Hydroinformatics is a sociotechnical endeavour, which is to say that it deals with social processes that cannot proceed without the provision of appropriate technologies and technologies that cannot succeed without the introduction of appropriate social arrangements. In particular, the introduction of decision-support systems for very large numbers of persons in so-called ‘third-world’ societies, such as farmers, aquaculturalists and medical help providers, must be prepared by studies of the social and the technical aspects inseparably. Such decision-support systems have typically to provide advice on water-related issues to a very wide variety of individuals, families and other social groups, so that the advice that is provided must be the most appropriate to the specific individual, family or other social group to which it is given. This kind of ‘personalised’ or ‘customised’ service is identified as being essential to what is introduced here as a ‘knowledge-intensive agriculture’. The need to customise knowledge in such a context in turn necessitates that each such individual, family or other kind of social group must be accurately characterised by an ‘end-user profile’ in such a way that the advice that is given may be appropriate. The construction of these end-user profiles is itself a time-consuming task that calls for special skills and it is essential to the integrated sociotechnical design of widely distributed advice-serving systems that this task is identified and characterised correctly. Entirely symmetrically, once advice has been provided, this must be communicated to the end-user, and the way in which this can best be done in turn requires a careful investigation into the skills that it requires and the training which it may necessitate.
Now observations in related problem areas in ‘third-world’ societies, and specifically in the closely related areas of microbanking and mobile telephony, have shown that many tasks of this kind appear to be particularly well suited to women, rather than to men. The question then comes to be posed of whether and to what extent the provision of advice for knowledge-intensive agricultures should involve women and the ways in which they can best be involved.
It is through such developments as these that a more general problem comes to be posed of whether a whole range of sociotechnical systems in hydroinformatics may be operated on the whole more effectively by women and others again on the whole more effectively by men, and designed and analysed accordingly. In certain cases in practice this may come down to designing and analysing some parts of a total system mainly for use by women and other parts again mainly for use by men. Although these issues arise first and are for the most part discussed here only within one relatively narrow field of applications, to widely distributed (advice-serving) systems, it is suggested that they can be collected together to provide what we can describe in general terms as the gender issue in hydroinformatics. It is accordingly anticipated that differences in gender may have much wider implications and applications in hydroinformatics as a whole than are exemplified here.
It is at the same time accepted that ‘gender issues’ are not concerned with sharp divisions between male and female persons, but are much more diffuse and may be strongly subject to many non-genetic, and especially social, influences Thus, we are speaking here more of a bias towards the employment of female persons and not of any sharp demarcation. In the same vein, although this bias may be strong in some societies, such as many of those in Asia, it may be less pronounced in other societies, such as in Europe or North America. Once again, we have to investigate why this may be the case and how we may be able to recognise its presence in any particular class of applications.