Developing a taxonomy for agriculture and rural development

Israel Bionyi Nyoh

Proper structuring and organisation of organisational knowledge is key to knowledge management and sharing. A documented taxonomy approach, TAPipedia illustrates a process to developing a taxonomy for Capacity Development (CD) for Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS).

Finding the right and timely information is so hard these days for many people in organisations, especially from huge or unstructured datasets. Research has found that people working in food companies with large quantities of data like Danone, Nestle, Unilever, etc. could spend up to 13 hours a week searching and analysing information in databases and digital repositories. We live in an era of information overload. Content generation is peaking, favoured by advancements in technology and widespread use of mobile and data. The abundance of information is creating an urgent need to refine how to organise information to accelerate organisational processes. This especially in Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) where activities greatly rely on knowledge generated from experience. Individuals are seeing the value of structuring and grouping information as it makes it easier for retrieving and using.

The taxonomy approach, though not yet sufficiently entrenched in many development organisations is vital in supporting structures that allows proper data and information categorisation and harmonisation which facilitates input, storage, retrieval and sharing of information across departments, networks and systems. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) stated in 2011 that taxonomies help in making knowledge ‘actionable’, that is usable. “Life would be much more complicated without taxonomies,” it says, adding that taxonomies make sense of organisational knowledge, creating a common vocabulary and a harmonised way of working.

In 2012, Google applied the taxonomy approach as it varied taxonomy with artificial intelligence to turn from an ‘information search engine’ to a ‘knowledge based engine’ as it created a new service called the Knowledge Graph. The Service which understands user’s queries, studies the user’s information input into the engine and intelligently draws from the web nodes of information that connect the search to the different entries.

In ARD, a multilingual thesaurus consisting of over 32,000 concepts with up to 40,000 terms in 23 languages called AGROVOC, was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. AGROVOC is indexed and tagged in specialised libraries, digital libraries and data repositories all around the world. Since the beginning of its establishment in the 1980s AGROVOC has always served as a key reference on agriculture and rural development concepts. It is used by ‘researchers, librarians and information managers for indexing, retrieving and organizing data in agricultural information systems and web pages’. AGROVOC though, cover a range of terms but mainly of FAO interest, thus many notions not used within FAO systems are not covered. Therefore, the need to explore other concepts not enclosed in AGROVOC.

The TAPipedia platform, developed within the context of the Tropical Agricultural Platform (TAP), aims to improve coherence and coordination of capacity development (CD) for Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS).  It is therefore, a new taxonomy designed to serve this purpose. The TAPipedia taxonomy includes 54 terms, also referred to as “topics” and “tags”, on aspects and topics relevant to CD for AIS. TAPipedia aims at developing a global reference information system for good CD practices, innovation outputs, success stories and lessons.

Case: how to develop a taxonomy in ARD

TAPipedia’s approach in developing its taxonomy has been participatory. An interesting method worth exploring. Here is how the TAPipedia taxonomy has been developed. The step by step approach is viewed through the lenses of Kathryn Breininger’s approach on developing taxonomies. Breininger is an information management specialist who works at The Boeing Company and wrote several articles and guides on the taxonomy process.

Identify concepts: Literature review of CD for AIS resources

The first phase of development of a CD for AIS Framework was the compilation and review of relevant literature following an approved approach for collection, analysis and compilation of literature, tools, guidelines and examples related to capacity development for agricultural innovation systems. This process was carried out by a group of TAP CD experts in 2015.

Develop draft taxonomy: preliminary formulation of TAPipedia terms

Based on the review of CD for AIS resources,the TAP Secretariat developed an initial list of more than 80 concepts, and checked the matching and/or related terms in the AGROVOC thesaurus, in view to link the TAPipedia taxonomy terms to concepts in AGROVOC.

Review with users and stakeholders

In a next step, in order to have a more concise and accurate list of terms specifically relevant to CD for AIS, the TAP Secretariat narrowed down the terms by half and shared them with TAP Partner experts, requesting to review and suggest additional terms they found should be added.

Refine taxonomy

TAP Partners enthusiastically engaged, reviewed, provided feedback and suggested additional terms. The feedback and suggestions were discussed by staff of the TAP Secretariat, and considered or integrated in the TAPipedia taxonomy.

Apply taxonomy

Terms of the TAPipedia taxonomy which are not present in the AGROVOC vocabulary have been proposed to the FAO team working on AGROVOC and are currently under their review.
The taxonomy is applied to the content by dedicated curators.
When submitting resources, the users can tag them with the TAPipedia taxonomy terms and/or with free tags. The submitted resources and their categorisation, including tags, are checked by the curators before being accessible online.

Manage and maintain taxonomy

TAP Secretariat monitors the use and feedback on TAPipedia terms and analyses them for an update of the taxonomy at a later stage. Therefore, a review and a “candidate” list of new terms will be taken into consideration. The aims is to ensure a relevant taxonomy that captures well lessons learned, further experiences, learning and development of new concepts on CD for AIS.
This approach could be used by project managers starting or ending a project willing to develop a taxonomy, information managers wishing to organise and tag corporate information or individuals willing to organise their information so that they can easily find what they want to use at the required period.

Defining Taxonomy

In general terms, taxonomy is the practice of classification of things or concepts, including the principles that underlie such classification. In technical terms, taxonomy guides the organisation of information in a structured way such that people can easily find information and use.

Related terms to taxonomy

Ontology: Data model that describes a set of concepts and their relation to each other. Broad conceptual categories or domains used to organise information.

Folksonomy: a user-generated system of classifying and organising online content into different categories by the use of metadata such as electronic tags.

Vocabulary: The sum of words used by, understood by, or at the command of a particular person or group.

Library: a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution.

More reading

A guide to developing taxonomies for effective data management


8 Steps to Develop a Taxonomy


Taxonomy 101: The Basics and Getting Started with Taxonomies


Knowledge taxonomies: A literature review


Organising Knowledge by Patrick Lambe


Introducing the Knowledge Graph: things, not strings