Increased availability of agricultural data could help overcome key challenges for the sector, however many stakeholders still struggle to access and interpret agri-data. GODAN’s Action project aims to tackle this issue.
Rapid internet and mobile phone penetration, reduction in hardware costs and digitalisation are stimulating innovation for sustainable agri-food systems, and allowing the production of better and safer food. Inclusive, digital and data-driven agricultural practices can increase and improve livelihoods for smallholder farmers while driving greater participation of women and youth, meanwhile creating employment along the value chain.
From the coffee farmer in Uganda who could be using a mobile to market her crops online, to the young entrepreneur in Zambia aiming for self-employment in agriculture – digital literacy provides an essential set of skills needed to find and communicate information in the modern world. The development of robust digital tools for the agriculture sector relies heavily on the availability of reliable, quality data regarding weather, land administration, land use, markets, soil health, pests and diseases, among other variables. Such data falls into a spectrum from ‘closed’ to ‘open’, with open data being data that anyone can access, use or share. The more open – or FAIR i.e., findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable – the better for agricultural development.
A United Nations report on mobilising the data revolution for sustainable development, stressed the need for improved governments’ and citizens’ data literacy to remove barriers between people and data. In this context, one of the focal areas of GODAN Action a 3-year project led by CTA – was to develop and strengthen the capacity of potential open data users (e.g. researchers, ICT professionals, journalists and policymakers) to understand the value of open data and practically engage with it, in order to tackle key agriculture and nutrition challenges.
The envisioned impacts of the intervention – outlined in the project’s Theory of Change – were:
- improved service delivery by businesses using open data in agriculture and nutrition;
- smallholders, communities of practice, business and other stakeholders empowered by being able to access and use open data;
- data-driven business creation;
- increased transparency of decision-making by policymakers, since it will be clearer to the public how these decisions came to be and whether or not they are justified; and
- better evidence based policy and decision-making.
The inception phase of GODAN Action, which was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development benchmarked existing skills for open data use and developed a capacity development action plan with thematic modules aligned with weather, land and nutrition data.
During the implementation phase, several approaches were adopted to deliver training and build capacity. One approach was face-to-face workshops which had a positive response and led to requests for more and continuous learning. Workshops have been held in Botswana, Ecuador, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, USA and Zimbabwe. Over 200 infomediaries, researchers and policymakers have attended the eight courses held in Africa so far. Advantages of this approach include its adaptability to the specific audience; increased trainer-to-participant interaction and engagement; and promotion of peer-to-peer learning from rich sectoral experience and knowledge exchange.
After taking part in a face-to-face workshop, many participants went on to complete a free 4-week e-learning course, which has reached the widest range of open data users and data managers. So far, 4,448 people from 148 countries have completed the open online course which covers different aspects of making data open and usable – from first principles, to use, exposure, sharing and licensing of data.
A trainers’ network (consisting of 94 trainers from 24 countries) was established to support the replication of the face-to-face open data workshops and support uptake of learning materials. Since 2017, trainers held local workshops in five African countries and trained over 200 data and information intermediaries.
Monthly webinars, provided with the support of the GODAN Secretariat, have proved to be a successful way to reach wide audiences and engage other communities and networks working with open data. Webinars cover a variety of agriculture-data topics (such as land data management and nutrition) and societal issues (such as the link between gender and open data). They have also provided a way to encourage practitioners and professionals to join the GODAN Capacity Development Working Group to share their findings.
The project is now assessing the impact of its approaches on the capability and effectiveness of individuals to use open data. Boniface Akuku, ICT director at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation (KALRO) is an active member of the trainers’ network and has facilitated the training of over 90 Kenyans in use of open data for agriculture and nutrition. “Research scientists as well as technical staff capacity has been built in understanding and applying open data principles, subsequently contributing to improved openness of research data, and this has increased access to agricultural research technologies. Similarly, researchers have been empowered to effectively undertake research, access data, information and knowledge both locally and internationally,” he explains. “In view of the transformative change through scalability, replication, and sustainable access to research knowledge using ICT platforms – and the successful impact this has had on many farmers in Kenya – KALRO has developed an open data policy, and is in the process of establishing a cloud based Big Data platform and use of disruptive technologies to harness all datasets in agriculture and nutrition in Kenya.”
Alfred Mwaura, an extensionist by profession, has been using skills gained through the e-learning course to collect, manage and analyse data from coffee farmers, millers and buyers. “I've developed an open market for small scale coffee farmers,” Mwaura reveals. “Open data can be used to improve coffee prices for small-scale coffee farmers in Kenya and help fight poverty.” Natasha Mhango – a senior agricultural information and publications officer at Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock –is also using skills she honed to write and publish data driven articles about the biggest issues in agriculture and nutrition in a weekly print newsletter for farmers and a blog. “My stories now have more credibility. I backup statements I make with relevant and credible stats and findings from verified data sources.”
Increasingly we see that there is a high level of commitment from development partners, the private sector, research and academic networks to have open data on the agenda across the agriculture sector. The demand for training in open data is high, and so investment in this area must continue. However more can be done to support citizens and stakeholders to innovate and address the challenges in agriculture and nutrition. Governments have a key role in creating the policy framework for openness and supporting the infrastructure developments needed to sustain open data for agricultural research and practice.