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Data for the Common Good. Interview with Andrea Powell

by Roberto V. Zicari on June 9, 2015

“CABI has a proud history (we were founded in 1910) of serving the needs of agricultural researchers around the world, and it is fascinating to see how technology can now help to achieve our development mission. We can have much greater impact at scale these days on the lives of poor farmers around the world (on whom we are all dependent for our food) by using modern technology and by putting knowledge into the hands of those who need it the most.”–Andrea Powell

I have interviewed Andrea Powell,Chief Information Officer at CABI.
Main topic of the interview is how to use data and knowledge for the Common Good, specifically by solving problems in agriculture and the environment.


Q1. What is the main mission of CABI?

Andrea Powell: CABI’s mission is to improve people’s lives and livelihoods by solving problems in agriculture and the environment.
CABI is a not-for-profit, intergovernmental organisation with over 500 staff based in 17 offices around the world. We focus primarily on plant health issues, helping smallholder farmers to lose less of what they grow and therefore to increase their yields and their incomes.

Q2. How effective is scientific publishing in helping the developing world solving agricultural problems?

Andrea Powell: Our role is to bridge the gap between research and practice.
Traditional scientific journals serve a number of purposes in the scholarly communication landscape, but they are often inaccessible or inappropriate for solving the problems of farmers in the developing world. While there are many excellent initiatives which provide free or very low-cost access to the research literature in these countries, what is often more effective is working with local partners to develop and implement local solutions which draw on and build upon that body of research.
Publishers have pioneered innovative uses of technology, such as mobile phones, to ensure that the right information is delivered to the right person in the right format.
This can only be done if the underlying information is properly categorised, indexed and stored, something that publishers have done for many decades, if not centuries. Increasingly we are able to extract extra value from original research content by text and data mining and by adding extra semantic concepts so that we can solve specific problems.

Q3. What are the typical real-world problems that you are trying to solve? Could you give us some examples of your donor-funded development programs?

Andrea Powell: In our Plantwise programme, we are working hard to reduce the crop losses that happen due to the effects of plant pests and diseases. Farmers can typically lose up to 40% of their crop in this way, so achieving just a 1% reduction in such losses could feed 25 million more hungry mouths around the world. Another initiative, called mNutrition, aims to deliver practical advice to farming families in the developing world about how to grow more nutritionally valuable crops, and is aimed at reducing child malnutrition and stunting.

Q4. How do you measure your impact and success?

Andrea Powell: We have a strong focus on Monitoring and Evaluation, and for each of our projects we include a “Theory of Change” which allows us to measure and monitor the impact of the work we are doing. In some cases, our donors carry out their own assessments of our projects and require us to demonstrate value for money in measurable ways.

Q5. What are the main challenges you are currently facing for ensuring CABI’s products and services are fit for purpose in the digital age?

Andrea Powell: The challenges vary considerably depending on the type of customer or beneficiary.
In our developed world markets, we already generate some 90% of our income from digital products, so the challenge there is keeping our products and platforms up-to-date and in tune with the way modern researchers and practitioners interact with digital content. In the developing world, the focus is much more on the use of mobile phone technology, so transforming our content into a format that makes it easy and cheap to deliver via this medium is a key challenge. Often this can take the form of a simple text message which needs to be translated into multiple languages and made highly relevant for the recipient.

Q6. You have one of the world’s largest agricultural database that sits in a RDBMS, and you also have info silos around the company. How do you pull all of these information together?

Andrea Powell: At the moment, with some difficulty! We do use APIs to enable us to consume content from a variety of sources in a single product and to render that content to our customers using a highly flexible Web Content Management System. However, we are in the process of transforming our current technology stack and replacing some of our Relational Databases with MarkLogic, to give us more flexibility and scaleability. We are very excited about the potential this new approach offers.

Q7. How do you represent and model all of this knowledge? Could you give us an idea of how the data management part for your company is designed and implemented?

Andrea Powell: We have a highly structured taxonomy that enables us to classify and categorise all of our information in a consistent and meaningful way, and we have recently implemented a semantic enrichment toolkit, TEMIS Luxid® to make this process even more efficient and automated. We are also planning to build a Knowledge Graph based on linked open data, which will allow us to define our domain even more richly and link our information assets (and those of other content producers) by defining the relationships between different concepts.

Q8. What kind of predictive analytics do you use or plan to use?

Andrea Powell: We are very excited by the prospect of being able to do predictive analysis on the spread of particular crop diseases or on the impact of invasive species. We have had some early investigations into how we can use semantics to achieve this; e.g. if pest A attacks crop B in country C, what is the likelihood of it attacking crop D in country E which has the same climate and soil types as country C?

Q9. How do you intend to implement such predictive analytics?

Andrea Powell: We plan to deploy a combination of expert subject knowledge, data mining techniques and clever programming!

Q10. What are future strategic developments?

Andrea Powell: Increasingly we are developing knowledge-based solutions that focus on solving specific problems and on fitting into user workflows, rather than creating large databases of content with no added analysis or insight. Mobile will become the primary delivery channel and we will also be seeking to use mobile technology to gather user data for further analysis and product development.

Qx Anything else you wish to add?

Andrea Powell: CABI has a proud history (we were founded in 1910) of serving the needs of agricultural researchers around the world, and it is fascinating to see how technology can now help to achieve our development mission. We can have much greater impact at scale these days on the lives of poor farmers around the world (on whom we are all dependent for our food) by using modern technology and by putting knowledge into the hands of those who need it the most.

ANDREA POWELL,Chief Information Officer, CABI, United Kingdom.
I am a linguist by training (French and Russian) with an MA from Cambridge University but have worked in the information industry since graduating in 1988. After two and a half years with Reuters I joined CABI in the Marketing Department in 1991 and have worked here ever since. Since January 2015 I have held the position of Chief Information Officer, leading an integrated team of content specialists and technologists to ensure that all CABI’s digital and print publications are produced on time and to the quality standards expected by our customer worldwide. I am responsible for future strategic development, for overseeing the development of our technical infrastructure and data architecture, and for ensuring that appropriate information & communication technologies are implemented in support of CABI’s agricultural development programmes around the world.


– More information about how CABI is using MarkLogic can be found in this video, recorded at MarkLogic World San Francisco, April 2015.

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