Ploughing with compact disc
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CTA. 1987. Ploughing with compact disc. Spore 9. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Compact discs can be used for more than just recording your favourite music. They can store all the information found in the largest agricultural encyclopedia. CD-ROM technology thus opens up a new avenue for communication techniques in development...
Compact discs can be used for more than just recording your favourite music. They can store all the information found in the largest agricultural encyclopedia. CD-ROM technology thus opens up a new avenue for communication techniques in development programmes. Africa is the least computerized continent in the world. Even among Third World countries - which have hardly participated in the information revolution - ACP countries are at the bottom of the list. Of the Third World's 5 % share in global computer sales, Latin America accounts for 58%, Southeast Asia for 28%, the Middle East for 8%, and Africa for only 6%. Apart from the efforts of the Cote d'lvoire, Cameroon and more recently Gabon to invest in this field, most other African countries are only at the first stage of computerization, using it for calculating salaries, for accounting and statistics. In Third World countries, where the emphasis has been primarily on rural development, it is often difficult to acquire technical information about agriculture. In Africa, for example, there are only a few documentation centres that are even partially computerized. In Europe and North America, however, it is now common for farmers to be made aware of the latest developments in agricultural science via well-developed, computerized information systems. A recently developed technology now seems to offer immense promise in the important area of agricultural information diffusion. It consists of the commercialization of CD-ROM (Compact Disc - Read Only Memory). The enormous storage capacity of this technology is its major attraction: about 180,000 bibliographic abstracts can now be stored on one 12 cm diameter compact disc instead of over 1,000 floppy discs. In other words, the contents of an entire 20 volume encyclopedia can be recorded on a single CD-ROM disc about the size of a saucer. To access such information, one only needs relatively inexpensive equipment consisting of a separate laser reader (similar to that used to play musical compact discs) or a unit directly incorporated in a micro-computer. There is no doubt that this new technology represents a major step forward in information systems. Some sceptics have noted, however, that previous advances in electronic information systems have not had much impact in Africa. Why then should CD-ROM be expected to fare better than other such developments ? One answer is that CDROM discs appear to have innate characteristics that present incomparable advantages in overcoming the obstacles that have so far restrained the development of computerized information systems in Africa. Climatic constraints have been among the most difficult to deal with. But unlike its predecessors, CD-ROM technology has not fallen prey to the high heat, humidity and dust levels common in Africa. Hardy CD-ROM discs are not only resistant to the tropical climate but are also unaffected by power surges or cuts which are all too frequent in Africa. As the data is engraved in the disc, users can resume their search as soon as the power returns. Of even greater importance, CD-ROM technology is not dependent on unreliable and often poorly developed Third World telecommunication systems. Compact discs can be sent by land, sea or air with little risk of damage as they are not affected by scratches, fingerprints, microwaves or magnets. Furthermore, their cost is very competitive: one disc of ~ CD-ROM stored data sent by courier works out to be about 10,000 times less expensive than communicating the same information over a telephone line and from 10 to 100 times less expensive than using radio or satellite communications. For many documentation centres in Africa it is not even a question of comparing costs, as they have no access to telecommunication facilities or to centralized databanks. Given this situation, CD-ROM technology is the only option in such countries for more widespread access to information. For three African countries (Gabon, Gambia and Cote d'ivoire), the situation is different as they have documentation centres linked to major databanks. But even there, the advent of CDROM technology has enabled many improvements to be made. For most of the documentation centres in these countries, the available data is in bibliographic form, whether it is obtained from the FAO's AGRIS system, CABI or the American AGRICOLA system. This means that users must request copies of the complete publication for subsequent use. AGRI COLA provides such a service. but at a very high Cost; the AGRIS system is poorly indexed and difficult to use; and that of CABI uses no less than 27 journals. Apart from these institutional weaknesses, anyone who has ever ordered such publications knows how long it takes to receive them, how difficult it is to make a selection based only on bibliographic abstracts, and how useful it is to be able to leaf through a publication in order to identify the information that is needed. Direct access to both abstracts and complete texts is possible with CD-ROM. Such advantages may also represent a considerable cost saving because existing information systems in Africa are not only unsatisfactory for users but are also quite expensive. Databanks charge very high hourly rates for searches and for providing publications. CD-ROM discs can provide a substantial saving in this regard because they are supplied to users at subscription rates varying between 950 - 1,500 USdollar per year. This is competitive with that of certain indexes or reviews given the quantity of data offered by CD-ROM. Of even more interest is the flexibility of this system in view of the possibility of subscribing to a service that periodically replaces the discs with updated versions (the more frequent the update, the more expensive the cost). Such a subscription service has two main advantages: the first is that the user no longer feels compelled to play against the clock in an effort to minimize on-line costs when using a system billed according to the time connected. The second is that several researchers can work together, evaluating the same information at no extra cost Unfortunately, there are no miracle plants in agriculture and there are no miracle technologies for computers. Although the high performance CD-ROM discs are practical, hardy and economic, they do have their shortcomings. The virtually indestructible character of the data that they store, for example, excludes any information that requires constant updating. These Read Only discs mean just that: they can only be read, not modified. This more or less restricts their use to archival or reference purposes. Another limitation to the spread of CD-ROM technology is that its discs are not easy to produce. Data is recorded using the same techniques as the music industry employs such facilities are still relatively scarce, resulting in long production delays. Furthermore, given the cost and difficulty of recording these discs, it will be a long time before Third World countries will be able to store their own information on such discs and so they will continue to be dominated by data that originates, or is processed, in developed countries Finally, many CD-ROM critics point out that if this technology has definite advantages for storing information, that is not necessarily the case for finding it: compact discs do not enable the kind of interactive searches possible with larger systems that can interrogate several databases at once. CD-ROM users must insert a different disc each time that they want to search a different database. To resolve this problem, compact disc manufacturers are developing a kind of CD-ROM juke box which would enable simultaneous consultation. It is obvious that CD-ROM is a significant technological step forward, but it remains to be seen if its costeffectiveness will justify its adoption by those institutions concerned. The competition is not about to throw in the towel: existing interactive services have started to lower their consultation rates. Furthermore, progress in the development of magnetic discs may one day increase their capacity to rival that of CD-ROM. If laser-encoded, compact discs have yet to plough their way into the vast field of tropical agriculture, they hold considerable promise for storing and transporting good information harvests. References - Hampshire N (1986). 'CD-ROM leaves the labs for the market place'. 'Times', 23 September 1986. - 'CD-ROM Review', N° 1, October 1986 - 'New Scientist', October 1 986 - Kinney J (1986). 'Agricultural Information Services and the New Technology', Pre-conference seminar of the Seventh Standing Conference of Eastern and Southern African Librarians (SCECSAL), University of Botswana. July 31 - August 1, 1986, pp 13. - Lambert S. Ropiequet S (1986) 'CDROM: the new papyrus'. Microsoft Press/ Penguin, pp 619
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