Top-down projects for improving the lives of poor farmers were often unsuccessful because they didn't systematically consider the diverse rural households survive and thrive. To tap this local knowledge, scientists and development agencies began surveying households to assure that research and development schemes were on target. But the surveys were not designed to be compared with one another, lacking what scientists call 'rabilinteropeity' – meaning one organization’s household surveys could not be compared with another’s. For big-picture analysis, much of the data was of little use.
A team of CGIAR researchers began tackling the household survey interoperability problem in 2015. More than 13,000 standardized surveys and 21 countries later, they published their findings, methods and analysis of their massive dataset in February in Scientific Data, a Nature publication.
Moreover, they invited the global research-for-development community to contribute to the open-access dataset, which today includes more than 30,000 interviews conducted in 33 countries (the publication only analyzed interviews through mid-2018). Data is collected on tablets or smartphones, which can be solar powered for use in remote regions.
Broad adoption of this standardized survey tool may help guide international efforts to address smallholder challenges related to climate change, food security, nutrition, farm productivity and social inclusion.
"The lack of standardization of agricultural household surveys, especially in international ‘agriculture for development’ research, has resulted in a proliferation of survey tools and indicators leading to datasets which are often badly documented, incoherent, and with limited interoperability," the authors wrote. “The current state of affairs limits our ability to compare outcomes across studies and to draw general conclusions on the effectiveness of interventions and the trade-offs between outcomes.”
Researchers at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) developed the tool, which they dubbed the Rural Household Multi-Indicator Survey, or RHoMIS. Other CGIAR co-authors included researchers at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and World Agroforestry.
"With this tool, we gain a consistent level of detail over a wide range of topics," said Mark van Wijk, the lead author. "This allows us to look for system interactions that are observable in a wide diversity of locations, projects, cultures or climate zones."