Digital mapping provides better quality information on issues and opinions, and eases its interpretation.

Federated Farmers uses digital mapping to track farmers, the issues they face and their opinions. Policy co-ordinator Louise Gibson says the technology has become an important part of how the organisation engages with its members.

"It gives us a true picture of what they are thinking, we can understand how things are with our members and that means we can develop better long-term policy and plans."

The organisation's key mapping tool is a geospatial system from Esri called ArcGIS.

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The software lets Federated Farmers build interactive digital maps which link directly to data. So, the organisation's employees might know, for example, how many people are located in a particular spot and what kind of farm they run.

But that's only the start. Almost any information can be a data point. Gibson says it's really about using data to connect with people.

She says data is often collected using everyday tools such as spreadsheets. That can be useful in its own right, but when placed on a map the information is easier to understand and analyse.

It also enables Federated Farmers to see the big picture.

Federated Farmers also uses more specialist data gathering tools. Gibson says one that makes a huge difference is Survey123. It's an electronic replacement for paper-based data gathering. Her team use it on mobile phones to collect information.

Gibson uses ArcGIS both during and prior to her advocacy work.

"At the moment we use it for national campaigns around rural telecommunications, employment and for dealing with Mycoplasma bovis," she says. "Among the regional uses are water planning and looking at the health of rivers in the Waikato and in Canterbury.

And then there are district level matters where we look at things like outstanding natural landscapes and long-term plans.

"We also use it when we work alongside industry bodies like Beef and Lamb.

"We're using it to understand how issues affect members and for getting farmers to engage with us. We also use it for research and getting numbers together so we can go out there and advocate with true and accurate data.

"We're doing more and more geospatial work with that."

Gibson says Federated Farmers first started using the software two years ago and quickly found geospatial technology had a huge impact on the organisation's advocacy work.

Among other things it meant the team working on policy and advocacy had access to much better-quality data and was able to interpret it faster and with more accuracy.

One application was to look at the state of rural telecommunications. Gibson says poor internet connectivity can make it hard to do things such as monitoring flows in irrigation systems. "We know it is often bad, but we decided to create a map to see what it physically looks like."

Gibson worked on this with Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard. They sent a list of 20 questions to over 1000 members using the Esri Survey123 software. Explains Gibson: "This allows you to use a phone app to search for your address. It then asks the questions, all the information is then plotted directly on to a map."

It includes questions like "what's the mobile coverage like on your farm, does it cover 25, 50 or 100 per cent"; "what's the signal strength?" and "what is your internet speed?"

This allows the organisation to get an overall picture and to highlight areas where there are major problems. Gibson says in the case of rural telecommunications the results were much worse than Federated Farmers had anticipated.

Another survey looked at how many phone apps a farmer uses to run their business. Gibson says the organisation knew in advance that dairy farmers use apps because Fonterra uses them to forecast milk pickups, but she was surprised at just how widespread phone apps are across all types of farming. "We had far more come back and say they use them, but some farmers are relying on communications technologies that might not be there".

The power of this information linked to geospatial maps is that Gibson and her team are able to advocate more strongly and more effectively for farmers when they have access to credible data.

"We can show people in the telecommunications industry that it's not just us being whingy.

"There are actual problems out there and we are better able to identify them. We can show them what it looks like and identify key problem areas. Some issues can be widespread or highly localised, other times ArcGIS shows up strong regional patterns.

"For example, areas like South Otago don't have much cellphone coverage at all," she says.

With the government now aiming to fill in rural cellphone blackspots, the geospatial map showing farm coverage gives Federated Farmers ammunition to push for towers in the most needed areas.

The plan is to repeat important surveys like this one every year so Federated Farmers can see whether there is any improvement.

Gibson says the organisation now plans to do something similar with its economics survey.

Federated Farmers started using ArcGIS at about the time of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, but staff were still learning to use the software during the immediate aftermath.

Gibson says it became useful soon after as the organisation worked to pinpoint which farmers were affected by log-jams and other debris not cleared up immediately after.

It gave this information to the emergency authorities.

Gibson's team also used the mapping system to identify farmers who were struggling to recover. She says the organisation could have done a lot more to help farmers if it had the software earlier.

Gibson says Federated Farmers has a close relationship with Eagle Technology, the New Zealand Esri distributor.

"Eagle has been helping us to understand the technology better. We're a not-for-profit so we get half-price training, we're using the cost savings to do a lot more than we otherwise would and we are better prepared for using the system."