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The latest – and most readily available – tools for breeders are often intangible things, such as ideas, approaches and even software. But they also include new physical tools, such as electronic tablets to make data collection more efficient. Read on to discover how structured user testing paved a path from pioneer to perfection.

This article was first published on the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) website on the 17th of October 2011, and is republished here as a complement to our last blogpost on the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC), illustrating yet another facet of our multi-pronged approach to capacity building.

From small and sweet to bigger and better, this ‘cure’ might just do the trick… After initial testing of small electronic handheld devices for field data collection, followed by extensive testing of alternative options on the market, an appropriate digital tablet was identified. Last month (September 2011), 20 tablets were distributed to IBP users from research programmes in Africa and Asia for pre-test. Should this user evaluation be positive, the plan is to distribute more of these tablets in the future, to a total ‘dosage’ of between 100–200 tablets in all, in the course of the next 12 months.

Flashback to February 2011: Pioneer handheld devices

The road behind us

We initially started by piloting smaller handheld devices (Honeywell and HP iPaq) among a small set of selected users, to get feedback from them, and collectively see what would work best to meet their needs. The smaller, handheld devices were piloted in late 2009 into early 2010 for evaluation by users.

Significantly, some institutes such as AfricaRice and IITA even procured additional units at their own cost – an act which speaks for itself. Most of our users reported finding the devices easy to use, simple and straight forward. Plus, they reported that it increases efficiency, saves time and minimises data error because data are recorded in a ready-for-use format. But it wasn’t all a bed of roses and there a few thorns as well: users encountered difficulties in synchronisation between the handheld and their computer due to configuration conflicts. The small screen and keyboard and short battery life also brought no joy, and data collection for multiple samples was a problem.

But enough from us on the pros and cons! Here is what some of the users from the rice and sorghum Research Initiatives (RIs) had to say way back in February 2011. As you will see, almost all of them got incurably ‘digitally infected’ despite the cons reported with the small portable devices.

In their own words: Users speak

Akinwale Gbenga of AfricaRice, Ibadan, Nigeria, pictured in the field recording data using the handheld device

Q: What has been your experience with the handheld device?

akinwale_tabletAkinwale: This device was very timely for us because we were already exploring and experiment with ways to improve the way data were being collected. The handheld device has greatly improved our efficiency. Previously, we’d collect data in a physical workbook then the data would be transferred manually to the computer. The handheld device saves time, guarantees accurate entries with no proofreading required, and safeguards the data: there is no risk of datasheets being lost or misplaced. With this device, what is recorded in the field is what is transferred into the computer without any errors. Whereas when deciphering handwriting, it’s very easy to confuse 3 for 8, 7 for 9, and so on, even when it is your own writing. Also, when working in the lowlands, mud smears and water smudges on the paper sometimes mean that handwritten data cannot be read. In a timed exercise to compare this new method and the usual methods, it took me 35 minutes to enter one trait and the job was fully done. With the usual methods, it would have taken me double the time since I would have had to manually collect and enter data then proofread entries.

Q: What drawbacks or concerns might you have observed about the device, and what would you advise?

Akinwale: The battery lasts four hours, so it is important to ensure it is fully charged before going to the field. Data collection is best done in the morning to avoid reflection and glare from the screen. I’m not sure how long the device will last, but I have no doubt that it is good value for money. Some programming work will also be needed to cater for traits that need multiple measurements.

ibnou_dieng_0Ibonou Dieng, a biometrician, AfricaRice, commented, “The only dataset that is complete at this time is for the station that had the handheld device. This underscores the efficiency of the handheld device. We therefore plan to disseminate the handheld device to all our rice RI partners in Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria. Significantly, management at AfricaRice has committed to buy the device for other projects as well for use in recording dry-season data in March.” Ibnou is one of the Joint Co-ordinators of the of the Data Managers Community of Practice with specific responsibility for Africa.

bashir_mohammedBashir Mohamed, a researcher and data manager at Nigeria’s National Cereal Research Institute at Badeggi, was impatiently waiting for the handheld device and observed, “Manual data collection and entry is extremely laborious. It generally involves three people – a field technician to do the counting, a data manager to do the recording and the breeder. With the handheld device, this job can be done by the data manager singlehandedly.”

aboubacar_diarraAboubacar Diarra, an Assistant Rice Breeder at l’Institut d’economie rurale in Mail noted, “The handheld device promises many advantages, and eases the task of data collection. Generally, it is rare to collect, enter and verify data all on the same day, meaning that should anomalies be noted at verification, the reality in the field may have significantly changed by the time one returns to the site to take a new reading. By easing the job, the handheld device makes it possible to do all three steps in a single day, and therefore to return to the field if need be for verification in good time.”

alexis_traoreAlexis Traore, Institut de l’environnement et de recherche agricole (INERA), Burkina Faso, said, “Data management is indispensable for molecular breeding, and therefore an understanding of data management is absolutely essential. We need training in data management and on new tools such as the handheld device that can help us manage data better. That way, we not only learn but we’ll also train other scientists as well as students who come to our institutes.”

marie-noelle_ndjiondjopMarie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop of AfricaRice, and the Rice Research Initiative Principal Investigator, summed it up thus:“Our riceproject has and will continue to produce a lot of data. The time to think about data management is now. We will ensure that all our rice RI partners receive the handheld device, and we are glad to note that the management at AfricaRice is actively promoting the device and recommending it for all breeding programmes at the Centre.”

But not all the users were complimentary, convinced and converted…

niaba_temeNiaba Teme, a sorghum breeder at L’Institut d’économie rurale, Mali, complained, “The handheld device is difficult to use. For traits like flowering which occurs at different times, you have to scroll to find the plot and flower which is time-consuming. It’s also difficult to work with it outdoors in the sunshine. Pen and paper are easier to use.” Niaba Teme is co-PI for the BCNAM project of the Sorghum Research Initiative.

On balance though, the concept of electronic data collection was clearly appreciated and was creating a ‘positive epidemic’, but clearly, a better tool was needed. Users recommended that IBP explore alternative mobile devices such as the tablet, to address the cons and drawbacks reported by Niaba and others on the small handheld devices. We listened and acted…

Fastforward to September 2011

tablet_photoTaking into account the comprehensive feedback received from users, the IBP team, led by Arllet Portugal, the Informatics Coordinator, set out to identify an appropriate handheld device that would meet the needs of users. They settled on a Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch digital tablet (pictured) because it uses a common and open Honeycomb Android operating system specially designed for tablets, it has a large clear screen for easy viewing, good battery life and is lightweight and relatively robust. It can also communicate with a bar-code reader.

The 20 partners who received the tablet in September 2011 appeared very pleased with it, and committed to provide systematic and structured feedback over a one-year test period. Terms and conditions apply for this receipt: tablet recipients signed formal contracts whereby they will have to demonstrate that they indeed used the tablet to capture field data. Once preliminary feedback is received from this pioneer set of tablet users and analysed, the circle of evaluators will be expanded by contacting other users interested in trying out digital data-collection devices. And to maximise benefit and mutual learning, the IBP team will organise a forum for tablet users – probably around the next IBP annual meeting – to share experiences and tips, including a data clinic, should there be need.

We shall be following their experience with the tablet, so please watch this space to stay with the story, and travel with our users on what we trust will be a very momentous road ahead!

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