A guest post by Laura Husak reflecting on the Data+Agriculture session.
Responsible, efficient and transparent open data is an incredible lever for agriculture, but careful attention will be needed to bring the benefits to smallholder farmers.
With the movement for open data gaining momentum across sectors, the Third International Open Data Conference in Ottawa generated discussion and debate on how to unleash data and who benefits from the opening of data. While aspirations of availability, accessibility, efficiency, and transparency were espoused by panelists across sectors, the case studies that were shared demonstrated both gains and challenges in actual implementation. The benefits of open data are expected to mount as more institutions adopt open access and data policies, and as more tools are developed and used. The responsibilities of those who own and use data are to not only develop new data tools and practices, but also to connect with other actors that can translate data into practical solutions and business models for improving agriculture and nutrition.
The Data + Agriculture session, moderated by Dr. Catherine Woteki, GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition) and USDA Chief Scientist, was a well-attended session of 6 speakers and 6 panelists from sectors including, the Open Data Institute, a multi-national corporation, NGOs, government agriculture research departments, and international donor institutions. The examples shared were mostly drawn from ongoing projects grounded in efforts to solve real problems and engage with entrepreneurs, governments and the private sector. The role of GODAN is largely as a convening body for 120+ agriculture and nutrition organizations that are using open data.
Making the raw data available by opening data sets is the first step toward open data. The next is to convert it into a format that can be used and manipulated (note that PDF does not mean open data). In order to effectively use open data to improve food and nutritional security, it must be linked to finding solutions to local or regional problems where someone ‘owns’ the problem. This is where data on population, droughts, pest and disease data, geo-spatial data, weather information, and prices can play a role: from policy-making to farm level decision-making. The challenges facing the application of open data are not only technological, but also related to trust, power, and the responsibility to do no harm.
For researchers and governments seeking to use open data to improve agriculture, food and nutrition, the integration of the open data approach will largely depend on the quality of the data and the cost-effectiveness of turning it into a usable format. Building a shared vocabulary and standards around data collection will facilitate this. Agri-business and private sector actors are also playing important roles, in some cases by opening their data sets, and in other cases using open data approaches to drive innovation and expand markets by identifying farming populations with low yields and then facilitating access to inputs and services to improve yields.
Open data has potential to transform understaffed and under-resourced agricultural extension programs to support farming populations. But the question is how extension services will be accessible to farming populations. Even as cell phones are becoming ubiquitous, access to smartphones and apps are still less so. The use of open data by entrepreneurial start-ups to offer services to farmers can be expected to target larger farmers cultivating higher value crops for markets or commodity crops. Subsistence farmers may be within the target domain of social enterprises, but trust will be crucial, since subsistence farming practices may rely on knowledge systems that have very different sources of data and knowledge.
As it stands, the benefits of open data are largely accrued to those with the resources to access data and the capacities to analyze it. The concentration of benefits toward those with power, resources, and access to ICTs will be important considerations for applying open data in agriculture and nutrition sectors. The realities of agrarian change, the mass exoduses out of agriculture in many countries, and the ownership of land and resources will influence who benefits from the application of open data. The gendered agricultural practices and access and control over resources also mean that applications may need to specifically be designed and target women smallholders.
As open data become more of a norm across sectors, there is huge potential for it to be applied solve the challenges facing agriculture, but the benefits are not guaranteed to reach smallholder farmers or marginalized communities. While there is great potential for new business models to be created, questions of equity will need to remain central to debates and discussion. Who benefits? This is a query that will need to be reflected upon by those working to improve the conditions of food and nutritional security of smallholder farmers around the developing world.