What do farmers in Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear have in common with a 21-year-old computing student in Scotland? On first glance, not much. But Neil Stewart has designed a smartphone app with the United Nations that could improve the lives of those living in rural areas halfway across the world.
Attis, named after the Greek god of vegetation, will give farmers access to crucial information including flood warnings, how fast crops are growing and how much they are being sold for in the local vicinity.
Stewart, who will graduate in July, designed the app after a volunteer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) approached his university in Edinburgh, looking for a student to help design an app.
“Basically, it provides farmers with information that can help improve their knowledge and problem-solving abilities within farming. It provides specific, accurate and up to date information that is tailored specifically to their needs,” said Stewart, who came to Cambodia in October last year and more recently in March to meet the people who would benefit from using the app.
Ny Sopheak, an officer at the Department of Agriculture in Oddar Meanchey who was given an introduction to the app in order to test it out, said that it could result in Cambodia’s farmers catching up with the rapid development of the rest of the country.
“Farmers must develop as the rest of the country and technology progress,” she said.
“They can benefit from the internet; they can find out the prices of everything around the world. Eventually, they’ll be able to start earning more money.”
While at present most of the Kingdom’s farmers use basic mobile technology, it won’t be long before they will gain access to smartphones that are more popular in urban areas, FAO project manager Iean Russell predicted.
“We can see now that there’s opportunity, given the wide mobile coverage and the increasing use of mobile phones, that it won’t be long before there’s a smartphone revolution among the population in general – and farmers aren’t exempt from that,” he said over the phone from his Siem Reap office earlier this week.
Attis currently only works on Android phones.
Russell added that because of the work that needed to be done to develop the app and translate it into Khmer, it will take five years to launch it.
“It’s at an early stage of development, and has the potential to reform the ways farmers do things, but we’re looking at five years down the line, when there’ll be wider access to smartphones and this device will be fully operational,” he said.
The Agricultural Marketing Office, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, provides an existing service using a mobile phone for farmers and traders to access price information. But Russell said that Attis would be easier to use.
“The idea was to invest some time in the development of the app to make the device easily accessible, just like swiping on the phone and touching icons instead of punching codes into the keypad,” he said, adding that it’s comparable to the difference between punching codes into the first computers and the operating systems which we now work with.
As well as providing information in Khmer for farmers, the app will allow them to contact farming advisors – whether officers like Sopheak from the Department of Agriculture or local NGOs – who are working nearby. Enabling this crucial communication via smartphone will, said Russell, be a low-cost alternative to sending staff to provide advice for farmers on an individual basis.
“If there’s ever a problem in the field, farmers can use their smartphones to record information, like taking a photograph, registering the location and then sending that information as a query to ask a question to an expert, who might be as remote as Phnom Penh,” he explained, adding that common problems include insects attacking a crop or a crop lacking in nutrients.
For student Stewart, who already started a job two weeks ago as an operations engineer at a cloud computing firm, Attis shows just how powerful technology can be.
He said: “I think it is very powerful to see that technology that you and I may use for social reasons being utilised in a way that can help potentially save lives or change the way a community of people work and live.”
He added: “For me, to be able to say, ‘I developed an app for the United Nations so that farmers can access crucial information and I’ve not even graduated yet’ is amazing.”