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Healthy choices

Increasing the open access to nutrition and food data for ICT developers has resulted in a surge in applications for a healthier food intake and better fitness.

Nowadays, technology has made it easier to manage our personal nutritional intake with the help of applications on computers and mobile devices, like phones or watches. Search, for example, in Google for food products, like carrots, chocolate cake or milk, and you get all the nutritional information directly on your search result page. You can use apps to scan your grocery to look up how many calories there are in your cart. And there are many fitness apps and devices, like Fitbit, that give extra information about nutrition and healthy food intake.

The data that makes these apps and devices running with adequate information comes from open data sources. One of the most influential comes from the United States. For example, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates the Agriculture Research Service that is gathering information from food manufacturers. When you Google certain nutrients, what Google actually does, is that it goes to the Agriculture Research Service databases to get their information. The USDA improves and extents its databases of nutritional information for food items regularly. The research agency is currently improving its Branded Food Products Database, which is an expansion of the USDA National Nutrient Database, which offers information on 8,800 branded foods and serves as a data source for government agencies, researchers, and the food industry.

Quality control measures

Most of the data comes from the manufacturers that submit their food products to the service. Then the information undergoes quality control measures at the Agriculture Research Service to ensure it lines up correctly and no mistakes were made. All data is in the public domain, there is no copyright and no permission is needed for its use by ICT developers.

USDA’s API provides Representational State Transfer (REST) access to the food composition databases. It is intended primarily to assist application developers wishing to incorporate nutrient data into their applications or websites. The API provides two kinds of reports: food reports which list nutrient values for specified food, and nutrient reports which provide lists of foods and their nutrient values for a specified set of nutrients. USDA currently limit the number of API requests to a default rate of 1,000 request per hour per API Key and it feels that this is adequate for most applications.

The goal USDA has for the National Nutrient Database is to expand to 1 million items, including store brands, international food items, and food from chain restaurants may follow. Because of this expansion of the database, the agency is looking into cloud services to increase its storage capacity. USDA also announced an update to the Global Agricultural Concept Scheme (GACS), a thesaurus containing 350,000 common agricultural data terms in 28 languages. USDA, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) collaborated to create the GACS data set. This collaboration is an example of how governments, non-profit organisations, businesses and researchers are capable of fostering scientific innovation by making data open and available to the public.

YuScale System

ODINE is the Open Data Incubator programme of the European Union. One of the start-ups that are included in the incubator programme is YuScale System that makes an app for nutritional values of food by making it easier for those with dietary requirements to keep track. The German start-up received 100,000 euros of ODINE.

25% of 415 million diabetics have to know the contained carbohydrates of each meal and most of the others have to lose weight. For both this is a lifetime challenge. The YuScale System is able to determine the nutritional values of ready-to-eat meals with a precision of 80%, by providing a fast but safe process. The app replaces human weakness of guessing and supports diabetics in everyday life and overweight and obese people to change their behaviour.

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In September 2016, the first Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) summit took place in New York. And in February 2017, the third international workshop on impacts with open data in agriculture and nutrition was held in The Hague, the Netherlands.

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At the third international workshop on the impact of open data for agriculture a new action agenda was discussed by a mix of organisations. They concluded that more focus is required on benefits for the less favoured actors, that open data should become a vehicle for multi-stakeholder collaborations, and that assessment of data driven organisational change is required.

Innovators, programmers, and application developers are at the forefront of a movement that combines big data, open data, and the internet of things to create new marketable products and services for the agricultural sector. Events, like hackathons, pitching and networking gatherings, are important for these young innovators to improve and exchange ideas, get technological advice, connect to investors and marketers.

Demand is growing for gender data and targeted solutions for challenges unique to women, men, girls or boys. In Kenya, a community gathers and discusses gender citizen-generated data, which are uploaded to mobile phones and distributed to women leaders.

There is much potential for open data to positively affect the future of agriculture. But without a proactive, responsible approach, there is a very real risk of these changes benefiting only the most powerful actors within the sector.

Getting open data benefits to farmers will be crucial if the move towards open access is to have any real impact. There is a lot potential, but lack of reliable and contextualised data is currently working against smallholder farmers.


Open data research can significantly help to stimulate changes in practices and organisation of the public and private sector actors in agriculture and food supply chains, but it cannot force those changes. Crucial are the researchers themselves, who need to interact to ensure their knowledge and expertise is used and useful.

Increasing the open access to nutrition and food data for ICT developers has resulted in a surge in applications for a healthier food intake and better fitness.


It sounds simple, open data is there for anyone to access. However, not all journalists are aware of the open data available to them or how to use it when writing about food security or the critical challenges facing agriculture. Good journalism is not based on opinions, it relies on evidence-based information.

The Kenya government initiated the Open Data Initiative in 2011 on the idea that Kenya's information is a national asset. Agriculture is one of the main pillars, because food security and economic development can only move forward if decisions on agriculture are evidence-based. To be successful, data needs to be available, accurate, and open for all.

Wouldn’t it be handy if you could just switch on that app and see the agricultural (or any other) sector through a gender lens? And what if everyone else also working in the agricultural sector just magically started to use it? Would it make us do things differently, collect different data, push for the release and visualisation of other types of datasets, or would we make sure the data were more equally accessed and used?


  • Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition
  • e-Agriculture

External links

Past issues

ICT Update N. 90

Women and Digitalisation in Agriculture

ICT Update N. 89

Data4Ag: New opportunities for organised smallholder farmers

ICT Update N. 88

Unlocking the potential of blockchain for agriculture

ICT Update N. 86

Precision agriculture for smallholder farmers

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