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Students, cooperative members and farmers gather together for photo.

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Cornell University Researchers Design Cost Model Software for Rural Peruvian Coffee Growers

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Cornell University faculty and students are working with a 1000-member coffee-farming cooperative in rural Northern Peru to create an interactive cost model of sustainable coffee production. Information Science Senior Lecturer Gilly Leshed, Dyson Professors Miguel Gómez and Joshua Woodard, and Fair Trade USA have combined resources 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. Our initial visit to Peru last August included understanding their needs, the context the users are operating in, and the challenges,” said Leshed. “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, the farmer answers a series of questions about their coffee production. The farmer then gets a breakdown of their costs against the cooperative average and against the price of coffee they receive, which depends on the quality of their harvest. Working with cooperative experts, farmers can learn about how they can 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 past March six students, two faculty members and two Fair Trade representatives went back to Peru with a working prototype of the software. They held several workshops: one to train the cooperative technicians, one in which the technicians trained the growers, and one workshop where the growers used the software independently. “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.”

The 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,” said Leshed. “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.”

The students and faculty are also analyzing the data they have collected through this project and will be presenting a poster for CHI ’18 as well as working on future research papers.  This project is funded in part through the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and Engaged Cornell Undergraduate Research Grant.