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How A Lack Of Open Data Is Slowing A Farming Revolution

Farmers, even in remote places, don’t lack for apps these days. But this technology is useless without the data to back it up.

How A Lack Of Open Data Is Slowing A Farming Revolution
[Photo: iStock]

You'd think that with almost 800 million people underfed or malnourished around the world today that there probably isn't enough food to eat. But this is completely untrue: In fact, there's 20% more food available than needed to meet everyone’s needs, and even most undernourished countries have a raw surplus of food. What's going wrong?

The obvious answer is that a lot of food is being wasted. Look deeper, and you’ll find another reason: a lack of information.

"You begin to ask yourself, why do so many people go to bed hungry every night if we currently produce enough food to feed everyone?" says Jaime Adams, senior advisor for international affairs at the USDA. "We believe there could be a data gap."

App stores have exploded in recent years to cater to all kinds of needs and interests, and that’s as true for people living in Brooklyn’s trendiest neighborhoods as it is for farmers in mostly off-grid rural African communities. Mobile apps are in the process of transforming farmers’ lives all around the world. They provide weather data so farmers can make smarter decisions about when or even what to plant in a given year. They help Californian farmers use less water, and they connect farmers in Africa with market price information so they can secure better deals. These apps have become all the rage in agricultural, nonprofit, and startup circles, but they can’t function without accurate, clear, and detailed agricultural and nutrition data.

Adams manages the U.S. government’s participation in the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative, which was formed in 2013 with the mission of making agricultural and nutritionally relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide. The network, with more than 350 government, public, and private partners, held a summit in New York in September to call on world leaders and top policymakers to commit to making more data publicly available and accessible—a call that is picking up around the world.

It sounds like a basic premise, but a lot of information regarding agriculture and nutrition is kept confidential by governments or is held as a proprietary secret by companies, or is even stored in formats, including as a simple PDF, that make it difficult to access. The ultimate goal of making this kind of data open is to provide and sustain food security for the billions of people around the world.

Today, Adams explains, the Agricultural Market Information System’s estimates of global food production are available thanks to satellite data—"and then the harvest kind of disappears. We don’t know if it’s gone into processing or grain elevators to be stored somewhere or if it’s just not being recorded. That’s how we know we produce enough food, but we don’t have information on what actually happens to it."

Consider a new startup, GivingGarden. It aims to help backyard gardeners and farmers pool expertise—about crops, for example, that grow well in a specific neighborhood, where the climate might be different than even in another part of the same city—and share produce with each other and with food banks. For the gardening advice, CEO Deema Tamimi said open regional-level data from USDA has been a helpful start, but the agency does not have data on specific microclimates. GivingGarden’s larger aim is to make gardening easy for people who aren’t expert gardeners, which means that providing more localized advice on both crop type as well as timing is crucial. The frustrating part is that the data GivingGarden needs exists, but it’s often privately collected and held and hard for the startup to access.

"We’ve seen that there’s a lot of people with plant species databases, but they have it under some type of license so you can’t just scrape that data and use it," she said. "There’s stuff out there, but it’s about finding a good data set that’s available, and that has no proprietary restriction on top of it."

Gabriel Youtsey, chief information officer for the University of California’s Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources, believes that if more data was available, consumer-facing apps would also find it useful, in addition to those that help farmers, researchers, industry, or government. "[They] are interested in more ‘soil to shelf’ transparency about how food is grown and produced and how sustainable it is," he says.

For many experts, apps have proliferated in number far more quickly than in usefulness; that includes some that don’t relay data that’s actually relevant or helpful to users. "I absolutely believe in the power of information communication technology to make a difference, but too often people get caught up in the bells and whistles. They seem to overlook basics—seeing what the audiences really need and want," says Mark Bell, director of the International Learning Center at the University of California, Davis.

Of course, open data has already transformed aspects of agriculture. Weather information was not always readily available, but today it is crucial to how farmers plan and operate.

For Adams, further opening up more agricultural data—and therefore making agricultural apps more useful—is at the heart of GODAN’s mission. "The bigger picture here is improving the decision-making on the farm. The more information they have, the better decisions they can make on the farm—on a range of topics, whether it’s when to plant, when to harvest, when to spray chemicals, or where to take their products to market," she says.

Youtsey says, to advance the open-data cause in agriculture, more public-private partnerships are needed that will help spur innovation and lead to local projects that can have more visible impacts. "USDA data on data.gov is an excellent resource for apps, and it will be made all the richer once proprietary data stores are further opened up," he says. "It’s hard for many to see the benefits of open data until hyper-local success stories start to emerge."

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