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Cloud Cover: A Favorable Forecast for Open Access in Agriculture

ICT Update

The cloud is no longer an overhyped IT buzzword or even just a trend to consider.

These are inspiring times for Open Access in agriculture. The last decade has brought game-changing advances in ICTs – smartphones/tablets, broadband Internet, and open-source platforms for openly publishing just about any type of information/data product – and a significant increase in their availability to both researchers and farmers. There are positive signs that many of the gaps at the core of the digital divide are being filled not only by broader access to devices and connectivity, but also by employing information standards to provide meaning – semantics – to information products that are made open. In fact, with open access and open data, the focus is naturally on suitable repositories and both syntactic and semantic standards, ensuring the greatest potential for use, innovation and knowledge transfer.

But despite the advances in the availability and accessibility of ICTs, does making information products available and accessible in suitable, standards-based repositories guarantee that open access knowledge products are within the reach of those who can benefit most?

Reliable technology infrastructures, scalable resources and worldwide availability are the sine quibus non of ensuring the best accessibility and availability of Open Access information products.

What is the cloud

The cloud is not a new concept – it has been around for many decades, using terminals to share access, computing power and storage among users over a network. Again looking at the last decade, the cloud too has seen focus and refinement, and Cloud Computing has emerged to support reaching the goals of the open access and open data movements in Agriculture.

Today the cloud has evolved into a flexible, cost-effective and highly scalable infrastructure of computing power and storage, and it can provide scientists and researchers the missing link between opening access to knowledge and data and making it more practicable to use.

Cloud Computing – pioneered by Amazon Web Services and recently more competitive with players like Google Compute Engine and Microsoft Azure – has won acclaim by allowing IT professionals to quickly and efficiently “spin up” services, storage, computing power and IT networks, allowing for cost-effective use of the services.

However, there is one important aspect of the cloud that is often overlooked, and in my opinion, will allow open access and open data for agriculture to thrive in achieving the fullest access and availability possible: the cloud’s global infrastructure. Cloud providers’ infrastructures make services and storage accessible via Availability Zones across geographic regions. For end users across the globe, regardless of their physical locations, access to services, data, and knowledge stored in the cloud can be achieved at the highest level possible.

How is the cloud improving open access and open data in agriculture?

The cloud is playing an important role in improving global access to knowledge resources. For example, collaboration platforms for decentralized teams was once a real obstacle. Traditionally with IT platforms, one criterion used when selecting where to host data, documents, and applications is proximity, and hosting platforms in proximity of users – possibly the same network – can greatly improve users’ ability to access resources by reducing the “Internet travel” distance and time. With decentralized teams, difficulties dealing with proximity are quickly disappearing.

Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 – two well-established cloud-based collaboration platforms – are within the reach of most of the world, even to those in low-bandwidth locations. Both depend on the cloud and Availability Zones to guarantee the best possible access based on the end user’s location, making the platforms practicable to use and access.

Open access and open data are for the global public. Users’ proximity to open repositories is an unpredictable concept, and the cloud offers the best proximity to the public at large.

With open data, in particular, storage can easily become a liability, mainly due to data growth and the amount of data to store and deliver. Cloud storage is scalable and reliable, and most importantly, data stored in the cloud can be processed using the computing power of the cloud.

In CGIAR, our open access and data management policy clearly requires the permanent access to our research products. We believe that widespread dissemination of our research products is key to achieving the maximum impact. In December, we took a major step forward to making data more accessible. We published the Global Circulation Models (GCM) from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change and Food Security (CCAFS) on the Amazon Cloud, AWS. The 7-terabyte GCM datasets are considered one of the most important instruments in climate research, providing researchers tools for making climate change impact assessments with future climate projections. Today, the GCM datasets are more accessible globally because of the cloud.

Many non-IT professionals tend to shy away from using cloud technologies and feel that the cloud is out of reach. But I see this changing rapidly, as tools and statistical analysis packages for scientists and researchers are becoming available in cloud marketplaces. And with open data stored in the cloud, researchers will no longer be constrained by their own limitations to download large data sets – processing to obtain results and produce innovations will not depend on a researcher’s Internet connectivity or individual, local processing capability.

For the open access and open data movement in agriculture, I believe the cloud is essential to achieving one of the key goals of making agricultural knowledge and data open: available and usable for worldwide use. ◀

Michael Marus is ICT Manager at the CGIAR Consortium.  @michaelmarus

other articles in this issue

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CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.