The Ranet System

RANET depends on four critical steps to move information from capital cities to rural communities: information gathering and integration, satellite transmission, reception and interpretation, and dissemination (see Figure 1). First, scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the African Center of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD), National Meteorological Services (NMSs) in Africa, and RANET partners gather vital climate, weather, and food security information and integrate it into a satellite compatible presentation. Control of drought monitoring and prediction information broadcast over the RANET system is distributed among the network of scientific organizations

Cisco Inputs
Figure 1. The four critical steps of RANET: information gathering and integration, satellite transmission, reception and interpretation, and dissemination.

contributing content. Input of multimedia climate and weather information originating from the U.S., Europe, and Africais managed and maintained by the Climate Information Project at NOAA's Office of Global Programs, in cooperation with the World Space Foundation.

Management of national-level content is the responsibility of each country's NMS, which may, in turn, be working with other government offices or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to develop national RANET content. The program as a whole is managed by ACMAD staff and faculty at the University of Oklahoma. The distributed nature of input to the RANET system supports a strong sense of ownership and responsibility among partnering institutions. The success of this distributed network, however, was founded on extensive training, ongoing technical support, and close communication among participants.

In the second step on RANET's communication pathway, information processed by this network of scientists is loaded to the WorldSpace digital radio satellite over the Internet. NOAA's Climate Information Project has automated satellite uploading of RANET information to streamline participation by NMSs and other RANET partners. A partner with even the most basic computing and communications capabilities can e-mail its RANET contribution in text format to an external loading site where updates will be automatically collected and posted to the satellite. Partners with more sophisticated computing capabilities post a variety of advanced RANET products to ftp sites on their own servers which are automatically queried for updates on an hourly basis. RANET information compiled from all partners is delivered over the Internet to the WorldSpace uplink station in South Africa. At the top of every hour the uplink station sends updated RANET information to the WorldSpace digital radio satellite for broadcast over all of Africa.

Next, field sites download RANET information using a WorldSpace digital radio receiver, adapter card and PC, frequently powered by solar energy. Staff at RANET field sties, often extension agents, development practitioners, or trained members of the community, interpret RANET information according to the local context and translate it into the languages of the surrounding area. Like the network of scientists supplying RANET content, the local RANET interface requires training, technical support, and coordination. Without adequate training in interpreting and communicating climate and drought information, much of what RANET has to offer on the local level might be wasted, and could, under some circumstances, be counterproductive. ACMAD, for example, has provided training for sites receiving multimedia information in Niger, and the Department of Meteorology trained field personnel in Uganda. Ongoing technical support and follow-up training will continue to be important as these programs mature.

In the final step on RANET's information bridge from capital cities to rural areas, localized information is disseminated to communities by word of mouth and FM radio broadcasts (solar-powered in the case of remote sites) that are received by traditional radio receivers and Freeplay wind-up/solar-powered radios. According to local priorities, communities across Niger and Uganda have devised different methods of distributing Freeplay wind-up/solar-powered radios provided by the project - donating radios to the most vulnerable families (in particular female-headed households), providing radios to those most able to further disseminate information, awarding radios as prizes in a neighborhood hygiene competition, or selling radios to support activities of the local RANET project. Depending on local needs and capabilities, some communities have expanded this basic information system to include other technologies. Communities in Niger, for example, are developing RANET sites into Community Centers of Integrated Information for Development, or CIDs, that include technologies such as satellite television and two-way radio.

To complete the communication loop and to ensure that system evolution continues to be driven by the needs of rural communities, RANET partners are pursuing a number of strategies for collecting feedback. Some project sites have organized formal feedback systems such as weekly discussion groups or regularly scheduled feedback visits to nearby communities, while other sites rely on input from radio councils or visiting community members who frequent radio stations in Niger and project sites in Uganda to communicate their opinions, support, and requests for clarification or modifications. Most feedback is generated through training workshops, site visits, and other person-to-person contact, and subsequently communicated among RANET partners via e-mail and web discussion groups. Two-way technologies such as VITA satellite-enabled e-mail and other portable ground stations are being explored as possible avenues for facilitating communication between rural RANET sites, their NMSs, and the broader RANET system.

Local ownership of the RANET interfaces puts control and responsibility in the hands of participating communities, mobilizing them to become part of the information system rather than passive recipients of information. One community in Niger, for example, requested 25 rain gauges to monitor local precipitation. On the national level, RANET triggered new broadcasting legislation in Niger as well as the creation of a national commission for radio broadcasting. As a further step in decentralization, local ownership strengthens the system as a whole, but ties success or failure at any site to the will and capacity of the community to vigilantly maintain and equitably manage the system for the benefit of local stakeholders. The experience at Bankilare's pilot site, for example, illustrates the importance of local training and support for developing the human infrastructure to manage and maintain a local RANET interface.

Before the first radio was installed in Bankilare, the community, with the help of ACMAD, formed a local radio association to guide community input, lead program development, and ensure that the radio station would serve the needs of different interests within the local population. Early attention to the balance of gender and ethnic groups and the involvement of youth in Bankilare shaped the evolution of the local station and set a standard that would influence development of the communication system as it spread across Niger. ACMAD built a coalition of partners to train Bankilare's residents as radio technicians and animators and to aid the radio association in obtaining licensing agreements, broadcast permits, duty waivers, and funding.

Thanks to funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Bankilare's dream of becoming an information oasis in the desert was developed and shared with other communities that lack telephones, electricity, and paved roads. Such programs support OFDA's mandate of saving lives and relieving suffering by helping vulnerable populations in both rural and urban settings anticipate, plan for, and mitigate the negative impacts of natural disasters. As news of RANET's success spread across Niger, more communities sought participation in the communications system, attracting a heterogeneous constellation of donors and NGOs with mandates reaching beyond humanitarian assistance. These new partnerships have unleashed a powerful force for integrated, community-driven development, however, they increasingly demand more attention to coordination.

This complex and innovative human network supports the management, maintenance, and implementation of RANET at each step in the system. Though RANET would not be possible without technology, the system for transporting and transforming information from computer, to satellite, to receiver, to radio, to knowledge employed to improve dryland management, it is as much a human as a technological system. Together, the human and technical elements of RANET have created a new set of possibilities for improving drought preparedness and the quality of life in rural communities.

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