A community informatics initiative for the urban agriculture process of Sembrando Vida in Cali, Colombia 

Student’s work:

Carlos Castilla and Daniel Manso
Course: Graduation project
Involvement: Chair supervisor
Partner: Fundación Sembrando Vida – Cali, Colombia
Period: January 2020 – present.

Key words: urban agriculture, community informatics, social inclusion, participatory design.


A large number of users in the global south now use Whatsapp as a primary means of communication due to its popularity and accessibility. In Colombia, for example, cell phone carriers give free access to Whatsapp and Facebook with even the cheapest plans in the market, even when the user runs out of cellular data. Thus, the popularity of these tools has led community organizers, social leaders, and other organized groups to communicate and organize their actions and initiatives using WhatsApp Groups. This situation creates an enormous amount of unstructured and inaccessible information that is shared in massive amounts and is often not well managed despite its importance. On top of the fact that social leaders have an already hard time managing activities, organizing information, and making their actions visible, it takes a long time and effort to collect, integrate and effectively visualize relevant information for their initiatives. Therefore, triggering community reflection and action is often left just to the criteria of a base group or a single leader that, with few tools, coordinates and makes decisions. In this light, these impactful, local, and important processes that take a bottom-up perspective on social change, are not often thought of as places for innovation. This, in turn, leaves space for digital technologies to be designed with a local and community-centered lens to make a positive impact in the management of community-generated information. 

Terrón Colorado neighborhood. Noti5. https://noti5.tv/

Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic, Sembrando Vida was born as a collective of urban agriculture enthusiasts and family orchard owners. Mainly located in Terrón Colorado and its surrounding areas, considered lower-income neighborhoods in the outskirts of Santiago de Cali, Colombia, community leaders started to move their eco-friendly and sustainability oriented agenda into digital platforms, choosing Whatsapp and Facebook Groups as their main means for communication and planning. In this case, the goal of seeking to strengthen familial, communal, and ties with nature and plants, was reinforced by the group that now has more than 150 members on both platforms. Despite the current achievements, the information that is currently shared through this group is not currently managed and the technical know-how and activities that they have shared and performed for over 5 months, where bartering, products and agricultural supplies exchanges and knowledge exchange, were technical questions and innovating projects are addressed, is not currently being put to use in any shape or manner. 

Design approach

This project followed Design Council´s Double Diamond framework, informing the structure and stages of development. Hence, theoretical approaches and other experiences in similar scenarios were researched first, leading to consider the importance of Michael Gurstein’s approach to community informatics, Quantified Neighbourhoods and Urban Informatics approaches to similar experiences in other latitudes and Sustainable Human-Computer Interaction authors focusing in Urban Agriculture groups and practices. Later, the understanding phase used a mixed-methods approach, where insights revealed the activities, needs, and opportunities for innovation within the community. Having already obtained informed consent from the members, fieldwork was carried out using ethnographic methods, and also text analysis techniques were data from over 2000 WhatsApp messages were analyzed with statistical software such as R and rwhatsapp, used for finding insights derived from the conversations that were happening in the WhatsApp Group. Both approaches helped researchers to understand the group structures, how they carried out their activities, and what information was relevant.

Conducting workshops with communal leaders

Once the Discover and Define stage of the project were finished, Flor: Virtual Assistant was born in the Development stage where ideation tools taking into account the insights gathered through the previous stages, leading to the design of a character named Flor, built through the System Persona Framework and co-creation sessions with the community. Also, due to the familiarity of this community using Whatsapp, a concept was designed and tested around the idea of using Whatsapp for gathering information through a Chatbot that will later be integrated and visualized in a map; highlighting the importance of data attached to a territory that was expressed by community members and leaders. Wizard of Oz and Interactive Prototypes were used in Remote User Testing settings to validate both ideas. Flor aims to be a prototype that enables community leaders and members to manage their information, using current and familiar tools, to gain knowledge and insights from community generated data that can trigger group reflection and positive action.

Now in the Development stage, the construction of a functional prototype is expected to be launched near the end of 2020. This process has shown the importance of community centered perspectives when designing technology in the global south, where human infrastructure can make or break a solution. Also, the importance of using the power of mixed methods and remote testing with familiar tools, such as Whatsapp, during situations where in-situ research cannot be carried out.

Map of the orchards of Sembrando Vida. Google Maps