicate quality to purchasers, allowing greater certainty and transparency for all involved.

WHO BENEFITS?

We view our beneficiaries as small scale farmers, SMEs, and end consumers. First, a NODE based monitoring system for barns and silos would help reduce spoilage and theft. Second, we have noted a complete lack of transparency in the agricultural space during our time in Zimbabwe. By creating a dataset and history for a particular crop, farmers and purchasers will be better able to mutually assure quality, helping farmers predict financial outcomes and recognize and reward best practices.

WHERE WILL YOUR IDEA BE IMPLEMENTED?

We are based in Zimbabwe. Specifically, we have been fortunate to work with the EcoFarmer division of Econet Wireless, as well as farmers in the Chinhoyi area as initial pilot and feedback partners. We look forward to continuing our work in Zimbabwe.

ARE YOU IMPLEMENTING IN AN ELIGIBLE COUNTRY?

  • Yes

EXPERTISE IN SECTOR

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for over a year

EXPERIENCE IN IMPLEMENTATION COUNTRY(IES)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

TELL US MORE ABOUT YOU!

My name is Gordon - I'm interested in the intersection of making, engineering, development, and social enterprise. I'm spending this year as a Gordon Grand Fellow developing the NODE. I have been so fortunate to work with Econet Wireless, Higgs Hub, and Yale SEAS in this process. Harare based!

IS THIS IDEA NEW FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION?

The NODE is the core focus of our venture, Pivot Technologies. However, while we have been working on this project for 18 months, we are still discovering new pieces to this project every day, particularly on the application and use case end. As we are all by definition relatively new to this project, we hope to have the opportunity to continue down this path in both the short and long term.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA UNIQUE?

With the growing concept of the Internet of Things, we are certainly not the first people to suggest the use of remote monitoring in the developing world. However, were we do think our approach is unique is in the realization that many developing world challenges, from solar panel voltages to soil moisture readings, require similar technical solutions. By creating one product able to serve across many issue areas, we hope to break the low volume/ high margin model that we have so frequently encountered for highly specialized monitoring products; we can offer one device for under $100 to all fields, replacing existing units at operating costs of $400/unit/year in select fields, and perhaps more importantly serving causes not currently provided monitoring solutions by the market. In terms of execution, we feel we have a unique mix of technical expertise and developing world experience. The extensive experience with electronics in our team will be very helpful for bringing the NODE to market. But our year operating in Zimbabwe has also given us many valuable connections in terms of piloting and collecting user feedback.

WHO WILL IMPLEMENT THIS IDEA?

With our internal electronic hardware and software competencies, as well as our connection in Shenzhen, China, we would look forward to ultimately producing and assisting in the configuration of NODE units for the market, from the technical end. For moving into the field, we would look forward to reuniting with our partners EcoFarmer, Energize the Chain, and ZTA, all based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BECAUSE OF BENEFICIARY FEEDBACK?

In working with our partners for the last few months, perhaps the most critical piece of feedback we have received around the NODE, both explicitly and through observation, is that the current version of the device is still too complicated for our largely non-technical users. We have realized that not only the coding, but the basic application of the NODE in terms of wiring and sensor selection may prove challenging. From a more positive perspective, after months of discussing potential use cases for the NODE (with folks in real life and over the internet as part of OpenIDEO) we have realized that a few key measurements continue to come up as the most critical - temperature, humidity, voltage, light level, open/closed, to name a few. Simiarly, from a software perspective, a fairly common set up for logging and alerts will likely suffice for most clients. Now our key consideration is whether we pivot toward a more user friendly device, designed for plug and play functionality with our most common sensors, or whether we persevere with the current version of the NODE, modifying our business model to include required set up and configuration assistance to clients.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS IDEA?

Ultimately, what is the right balance between ability to customize and raw power of the device, versus ease and simplicity of use for our end users? What are the specific challenges where a unit such as the NODE makes economic sense to implement? Who are those clients?

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

The challenge in remote monitoring is not the core technology, but rather the effort required to tailor, market, and deliver that technology to many different sectors. With this mindset, the only way for companies to profitably deliver these types of monitoring products is with a high margin/low volume model, appropriate when dealing with developed world enterprise but untenable when working with cash-strapped governments and NGOs. For this reason, large sectors, from medical transportation to remote power, remain unmonitored. It is also for this reason that we believe we can cut through this business model challenge, by leveraging commonalities through a system such as the NODE.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

Our ultimate goal is to develop and deploy one product or suite of products able to solve many developing world remote monitoring challenges simply and at a drastically reduced cost. We believe our next step is to develop our beachhead market in which to launch with our limited team and resources. Having moved into one market - perhaps agriculture - we would then hope to alter our offering over time to include more potential use cases.

MEMBERS OF MY TEAM HAVE BEEN WORKING TOGETHER FOR:

  • More than a year

MY INTENDED BENEFICIARIES ARE:

  • Within 50 km of where our team does most of its work
  • More than 500 km from where our team does most of its work

MY ORGANIZATION'S OPERATING BUDGET FOR 2015 WAS:

  • Under $100,000

The NODE is a low cost, GSM/GPRS enabled, Arduino based, ruggedly designed, universal data monitoring unit. Inspired by a research trip through Southern Africa working with organizations engaged with the “last mile” of vaccine cold chain delivery, a key realization for our team was that lack of real time field data was not just an issue for the vaccine space or even the health space more broadly, but rather a challenge that was and is affecting organizations in all fields.

However, with our engineering hats on, we realized that a solution to all these challenges could be achieved by combining a few “maker” level technologies – an Arduino, and a cell phone. We further realized that this one device could be tailored to many different fields through the addition of different sensors and attachments: a rain gauge and soil moisture sensor for the farming collective, a GPS unit and set of temperature probes for the blood bank shipment. This would simultaneously present one low cost and rapidly scalable solution to many fields, in place of the previous standard of highly specialized devices.

With that concept, a year of effort, and a trip around the world, the NODE was born. We have now piloted our device in Zimbabwe and prepared for manufacturing in Shenzhen, China. Specifically, we have been fortunately to work with the EcoFarmer division of Econet Wireless, in addition to local farmers in the Chinhoyi area on how to adapt the NODE to help with storage and processing of agricultural products. After receiving direct feedback from farmers in February, we look forward to making our first installations of the NODE in the agricultural space in May. While working on further piloting and an initial rollout of the NODE, we also look forward to refining our device and use case through the OpenIDEO process, and hopefully with IDEO in the future. Thank you for your consideration.

For more information on the NODE, in addition to live NODE data streams from around the globe, please check out our webpage here.

Collaboration updates:

April 18, 2016 - Conversation with Ashley @ Markit Opportunity. Clear opportunity for initial NODE pilot with MO team in storage phase for red onions when moving to market. Would want to track temp/humidity along with weight of onions to measure water absorbtion rates and onion quality. Would also want to consider moving NODEs into market setting to measure loss of quality in that phase.

April 18, 2016 - Conversation with Eric Hager about ISABEL. Realized facing many similar challenges in really nailing down key use cases for our technologies. Clear room for collaboration between the Data Vis/Analytics focused ISABEL team and hardware focused NODE team.

June 13, 2016 - Example Sensors for use with the NODE: https://www.adafruit.com/category/35

37 comments

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Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Gordon,

Below are some feedback from our experts and Amplify team. Looking forward to your responses!

-What are the actions farmers need to act on with the data?

-At $100 the price point may still be expensive for some small-holder farmers. How might we get multiple people actionable on the device in a way that helps all parties? 

-How will the Node device cater to the different post-harvest monitoring needs of specific crops? Which crop market are you targeting right now?

Photo of Gordon McCambridge
Team

Hi Chioma - thanks to you and the experts for your questions. Below are my responses:

- (Wrapping questions 1 & 2 together) to be perfectly frank, I don’t think technology such as the NODE makes sense on the scale of absolute smallest scale farmers. I think your questions hit at the two key challenges for this sort of technology at this level 1. That even as cheap as we can possibly make it, it will still likely be overpriced 2. That even if we can detect failures, local farmers will likely not have a method of response. However, that is not to say I don’t think the NODE has role with these farmers, but more likely further up the chain as excess crop moves from field to market. In these situations, whether the crop be in a community storage facility or in shipment, technology such as the NODE can be key to providing not only feedback to those performing the operations, but also transparency for all stakeholders involved. I can also see the NODE being key to researchers attempting studies of different methodologies in small-scale farming. So while I don’t think the NODE makes sense to install on every small family farm, I do think this sort of technology could have a large impact in developing world agriculture, especially with a focus on getting small holder crops to international markets.

 - with the flexibility of the NODE, we would hope to be able to match a given crop to a specific set of sensors and software configuration based on the needs of the crop and client. For example, in the agriculture space, we have been fortunate to partner with Zimbabwean tobacco farmers. For tobacco, the key parameters during the curing process are humidity and temperature, and as such we have configured the NODE hardware to incorporate these sensors for the pilot. We’ve also learned from our partners the key thresholds for which they’ll need to generate alerts, which is handled by the software. Our hope would be to replicate this process for many different crops and storage and curing situations.



Let me know if any additional information would be specifically helpful. Have a nice day.

Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Gordon, thanks for your thoughtful response! It sounds as though you are narrowing in on your target market... you mention partnerships with tobacco farmers, are those the ones that you're hoping to continue to explore? If not, who are you considering working with if you were to get Amplify support? What is the nature of your past work with them? And, are you still based in Harare? 
Lastly, are you familiar with Proximity Design? You might find their work interesting: http://www.proximitydesigns.org/ They've been continuously evolving their technologies and price points to provide data to farmers.

Photo of Gordon McCambridge
Team

Hey Chioma, yes, understand the concern with tobacco farmers. They are only one of are partners - we are also fortunate to be working with EcoFarmer of Econet Wireless, more explicitly BOP and subsistence crop focused. This organization might make a little more sense in terms of partnership between Amplify, us, and them.

In Harare as much as I can be. In China right now after some time in the US. But hoping to be back sooner rather than later.

Thank you for that link - I had not heard of them. Will get in touch. Do you have any names specifically I could reach out to?

Thanks Chioma - have very much enjoyed the OpenIDEO process. Hoping to hear about next steps, but anyway have very much enjoyed the experience.

Best,

Gordon

Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Gordon,

So glad that you've enjoyed the challenge experience! I'm curious, what specifically have you liked?

As for Proximity, once you take a look at their site, if you find some things that you'd like to follow up on, please let me know? I can then check with my contacts at IDEO.org to see who would be best to put you in touch with. Sound good? 

Lastly, you mention all of your partners are in Harare, would they be the ones spearheading the implementation of this idea, or would that lie with you and your team?

Thanks so much!
c

Photo of Gordon McCambridge
Team

Hey Chioma - sorry for my slow response.

It's been a great way to re-examine our core ideas in a more formal context. Also the encouragement to reach out and talk to new folks has been great.

Proximity looks like a smart match for a partner - would you have a contact there you would be willing to pass on? Sounds like their focus on general monitoring would pair well with our more hi-tech approach. Their feedback would also be super useful. If you want to send that over off the site, that would be great too: gordon.mccambridge@gmail.com.

I think the spearheading in Harare would be blended - a lot of our team taking advantage of our partners' resources, locations, and networks. We would almost certainly lead on the technical front during piloting, keying into our partners for continued feedback.

Thanks Chioma!

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