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GRIN-Global Community Edition: A Collective Step Forward for Genebank Data Managers

7 January 2022

“Genetic resources safeguarded in a genebank are useful only if they are accompanied by data that is easy to access and can be trusted,” says Juan Carlos Alarcón, the GRIN-Global Frontrunner, who is pictured here far right with representatives from (L to R) Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. “The management of information is indispensable to safeguard the diversity of our crops. And, more importantly, to make it available to potential users.”“Genetic resources safeguarded in a genebank are useful only if they are accompanied by data that is easy to access and can be trusted,” says Juan Carlos Alarcón, the GRIN-Global Frontrunner, who is pictured here far right with representatives from (L to R) Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. “The management of information is indispensable to safeguard the diversity of our crops. And, more importantly, to make it available to potential users.” Photo: Genebank Platform

All genebanks need sound data management to keep track of the inventories of seeds in their cold rooms and fields, and of all their interlinked processes.

For a long time, the CGIAR genebanks have taken their own unique approaches to data management. The result has been a wide array of software, with some genebanks relying on Excel spreadsheets while others have complex, bespoke systems.

Recently, however, CGIAR genebanks have adopted GRIN-Global, an open-source, freely downloadable data management system developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Crop Trust.

The development of GRIN-Global Community Edition, which builds on GRIN-Global and addresses some gaps in functionality, presents a major opportunity to further transition all CGIAR genebanks to a common, easy-to-use system that can dramatically improve their efficiency.

“Until recently, there were 11 different approaches being used in CGIAR genebanks to address the same or very similar needs, providing varying levels of functionality to genebank staff,” says Matija Obreza, the Crop Trust’s information systems project manager.

“In some genebanks, the software solutions are fairly advanced and provide all genebank staff with the information and tools they need for  their daily work. In others, data management is funneled through a single person, the only one really capable of getting the most out of the system, causing bottlenecks in access to data, and its use,” he adds.

All genebanks need sound data management to keep track of the inventories of seeds in their cold rooms and fields, and of all their interlinked processes. They also need to provide a searchable catalog for users to select the materials they want to order.

By the Community, for the Community

The development of GRIN-Global Community Edition (GG-CE), which builds on GRIN-Global and addresses some gaps in functionality, presents a major opportunity to further transition all CGIAR genebanks to a common, easy-to-use system that can dramatically improve efficiency. It will also encourage greater collaboration with all the other genebanks around the world that are also using either GG or GG-CE.

All 11 CGIAR genebanks have a test version of GG-CE up and running and are in the process of evaluating the system, Obreza says.

“In general, the feedback we’ve had has been very positive,” he notes. “It’s important for the users of data management systems to be involved in their development. GRIN-Global Community Edition can be integrated with barcoding and hand-held devices and works well with both seed collections and tissue culture samples alike. Plus it’s a breeze to use compared with other systems.

So far, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT (The Alliance) have officially confirmed they will be adopting GG-CE to manage their genebanks’ data.

For Juan Carlos Alarcon, formerly a systems software engineer at CIMMYT who now works at the Crop Trust, the reasons to adopt GG-CE are manifold.

“This system is specially designed for the daily activities that take place in genebanks, which is a big plus over out-of-the-box solutions,” he says.

“For example, the use of barcoding helps reduce the need for staff to manually write notes or labels, which, for one thing, will increase accuracy and help avoid mislabeling. It can also improve standardization, which will help collaboration between centers,” he adds.

Speaking a Common Language

While GG-CE can be tailored for use with any genebank collection, applying its default, standardized terms for commonly used data will assist genebank management in many ways. For instance, all genebanks need to indicate to users if seed samples are “available” for distribution, but currently use different terms for this. There are also several different words in use in different systems for sets of seeds, such as “lots”, “batches”, “inventories”.

“Differences in the words we use actually limit us from easily sharing information, which is the basis of collaboration,” Alarcon says.

Tracking Trends for Future Needs

GG-CE allows genebank staff to add all the critical data related to their operations directly into the program. But it’s what you can do with that data that is truly exciting, says Obreza. As data accumulate over time, GG-CE can be used to produce forecasts and trend analyses, he explains.

“You can actually start looking at trends, for example to see what months of the year are busier with requests, so that you can manage your workloads better, and react quicker, by starting the process of hiring the people you will need in due time,” he said.

Importantly, GG-CE also allows genebanks to automatically track over time the progress of their collection management activities, such as seed viability testing and regeneration, with an easy-to-use, color-coded system, and enable better scheduling.

Ultimately, it will help ensure seed samples aren’t lost because a crucial maintenance activity was accidentally missed or delayed.

Temporary Pain for Long-Term Gains

For genebanks already using GRIN-Global, the process of switching over to GG-CE is relatively simple, adds Alarcon. For those using a different system, the transition will be a little more challenging. “Switching over does add some extra data curation work initially, but the result will be a considerable increase in the quality and management of the information,” he says.

The long-term goal for the CGIAR centers is to eventually merge each genebank’s version of GG-CE into a common, cloud-based system: the One CGIAR Genebank Database. Adopting a common database would allow for more efficient use of resources and monitoring of genebank collections.

In the meantime, the focus remains on promoting the adoption of GG-CE at the individual genebank level.

“Suddenly you have a tool that enables better collaboration between staff at different centers, and they can actively build a really fantastic system together,” Obreza says. “This is really an exciting development for global genebank data management.”

This article was originally published on the CGIAR Genebank Platform website.

The CGIAR Genebank Platform, which ran from 2017 to the end of 2021, supported CGIAR Research Centers to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available 750,000 seed samples of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Platform supported day-to-day genebank operations, and activities to improve efficiency, enhance use and ensure compliance with international policy. This work was supported jointly by donor contributions to the CGIAR Fund and the Crop Trust Endowment Fund.

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