“Most data collection software is built to serve the desires of the person who built the survey. SurveyStack is built to serve the community collecting the data. In our agricultural applications, we have learned that there is immense value and a strong need for judgement free, transparent, effective tools for producers to benchmark their operations with their peers. We are actively working on those tools in collaboration with others and are actively seeking any farmer groups, extension communities, agronomists, soil health coaches, agricultural researchers, and anyone else who wishes to support better strategic decision-making through effective, transparent benchmarking,” says Greg Austic, Cofounder of Our Sci.
Greg Austic was born on a farm in Central New York, and went to Cornell University for economics and sociology, followed up with the Peace Corps in Moldova. “My goal at the time was honest but simple-minded – learn how to most improve the lives of most of the people. What I learned was the world is complicated, the problems are wicked, and philanthropy as it exists today is minimally productive, so I decided to engage in areas that I was confident would improve the world – allowing humans to meet our core needs locally, with less effort and in a long-term sustainable way,” says Greg.
He then spent 5 years working in a biodiesel cooperative startup, performing all the jobs from factory floor to waste grease collection and ultimately creating an R&D arm and new technology. “I now had a passion for technology and a belief that progress is possible, but saw the absurdity of the current system of patent, protect and profit,” Greg says. “So I moved to Michigan and cofounded PhotosynQ with a professor, creating another 5 year stint, building a low-cost, open source photosynthesis sensor and associated software. Unfortunately, even there it wasn’t possible to avoid the pressures of patents, so I left and cofounded Our Sci with my partners Dan TerAvest and Manuel DiCerbo.”
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Sebastian Klemm: Why is your SurveyStack an effective tool to empower shared community knowledge & community sustainability?
Greg Austic: At the core, most data collection software is built to serve the desires of the person who built the survey. SurveyStack is built to serve the community collecting the data. That requires a different set of tools.
First, the ability to understand, build consensus, discuss, and version the methods and protocols of data collection itself. A community cannot understand data if it has not both agreed to the collection process and understands the data structure.
Second, the capacity to be powerful and flexible while still being understandable and interpretable by a broader population. If a process for cleaning data, for example, is so specific to one person that no one else can understand it, then community knowledge building is not feasible.
Third, because communities are large and extensive, scalability is a requirement not an afterthought. That’s not just scalability in the amount of data collected, but also in a community’s capacity to review, interpret, and understand it.
Finally, even in community research there will be stewards for the process. Those are people who support data collection, analyze results, and improve the process itself. The difference is, these people are working on behalf of the community rather than working on behalf of their own goals. As such they need tools to manage and administer the process while ensuring that data privacy is respected, external engagement remains possible, and there’s no trade-offs between administrative efficiency and transparency.
In SurveyStack we spend an immense amount of time thinking about these details, and have many features that relate to the items above.
Sebastian Klemm: How does it work: Can you give us case examples of communities who already apply SurveyStack?
Greg Austic: The most expansive example is our work with The Bionutrient Food Association. That is a community of 800 foodies, farmers, gardeners and others who want to better understand the connections between soil health, food quality, and human health. We support them in asking those questions by managing a large-scale survey of food and soil from farms and grocery stores across the United States and France. From that survey we identify connections between management practice, soil quality, and food quality. We are also trying to develop long-term solutions for infield estimation of food quality using the same survey as the basis for training data around handheld instruments.
We use SurveyStack to connect these various data sources and also to support delivery back to the community. SurveyStack is used in the lab to collect food and soil sample results for things like antioxidants, polyphenols, soil carbon, pH and others. It is also used in the field where samples are collected, relating sample IDs to a field ID. Finally it is used to collect management data about the field, storing that data in farmOS, another open source project for farm record keeping. In total this project has 20 unique surveys which are merged by sample ID, field ID, and submitter with tens of thousands of submissions over the last few years. Normally this process would be done by manually merging data from these many sources on a monthly or yearly basis, resulting in slow interpretation and poor feedback to farmers and citizen scientists submitting samples.
Using SurveyStack, we are integrating data in real-time from all sources to provide the most accurate and fast feed back to the community and the most transparent source of real-time data to those interested and willing to dive in.
While most projects are not this complicated and diverse, this is a good example of how detailed projects can get and how even small projects are capable of scaling effectively on a single platform.
Another case example is with OpenTEAM who aim to build an open source ag tech ecosystem with strong community input and co-creation. OpenTEAM provided additional funding for SurveyStack, positioning it as the data collection and method codification tool within the OpenTEAM ecosystem. OpenTEAM community members also provide heavy input into SurveyStack itself as well as the general design direction of the platform.
Sebastian Klemm: Apart from the agricultural sector: Where else has SurveyStack already been applied successfully?
Greg Austic: Our SurveyStack application is also used in manufacturing or laboratory facilities. Beneficial Bio, a distributed manufacturer of biological reagents, uses SurveyStack surveys to manage their in-lab procedures and quality control – enabling both directions (SOPs) and data feedback (QA/QC) in a single process.
At Our Sci we are using SurveyStack ourselves for the manufacturing of our handheld reflectometer. We leverage SurveyStack to track manufacturing SOPs, device calibration results, failure reporting, and inventory in the same system.
How you could use SurveyStack?
I’m a lab and need to track samples from farm to lab and deliver results back. I can use SurveyStack to create sample intake surveys and lab surveys, using tools like QR codes for sample tracking. I can create a dashboard to track my samples in real-time from collector -> lab -> finished results, identify + solve problems in-season, and quickly merge and generate final datasets at the end of the season. I can even deliver results back to users via a private email link with comparisons to their peers (percentiles), graphs, and charts.
I’m a farm and want to run a small experiment with different planting methods across 20 varieties. I want to collect observational data (flowering, greenness, etc.) and track what I did through the season. I can use SurveyStack to create a survey, collect observations, and quickly and easily compare results in real-time and at the end of the season.
I’m a large research project and need to onboard 100 farms. I can use SurveyStack to create a survey, onboard farms with both private (emails) and public (farm practice) information, simultaneously collect metadata from other services (soil information, historical weather data), and use a dashboard to track which types of farms I’m onboarding in real time. Finally, I can directly save my results both to SurveyStack and to individual FarmOS instances for privacy-minded, long term storage.
Sebastian Klemm: How do you facilitate clients to set up SurveyStack and implement it into their operations?
Greg Austic: When we founded SurveyStack we understood that we were creating a product for a market that did not exist – yet. Very few communities today feel empowered to ask difficult research questions about their world and those that do struggle to find easy solutions to move forward.
As a result, we bring every level of support to the table from clarifying a community’s research and data questions, resources and skills, creating roadmaps and plans for implementation, identifying or building appropriate tools to support the process, and even identifying and writing funding proposals.
Sebastian Klemm: What next opportunities are you seeking for SurveyStack? What communities and sectors are you interested in to reach & support with SurveyStack?
Greg Austic: SurveyStack has been a learning journey for sure. Our mission is to support communities, but we did not know which communities would show up. Having five years under our belts we now have a better sense of where we can best help.
- Ecosystem service and other environmental credit markets are growing quickly. Many service providers emerge from farmer communities, stakeholder communities, supply chain coalitions, and even consumer groups. These communities often have deep knowledge of their domain and a strong desire to create the best and most effective processes to incentivize or highlight best practices in their communities and beyond. However they usually lack a deep understanding of how best to implement their programs from a technology perspective. We have been working with these groups, through larger collaborative efforts like OpenTEAM, to build common open source infrastructure so that everyone can start with well thought out, well designed and relatively inexpensive tools to build and manage their ecosystem service markets or incentive programs. We serve everything from occasional technology consultant to Chief Technology Officer to supplier of an individual component of their technology tool chain.
- We have learned from our existing communities that there is immense value and a strong need for judgement free, transparent, effective tools for producers to benchmark their operations with their peers. We are actively working on those tools in collaboration with others and are actively seeking any farmer groups, extension communities, agronomists, soil health coaches, agricultural researchers, and anyone else who wishes to support better strategic decision-making through effective, transparent benchmarking. The current open source software being developed is built to support farmer control data, comparable but flexible development of benchmarking metrics, and effective tools for community discussion and farmer to farmer contact.
- Any coherent community who has concrete research interests but feels too overwhelmed to engage them. It is not obvious today how communities can use existing tools to ask hard questions in a comparable, validatable, scientific quality way. It is however possible and we want to help!
Sebastian Klemm: “We Support Community Research” is a declared purpose of Our Sci, enabling the development of research capacity in communities through software, hardware, and training. What experiences have led you to the conviction that any community is capable of solving even the hardest problems using their own skills and resources?
Greg Austic: It is actually a combination of experiences and beliefs. First when I worked in the field of biodiesel in the United States circa 2010, it was a true DIY scene. There were literally thousands of people making biodiesel in their garages, their backyards, their kitchens. And not only were they making fuel, most of them were trying to make it better. We had an extremely active forum of people asking questions, building new processes and tools, establishing relationships and ultimately creating community around a shared goal. The amazing part about the biodiesel community in the United States, and what I most appreciate about groups with concise shared goals, is its capacity to break other lines that normally separate people. Everyone from super religious to atheists, hippies to truck drivers, grease monkeys to rich liberals shared a common goal in creating sustainable, independent energy sources. Through this experience, I don’t *think* community-driven science is possible, I *know* that it is possible, and furthermore when it happens it is an absolute joy.
On the theory side, I believe that most “simple” problems have been addressed. Simple problems can be solved by individuals working alone or in small groups and asking questions that are typical of the past three hundred years of science. Control groups versus treatment groups, testing hypotheses in a lab in controlled situations, we are asking relatively simple questions of a broader population in the real world. I am not downplaying science or those who do it, “simple” problems are hard and often require immense work to solve.
What we are left with now, and what will most impact our world going forward, are not “simple” problems, they are “wicked” problems: problems which require data from many locations and many people, both high-level and hyper-local flexible solutions, and on going and large-scale feedback mechanisms like climate change, energy storage and management, or mental health. Academia and industry can and do work on these problems, but what has changed is that they are not alone in their capacity to solve them. We live in a world where hundreds or thousands of people can effectively collaborate, share, collect and learn together using the best tools and methods available today. Computers, the Internet, democratization of tools generally makes this all possible.
While academia and industry have had hundreds of years to develop the culture and norms of understanding and solving problems (ie “science”), communities have not. Or, perhaps more accurately, they used to, but those skills and norms have atrophied as problem-solving has moved into the domain of specialists. We need to reinvigorate this skill, cheerlead community awakening to their potential, and codevelop the culture, tools and norms of communities-based research.
In conclusion, having been part of communities who were successful at solving problems, understanding the nature of the problems we are facing today and in the future, and knowing that for most of history research and problem solving was within the competency of communities, I believe that communities are capable of solving even their most complex challenges.
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