How New Technology is Fighting the Old Problem of Cow Theft

Ed Note. This post by Rebecca Chao originally appeared in Tech President and is cross posted here with permission. 

Sometimes the thieves come in large trucks armed with guns and take what they like in broad daylight. Sometimes they slink across the fields in the middle of the night for their plunder. But the results are the same: the loss of crops and in many cases, cows, that has cost farmers US$52 million a year in Jamaica alone. These thefts – known as praedial larceny – are endemic across the Caribbean region.

While the idea of stealing someone’s cow may illicit a few chuckles, Matthew McNaughton, director of the civic tech nonprofit the Slashroots Foundation, explains to TechPresident that it has a devastating effect on farmers.

“It is not petty larceny. It is very organized,” he said. “That cow is very quickly butchered and sold as meat and sold on the market… In one particular case, it happened to a farmer overnight and resulted in a shutdown of an entire farm that employs up to 30 to 40 people. When youth unemployment rate is in double digits, it’s a huge problem.”

Praedial larceny is a large part of Slashroots’ current initiative. It is working with Jamaica’s Rural Area Development Authority (RADA) and the Mona School of Business & Management at the University of the West Indies on a new fellowship program to create a dialogue between the government and civil society on what technology tools can be used to create a sustainable way to solve the region’s longstanding social issues. The project receives funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

“Civic tech isn’t just about widgets and pothole mapping,” said McNaughton at the recent Code for America summit. “It’s about how we work together to create a space to participate and solve problems…and what is the technology that allows you to leverage and create that engagement.”

The fellowship program is designed to foster that space. The three fellows selected for the program are building a tool for RADA to track price information for crops, farmer information and other key agricultural data. There will also be a mobile application to help protect farmers against praedial larceny. The application validates the number on the checking receipt books — often stolen or forged — that farmers use to sell their produce. A text can be sent to check the authenticity of a receipt and see who it actually belongs to and whether it contains a valid number.

In the early days of Slashroots in 2011, it organized a number of hackathons across the Caribbean region. There were a few tech tools that emerged, like a praedial larceny notification system for farmers, as well as an agricultural credit score system for banks to help assess the risks in lending to farmers.

“But the challenge was how to sustain that,” said McNaughton. “The data was not always available and reliable.”

The open data environment in the Caribbean is what McNaughton calls “emergent.” McNaughton points out that within the region, Trinidad and Tobago is a signature of the Open Government Parternship, Puerto Rico has drafted an open data policy though it is not yet passed, Antigua and Barbados is working with World Bank on building an open data initiative and in Jamaica, there is a movement around publishing and sharing information. However, there are not many large, established open data programs just yet.

“That is why the fellowship is very important for a model of engagement because the hackathon is not how you build a business,” said McNaughton. “It’s how you better understand the problem to test the boundaries of what’s possible.”

In the next phase of the project, McNaughton says they will review this pilot fellowship program which ends in December, reflect on issues that arose and then scale the project to work with three or four government agencies at the same time. The step after that, he said, would be to “scale horizontally” to another island.