Knowledge for Development

Management Information Systems

Author: Paul Geerders

Date: 30/12/2004

Introduction:

Management Information Systems (MIS) can be used successfully to facilitate access to a wide range of integrated data sets. They are consistent, modular and flexible tools for the systematic acquisition, analysis and archiving of data and information from a variety of sources. When socio-economic data are also included, MIS can become even more powerful tools for planning and decision-making for agricultural and rural development in ACP countries. Quality control, standardisation and regular updating are key issues to ensure the usefulness of MIS.


 

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research, in referring to its Agricultural Research Information System, stated that ?agricultural scientists can carry out research more effectively by having systematic access to research information available in India as well as in other countries, better project management of agricultural research, and modernization of the office tools?. Information is the ?blood? of an organisation, country or region and its management is vital for effectiveness, efficiency and economic and social stability. In many organizations, countries and regions, there have been increasing calls for the development of integrated, national (geo-) information infrastructure for management, resource planning and decision-making. ACP scientists who work in the various disciplines generating scientific data on climate, water, soils, land etc need to pay more attention to integrating the data sets to improve decision making at the policy and enterprise level including farms to contribute to socio-economic development.

MIS - capabilities

The term 'information system' is a general term for a system that facilitates access to information; however, a ' management information system' refers to integrated data sources and information systems, which meet the particular needs and requirements of planning and decision-making. In an ideal case, the major objectives of MIS are to:

  1. reach an understanding of the relevant processes on the basis of the available historic information. This element forms the basis for the development of models, required for forecasting and simulation.
  2. provide information on the current situation, especially for early warning purposes, for instance related to issues impacting on food security, water resources or pest and disease status.
  3. forecast changes and impacts, either natural or man-made , as an element in vulnerability assessments.
  4. forecast the consequences of policy decisions and measures before they are implemented in reality. This implies evaluating options for several given scenarios based on the possible results and predicted consequences, and selecting the most acceptable alternative.

Existing environmental information systems in ACP countries consist of isolated data sets (soil type, climate, land, water, forest and fisheries resources) and systems, aimed at management of specific resources: water, land or forest; they hardly reach the second objective mentioned above. The third and fourth objectives (forecasting changes and simulation) are currently almost only reached within one discipline mainly in meteorology (weather and climate forecast) and to a certain extent in oceanography. This is due to the fact that the ACP countries, in addition to operating within serious financial and human constraints, must grapple with inter-institutional competition (individuality of scientific disciplines and competition for resources), limited agreement on harmonized standards, formats or quality assurance and legal constraints (lack of common data policy).

The following table provides an overview of different phases of data/information systems.

CATEGORY ELEMENTS USAGE
environmental information systems traditional knowledge oral transmission and exchange
manuscript/printed archives documents in files and folders visual inspection and analysis
isolated digital data archives databases, spreadsheets using different standards and formats computer-aided review and synthesis
coordinated digital data archives databases and spreadsheets, using common standards and formats, user interface automatic review and synthesis
GIS (Geographic Information System) databases and data layers with common (geographic) reference, user interface integrated analysis
MIS (Management Information System) databases, models, user interface integrated analysis, extrapolation, forecast, simulation
DSS (Decision Support System) databases, models, artificial intelligence, user interface integrated analysis, extrapolation, forecast, simulation, weighted ?advice?

MIS - characteristics

In view of the broad scope and wide variety of planning and decision-making tasks, MIS generally generate a range of outputs or results. These can be in a textual (report) or graphical (curve, graphic) form. A number of desired outputs can be generated automatically and periodically (daily, weekly) and transmitted to the relevant users in a printed or digital form. These outputs generally serve as a check on the situation and the developments in the field. A second group of outputs could be generated only in the case where certain conditions are fulfilled (drought reports in case of low precipitation levels) or when certain levels are being exceeded (contaminants in ground or coastal water). A third group relates to specific, dedicated outputs, to assess the possible consequences of certain measures or activities, for instance the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

MIS are precious and costly assets, and require detailed planning if their design, implementation and operation are to be successful. The adequate introduction and performance of MIS require that they build on already existing elements, and ensure consultation and coordination with all stakeholders.

A key issue for the application of MIS is open distribution of information, providing each of the actors with the same basic overview and synthesis. Manipulating the information provision by selective information distribution causes an information imbalance between the partners, leading to less than optimal decisions and when discovered is detrimental to mutual trust. Therefore a strong, positive commitment from all involved is needed: active participation and accountability of users and contributors of environmental information at all levels, including local actors. Under such conditions, the benefits of the MIS by far outweigh the cost of acquiring and organising the information, including the manpower required and the maintenance cost of the system.

MIS applications should meet criteria relating to:

  • Timeliness
  • Completeness
  • Reliability
  • Availability
  • Accessibility
  • Cost-effectiveness

MIS - content

Environmental conditions have major influences on agriculture and rural development, and therefore regularly updated environmental data form an essential element of MIS:

  1. soil type
  2. land use and availability
  3. maps, cadastre
  4. climate
  5. irrigation
  6. weather
  7. ecosystems
  8. biodiversity
  9. natural resources
  10. land degradation, desertification
  11. natural hazards
  12. vegetation and crops
  13. geology

To facilitate, planning and decision-making for agriculture and rural development, there may be need to include related up-to-datesocio-economic and legal informationon subjects such as:

  1. population
  2. industrial activities
  3. product market
  4. product transport facilities
  5. product processing plants
  6. laws and regulations
  7. livestock and fish production
  8. farm sizes
  9. public health
  10. controlled harvesting systems
  11. traditional fish management practices
  12. methods
  13. urban planning
  14. human health
  15. technology
  16. educational opportunities
  17. infrastructure
  18. fishponds

Access

At the internal level of institutes and organisations, mechanisms for access to environmental information include:

  • printed form (books, reports) or digital form (CD-ROM) through the library or documentation centre
  • through the local network and internal website
  • through the local network and Internet

Although Internet access is improving and expanding worldwide, the pace of development in most ACP countries is not as fast as had been anticipated. Within the ACP countries, Internet access is available mainly in the capitals and some industrialised centres. Some universities and academic centres have limited access to e-mail and websites.

The bottlenecks for Internet access are various:

  • political: in some countries access to certain (groups of) websites is blocked,
  • technical: slow telephone or data lines, unreliable connections, much interference,
  • economical: access to Internet is too expensive.

While the Internet has become the preferred tool for distribution of rapidly changing and time-sensitive environmental information and data, print and CD-ROM still are effective carriers of more stable (reference, historical) information and data. In this way, the user is less dependent upon the availability and continuity of an Internet connection. Therefore, in addition to a moderate use of the Internet (where possible), the printed form and CD-ROMs will remain an important channel for information distribution to and within the ACP countries in the years to come.

Websites are specific locations on the World Wide Web (WWW), specific computers managed by specific people and organisations. Besides providing actual or historic environmental information to the user, websites often use the technical functionality of the WWW to connect to other websites and other sources of environmental information (links). In this way, the user can access a range of related websites and sources. Websites often provide access to databases with numerical data (climate, soil), textual data (descriptions, reports) and graphical data (graphs, images). International organisations and agencies, such as the regional banks (ADB, AFDB, IADB), the European Union, UNEP, UNDP, UNESCO, IOC, WMO and others maintain websites, which include comprehensive databases on relevant topics, including environment.

A popular way to distribute information to a large group of experts in the same discipline via the Internet is by mailing lists. These consist of a number of e-mail addresses where information can be sent using just the name of the mailing list. Examples related to agriculture are: the European Community?s Agriculture News Digest, and the Precision Agriculture Electronic Mailing List of Ohio State University. Mailing lists are a very useful tool to keep abreast of what is going on in a certain field, or to ask a question to a worldwide expert audience. This method is practical even with low-end access to the Internet.

Many of the recurring questions and common problems in agricultural and rural development have been grouped in databases under the name of FAQ: frequently asked questions. They cover specific disciplines, sectors or geographic areas, and generally allow for searching their contents with specific keywords. Examples are: the FAQ of the Rural Development Institute, India, and the European Agriculture FAQ.

Much valuable environmental information residing in organisations and institutions never reaches the Internet, either because the holders or originators do not care to make their information available, do not wish to do so, or do not have the necessary means or resources.

Monitoring

The need for up-to-date information implies the need for continuous collection, analysis and dissemination of environmental data on a regular, well standardised basis: monitoring. The information collected should be relevant for all stakeholders: from the policy makers to the local population, to ensure the relevance, quality and continuity of the process. It should be collected in compatible formats, in minimal time and with minimal cost. Monitoring is also useful to detect possible negative impact on the environment and existing agricultural systems, but for this purpose baseline data should be available as a reference on the original situation.

It is difficult to foresee precisely what information (or combinations) will be the appropriate information for decision-making in the future. Based upon experience, the data sets presented in the previous paragraph are given as a first approach, but should be adapted to the specific requirements of each situation. Implementation of all parameters depends highly upon the capabilities and the situation in each country.

When little is known about the relevant environmental processes, an intensive initial assessment will be required to study and understand these processes. On the basis of this understanding, models can be developed that describe the processes and allow for forecasting and simulation. Such models often can do with a limited monitoring, which then serves a different purpose: to regularly calibrate and validate the model. In order to optimise the environmental data required, a sensitivity analysis needs to be applied to the model, in order to determine the minimum allowable monitoring (parameters, frequency, location) required for maintaining the desired accuracy of the model output.

Implementation

As indicated previously, planning and decision-making in agriculture and rural development require the integration of different types of information relating to different sectors and sub-sectors: everything relates to everything! To adequately manage such an impressive variety of information, to allow transversal consultations and interaction, and to ensure efficient, integrated access on a continuous basis, a number of steps need to be taken at national and institutional level, such as:

  • identification of all available environmental data holdings and monitoring activities, through compilation and regular updating of institutional, national and regional metadata inventories
  • standardisation of data, information and tools ? environmental data and information from different sources should be compatible and comparable, in order to be merged for larger geographic coverage, or be compared to search for changes and trends; in a few cases, international standards exist, in most cases they still need to be developed
  • establishment of a legislative framework in the form of a data/information policy for environmental data ? who has access to the information, and at what cost and conditions? This issue has received increasing attention over the last few years, but there is still a lack of generic, international procedures and guidelines
  • ensuring the continuity of the ICT infrastructure ? this includes aspects like: regular maintenance and upgrading of hardware and software, availability of spare parts, and the presence of an Uninterrupted Power System (UPS) in case of power cuts; the main issue here is the investment in trained staff, software and equipment
  • maintenance of (digital) archives - how long should (digital) archives be maintained? Which information is essential for the organisation or country? Who is responsible for their maintenance? How often should backups be made and where should these be kept? The main issue in this case is to make these decisions and allocate the required staff resources.

These steps form a necessary prerequisite for the adequate implementation and operational performance of a Management Information System.

Quality

An important issue for users is the reliability of the data used for generating information products: 'garbage in' 'garbage out'. The quality of decisions depends on the quality of the underlying information. In several ACP countries the current threats to the natural resource base stem from poor and/or inadequate information, amongst other causes including lack of an enabling policy environment. Information that is available on the Internet is not necessarily 100% accurate. How then can the reliability of information obtained through information systems and the Internet be judged where there is no control, no quality mark, and no verification of content? Often it is not clear what procedure the provider applied to generate the information provided from basic ('raw') data. In some cases, information may have a cultural, political or strategic bias, which is difficult to detect.

In some cases it is known that the source can be trusted, but in other cases, not enough is known and therefore the information must be used with great care. One way to better estimate the quality is to compare information from different sources, if available. A user's own knowledge and experience may in many cases be the only reliable tool.

Especially important for the providers of information, is the liability for mistakes in the information generated. Who is responsible for the quality of the information provided to the users through the Internet or otherwise? How far does this responsibility reach? What are the legal procedures when information proves to be wrong and damage has resulted from its usage? Can an information provider be sued for the damage done? What are the legal precedents in such cases? Should this issue be a part of the institutional data policy?

ACP scientists have a very important role to play in developing and validating management information systems based on reliable data sets if they are to enhance their contribution to the socio-economic advancement of their countries. Lessons can be learned from experiences of more developed countries and where appropriate modified or applied in the interest of the ACP region. The need for the systematic integration of environmental and socio-economic data to improve policy and decision-making in ACP countries cannot be ignored.

30/12/2004


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