A conceptual framework for guiding the participatory development of agricultural decision support systems
Scientists develop decision support systems (DSSs) to make agricultural science more accessible for farmers and extension officers. Despite the growing use of participatory approaches in agricultural DSS development, reflection on this endeavour has largely focused on the 'doing' of participation or the 'problem of implementation' when DSSs have not been adopted by stakeholders. There has been little reference to relevant theoretical approaches to the social processes involved in 'participation' or 'implementation'. However, if DSS use is to reach its full potential, a more conceptually informed understanding of how stakeholders collaborate in the participatory development of DSSs is required. To contribute to this conceptualisation, we developed a framework based on three concepts drawn from the field of science and technology studies: technological frames, interpretative flexibility and boundary objects. The framework highlights the importance and value of social learning for participatory DSS development, which relies upon exploring the participating parties' different perspectives on the agricultural system represented in the DSS. Our framework provides a broad definition of success for participatory DSS development, placing greater weight on learning during the participatory process compared with subsequent use of the DSS by farmers and/or advisors. Two case studies of stakeholder collaboration to develop an irrigation scheduling DSS for sugarcane production were used to explore the relevance of the framework. The concepts in the framework were clearly displayed during the case studies. At the conclusion of the studies there were contrasting outcomes for the DSS. One group of farmers was keen to apply it in their ongoing irrigation management, while another saw little relative advantage in use of the DSS. In both instances co-learning occurred amongst case study participants, so the participatory process was clearly a success.
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