Cornell students, faculty members, Fair Trade USA representatives and coffee growers in Peru.

Researchers design software for rural Peruvian coffee growers

CIS students show Peruvian coffee farmers how to use the cost model software.

Cornell faculty and students are working with a 1,000-member coffee-farming cooperative in rural northern Peru to create an interactive cost model of sustainable coffee production.

Gilly Leshed, information science senior lecturer; Miguel Gómez, associate professor; Juan Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera, doctoral candidate in the Gomez research group; and Joshua Woodard, assistant professor in the Dyson School, have joined forces with Fair Trade USA to develop software for Latin America coffee growers that will help them evaluate their production costs and negotiate fair prices with international buyers.

“For the past year our students have been practicing human-centered design by creating a user interface to make a product available to our end users – the coffee growers,” Leshed said. “Our initial visit to Peru last August included understanding their needs, the context the users are operating in and the challenges. A key feedback we received after our first visit was that the user interface should be mobile-responsive. A lot of these coffee growers don’t have access to computers but many have smartphones.”

In the application, farmers answer a series of questions about their coffee production, then get a breakdown of their costs against the cooperative average and against the price they receive, which depends on the quality of their harvest. Working with cooperative experts, farmers can learn about how to increase their yield and quality or reduce their expenses.

“Our purpose is to help coffee farmers become financially sustainable in the long run, so they can continue to grow coffee,” said Leshed.

This March six students, two faculty members and two Fair Trade representatives went back to Peru with a working prototype of the software and held workshops to train technicians and growers to use it.

“Everyone in the cooperative loved it,” said Leshed. “They are very future-minded. They value technology, and they love a new tool that helps them continue to grow coffee more productively.”

Cornell graduate student Adriana Ramirez-Flores joined the group of students who visited two coffee farms in rural Northern Peru.

Students working on this project receive independent study credit for their work and an invaluable learning experience.

“They learn human-computer interaction on their feet,” Leshed said. “They go through the whole human-centered design process from initial ideation to deployment with significant constraints like users in Peru who are far away, speak a different language, and have different values and cultures. Learning to not assume that your end users are like you is very useful as they work toward becoming user experience designers in the future.”

Students and faculty are also analyzing data they collected through this project and will be presenting a poster for CHI ’18 (the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the premier international conference of Human-Computer Interaction) as well as working on future research papers. The project is funded in part through the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and an Engaged Cornell Undergraduate Research Grant.

Leslie Morris is communications director for Computing and Information Science.

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Joe Schwartz