Well, my experience with these wonderful pieces of technology extends from grade 12 math, where they were alternately used for complex calculations of probability and as vessels for basic space alien video games. Little did I know I would encounter them as a key tool for the function of predicting crop yields in districts across Ghana. And my short experience with them fully demonstrated how little I know about them as one trip to the field was plunged into potential disaster.
One of the functions of the government office I worked with was to inform the centralised government how crops in each region were doing, on average. A few extension agents from each district were trained on the use of the few graphing calculators assigned to the district office, and were then responsible for collecting the data and shipping it off. We arrived one morning at a field of soya beans with the intention of taking a “yield cut”, firstly measuring the acreage of a field, then randomly selecting a 10 X 10 ft square and counting the number of plants.
Where the calculator machinery comes in is when fields are not square, which is always. To measure the area, we take bearings on a compass, measure the length of each side, and enter it all in order into the lovely machine which spits out the area. Especially useful for farms with more than 4 sides (many) and where the borders with the next farm are on an angle. Simple, but tedious work. Mr. Abanga, whom I was working with that day, had understood how the program in the calculator worked, and figured that we could do the same function pacing the farm clockwise instead of counterclockwise. However, the calculator didn’t like this idea, and kept spitting out garbage numbers.
My limited knowledge of these beasties did not allow me to troubleshoot much, besides suggesting that if it was a software problem there was a reset button on the back. Sadly, I didn’t have any understanding of what the hardware contained, and Mr. Abanga thought that the program wasn’t something that was added by the office, but came with the calculator. As the reset button was pushed, the program that calculated area was efficiently erased from the memory of the device.
This effectively meant that instead of Mr. Abanga having one of two working graphing calculators to conduct crop surveys with, we were now left with a glorified adding machine (that could draw graphs of our impotence f(x)=x^2). Wow, I thought. One simple button and a lack of understanding of the technology renders a situation less than ideal. And I vowed the recopy, line by line, the code contained by the other graphing calculator, in order to remedy the mistake that I felt significantly responsible for. Luckily we were visited by officials from Accra and Tamale just a few days later, which returned the calculator to headquarters for reprogramming, which Mr. Abanga picked up on the weekend while he was visiting his family. Disaster averted, however I learned my lesson about the power of misinterpreted information.
Sadly, I learned this lesson again, however luckily for my conscience I didn’t feel any direct responsibility. We visited a farmer who about halfway through the growing season wanted to apply a particular pesticide. However, he had to go travelling for a short time and entrusted some of his neighbours to purchase the particular chemical and apply it to his fields. As the story goes, when they went to the chemical dealer the seller didn’t have the chemical by that name, however offered a substitute that he believed would do the job. The chemical was bought, and applied to the field before the farmer got back from his trip.
And approximately two weeks later, one of the extension agents Red, was called in to witness the fact that this man’s field had withered and died, producing dried-up maize cobs and a most-certain disastrous yield for the 3 acres of maize.
And this guy was devastated. He was a good farmer, had known what to do, but through a combination of poor knowledge of agricultural chemicals, and lack of literacy on the part of his friends (and potentially the dealer), and a need to be out of town meant that his biggest source of income and food wasn’t going to produce that year. Red said that at least he would have his soya bean field, which is a good cash crop, but regardless, it was a true tragedy that this farmer had lost a good chunk of his livelihood in one fell swoop. Apparently he was telling Red that he was going to give up farming, and whether that was melodrama or a sincere wish, I never found out.
Once again, a lack of understanding of the technology being used (in this case chemicals) has dire consequences in a situation with few safety mechanisms and contingency plans.