Showing What’s Possible with Agricultural Data in Jamaica

Editor’s note: This post was written by 2014 Code for America fellow Anna Marie Panlilio and originally appears on the Code for America blog.

We got off the plane and drove to the busiest intersection in Kingston, Jamaica, where the Slashroots Foundation calls home. Wendy and I, both 2014 Code for America fellows, would spend the next month working with Slashroots’ data-driven technology projects that protect farmers’ livelihoods.

Slashroots recently completed their Code for the Caribbean fellowship, focused on two projects: HarvestAPI, an open data platform with the first agricultural data released by a government agency (the Rural Area Development Agency aka RADA) in the Caribbean; and Clip, an SMS app which uses data from the HarvestAPI to provide on-demand access to agriculture data.

Our Job, Should We Choose to Accept It

code for caribbeanWe arrived just a week after Matthew McNaughton, the Executive Director of SlashRoots, returned to Kingston after working in Washington, DC with the World Bank for a couple of years. In addition to the Slashroots team getting used to being in an office together, they were embarking on building a new marketplace platform in conjunction with Jamaica’s two largest agricultural agencies to help farmers and vendors buy and sell their goods at better prices.

“There’s a conflict as we’re trying to birth a new thing. It’s fighting against the thing that currently exists and the environment that currently exists,” said McNaughton. “That’s a non-trivial process.”

How much can two former Code for America Fellows do in one month with a non-profit organization going through its own transition?

We led user research training, joined the team at Coronation Market to interview farmers and vendors, designed wireframes for the HarvestAPI administrator dashboard, implemented a new stylesheet for the API, researched dashboard frameworks, and improved processes around continuous integration for HarvestAPI.

More Than a Job Title

What I didn’t know before applying to be a CfA Fellow is that I would be a different person after the fellowship ended. I came out of the fellowship with a skillset that doesn’t fit neatly under Designer or Developer titles any more, but does come in handy when tackling big, hairy challenges.

  • I can negotiate with government officials whom most residents never get the chance to meet;
  • I know that the conversations with the employees on the ground level are important and insightful;
  • I know that effectiveness depends on involvement by both the higher-ups and the ones on the ground level;
  • I can brainstorm hundreds of ideas and be okay scrapping them all because every agonizing debate will inevitably lead the team to the right place;
  • I can identify patterns of inefficiency and see how a solution can help more than just one locality;
  • I can identify and deliver quick wins that help build relationships with dissenters;
  • I am skilled in the art of bureaucratic jiu-jitsu;
  • I know that the most effective way to sustain positive change is to design with the people who will be providing the services and with the people using them; and
  • I seek and accept failure as part of the process.

You Can’t Skip the Struggle

code for caribbeanThe benefit of an international exchange is that it works both ways. After working alongside the SlashRoots team, Wendy and I adjusted to island time with its ebbs and flows of momentum. We had firsthand experiences of the country’s complex nuances, diverse landscape, and rich culture. We were inspired by the team’s dedication to create solutions to social problems in the Caribbean using open data. And we came back to America with a better understanding of the importance of humility in this kind of work.

On my last afternoon in Kingston, I sat on a bench outside the office with Matthew talking above the sounds of blaring car horns and crowded buses hustling for passengers.

“Jamaica is where I want to be. Dysfunctional as it is, it’s my dysfunction,” McNaughton said.

McNaughton thanked us for our patience, for being extra sets of eyes, and for showing the team what’s possible—intangible contributions that we can be proud of.

It’s easy to assume that an idea, a program, a structure, or an organization can be transplanted somewhere else and succeed. But it doesn’t work that way. As McNaughton reminded us, “You can’t skip the struggle.”

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