Writer: Ms. Leah Barbour, MSU Extension Service
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- A web-based smartphone app developed by the Mississippi State University Extension Service allows state climate officials to document drought conditions and provide information vital to Mississippi farmers recovering from dry weather.
Efforts to create the app began in 2016 when State Climatologist Mike Brown, also an MSU professor of geosciences, discovered that drought in the Magnolia State was more widespread and severe than official data from the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) indicated. This discrepancy prevented some Mississippi farmers from qualifying for federal drought aid.
“Last year, we were in a significant drought, but it wasn’t well reported,” Brown said. “What it meant was, farmers weren’t eligible for the low-interest loans that could help them recover. It created a real financial burden in some places.”
Kelli Alexander, a software architect in Extension’s Center for Technology Outreach, developed the app, which allows Extension agents to document drought conditions in each of the state’s 82 counties. With this information, Brown will be able to fill in the gaps the NDMC was missing.
NDMC logs rainfall totals and generates models to predict drought occurrence and severity. It accepts reports from about 350 expert observers across the country. When the center determines that drought is affecting a location, producers there are eligible for federal aid.
Extension agents told Brown about the dry conditions that were impacting producers in their counties. However, the state climatologist needed a way to log their reports, compile them in one space, and use them to determine actual conditions. He also needed proof of the drought -- pictures of specific locations affected by dry weather.
Extension Director Gary Jackson, concerned that some drought-affected counties were not listed as such by NDMC, offered to devote Extension resources toward developing an app so agents could use their smartphones to log what they were seeing in the field.
Alexander developed the app with input from Brown and Extension Associate Director Steve Martin. Agents recently began using it to document dates, locations and drought rates. They also upload at least one picture with each report to illustrate conditions.
“Agents, who go to visit their clients at their farms and on their property, are best qualified to report drought conditions,” Martin said. “We needed to partner with the state climatologist to make sure what they’re seeing is recorded.”
Extension agents, based in each county, are uniquely qualified to report these conditions, Brown said. Because agents report what they see on the job, they do not have personal stakes in whether their area is determined to be in a drought.
“Not just anyone can report,” Alexander said. “Agents can’t log in until they have completed the training and registered. Then, they can get the web-based app that formats to their phones. When someone submits a report, it emails Mike, and he can look at the state map.”
Brown said he confidently relies on Extension agents’ unbiased opinions.
“Extension agents work hard for the farmers, but they also want to do the right thing,” Brown said. “I trust the Extension agents. I was blown away with the resources we have in Extension. I had no idea of their technological capabilities, but Extension felt it was important. They got it done, and this app is going to benefit Mississippi.”