Note: This is part 1 of 2 of our series on open and public data in agriculture. This blog post was originally published on agfundernews.com.
On Wednesday, December 2, England’s government took another step forward as a leader in agricultural innovation by hosting a joint event between its Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Open Data Institute (ODI). The ODI is a non-profit institution founded by Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Nigel Shadbolt, an internationally-recognized expert on Web Science. The two institutions brought together stakeholders from across the farming sector to explore data-driven innovation, with a particular focus on open data.
The Right Honourable Liz Truss, secretary of state for DEFRA, set the tone early by discussing her department’s open data initiative, in which DEFRA has committed to releasing 8,000 separate datasets into the public domain by June 2016. This will make DEFRA responsible for an astounding one-third of all government data in the public domain in England.
“I want British food and farming to lead the world, harnessing the most advanced technology and ideas to produce food more competitively and more productively,” Truss announced. “And…mobilizing the power of data…will be absolutely crucial…The role of government is helping drive the data revolution, not holding it back.”
Other institutions represented at the event included Senseye, the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), Farm Dog (scheduled), Agrimetrics, Agritech East, Syngenta, and the ODI. While speakers came from across government, non-profits, and business, two clear themes were shared by all.
Firstly, a distinct culture change across all stakeholders towards greater openness for open data is a must. Alex Coley, head of data at DEFRA, appealed for public servants to be less risk-averse when it comes to open data and that a fear of releasing data whose quality was not “high enough” has held back data releases in the past. To combat this, DEFRA is designing awards for its employees that reward an open data culture.
For the farmer, the long time-to-recognized-value of putting data into the system is a significant barrier to integration into the data ecosystem. Martin Parr, head of open data at CABI argued that farmers should be given clearer incentives for sharing their data in the short-term to help drive long-term value.
The second theme to come out from the panels is that everybody is excited to see the fruits of the open data revolution, but that is still unclear what specific solutions it will bring. While DEFRA’s mapping data has been the most valuable to date and has found many use cases, Secretary Tross stated that DEFRA is not sure where the current and future data releases will lead. Graham Mullier, head of data sciences at Syngenta, admitted that one of the reasons the company has released its own open dataset is “to find out what people might do with it”.
The above are all long-term challenges that must be addressed by the industry as a whole. Shorter-term challenges await a young start-up looking to make a difference in the industry. While the potential of using open and public data provides many opportunities to start-ups, the inherent challenges may prove overwhelming. As my start-up Farm Dog, a grant recipient from the ODI, has been confronting these challenges daily, we are in a unique position to share our thoughts.
First, most datasets — other than some aerial imagery and hyperlocal weather — are too low resolution to be helpful for an individual farmer, so this requires open and public data integration with MyData. MyData is a concept introduced by consultancy McKinsey in a report on open data. It’s the data that is collected about an individual and is then shared back with the individual; think hospital records or household energy usage. But this integration will need significant data clean-up, structuring, and logic application to be usable. And lastly, the use of MyData brings with it data privacy and data ownership issues that many start-ups may not be prepared to handle.
For more information about DEFRA’s open data initiative, visithttps://defradigital.blog.gov.uk/2015/06/25/opendefra. For more information about the ODI, visit https://www.theodi.org.