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Data revolution for agriculture

In this issue of ICTupdate, we try to show it certainly is, although it seems we are yet to make progress in taking advantage of making data open for agriculture. A report by McKinsey in 2013 suggests that open data could benefit the global economy by US$3 trillion a year. To cover this revolution, we have had our own revolution here at CTA and have turned this issue of ICTupdate over to our interns for a new perspective. This issue will also be accompanied by more content online.

Open data and the data revolution

There are various definitions of open data, including that from OpenDefinition.org: “Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose,” It means data is available, accessible and can be mixed with other datasets to be made universally accessible to all. By making data truly open, we also have to give context to the data.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web and linked data initiator suggests The Five Star system which provides a more comprehensive, technical definition of open data describing five different levels of openness (on the web*, machine-readable data**, non-proprietary format***, Resource Description Format standards**** and linked RDF*****). However, very few agricultural data services achieve the five-star level of openness. A non-technical definition to the Five Star system was made by the Open Data Institute (ODI). Dr David Tarrant (ODI) presented the approach at the GODAN workshop (20 January) as the following: available*, reusable**, open format***, use IDs for data - to link to data****, and all of the above and be able to link data to other people’s data to provide context*****.

The data revolution is a UN post-2015 initiative which refers to the transformative actions needed to respond to the demands of a complex development agenda; improvements in how data are captured and used; building capacity and data literacy in ‘small data’ and big data analytics; modernising systems of data collection; liberating data to promote transparency and accountability; and developing new targets and indicators.

What does open data mean for agriculture?

In terms of agriculture and open data, we are not talking about strictly agricultural data, such as yields and inputs. Rather, we are including all of the data that could be used to support food security, nutrition and agriculture. This could be satellite and meteorological data or nutritional values of crops.

Open data can potentially play a role at both macro and micro levels. At the national policy level, for example, we have seen the use of indicators to measure investment in agriculture and resultant growth in yields. Open data can help bring transparency to government spending on agriculture.

At the farmer level, access to data affects how they are managing their farms: for example, data can help farmers understand more about the threats of drought or to decide what to produce and when to take their produce to market. Farmers can also contribute to data collection and input; What are they planting? When will it be ready for harvest? When will it be ready for the market? The data value chain in agriculture? 

Having access to better data and better information on yields helps set targets for agricultural production at the policy level, as well as at the farmer level. The challenge is that data needs to be accurate, constantly updated and reliable. The ability to collect this data at different points allows for universal participation.

Why should people care about open data in agriculture and nutrition?

The agricultural sector is facing a huge demand to feed rapidly growing populations, while at the same time facing increasing threats from climate change. Agricultural production has to increase while reducing its impact on the environment – it cannot be just more fertiliser, more land being ploughed under. Equally important, we need to ensure a fairer distribution of the food produced, which calls for investments in family farming, value chains and markets that enhance food security at all levels.

Open data can facilitate this. There is an enormous amount of knowledge available from a lot of different sources: the practices of indigenous communities, new technologies developed by research institutions, tacit knowledge, knowledge transferred between generations, policy implementation, the use of products by consumers and so on. Access to these data can help us understand all aspects of food production: soil conditions, land use, the dynamics of the value chain and to identify gaps in data. 

More environmental data are available where we have seen openness increase. For example, satellite imagery can give us an idea of soil moisture levels by analysing infrared reflectance. Open data present fundamental building blocks to help us understand more about the land so we can improve production and/or market access.

With open data we can intensify the use of knowledge rather than intensify agriculture.In this issue of ICT4Ag we give a voice to various stakeholders who talk about their ideas on how to face the various challenges, and we present some practical ICT tools in the data revolution for agriculture with potential to scale out.

In this issue

“Aquacrop”, crop water productivity model

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Intended for agricultural researchers and stakeholders, “Aquacrop” is a crop water productivity model developed and distributed by FAO since 2009. by evaluating different parameters, it enables yields to be improved in an environment where water is scarce. A robust model that is easy to use and produces rapid results whose usefulness increases in line with the scope of challenges related to global changes.

CTA is a member of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative which recently met in Wageningen to discuss the actual and potential impacts of Open Data  on development. Here are nine things we learnt from the GODAN meeting.

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In the era of open data, agriculture and nutrition are starting to push forward. Indeed, in this as in so many other sectors, free access to high quality data is of vital importance. The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Initiative, which held its first conference in January 2015 in the Netherlands has demonstrated this.

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Time has become a scarce resource and make daily use of the internet, social media, e-mail, mobile services and information alerts – and the rise of big data is putting further pressure on our ability to consume such large amounts of explicit knowledge. Indeed, the amount of explicit knowledge available on the web related to agriculture alone is too overwhelming for anyone single person to process.

Participatory 3D modelling is a community-based tool that builds on local and indigenous knowledge for a variety of purposes, such as land use planning, watershed management, disaster prevention, communication and advocacy.

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African smallholder farmers face a recurring problem of access to finance and credit. Financial institutions, for their part, do not have access to many potential customers, considered as too risky. Young Kenyan computer scientists have developed FarmDrive, an application that aims to promote access to credit and financial services for smallholder farmers. banks remain to be won over, but the project is on track.

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Open data may not just be figures or indicators, but metadata describing documents. Jacinta Were describes how African libraries should not be sidelined in the efforts to make more open data available and that open access documents are an important resource in the data revolution for agriculture.

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Milton Haughton, executive Director of the Caribbean Regional Fisheries mechanism (CRFm), discusses the importance of accurate fisheries data, why this is so difficult to collect and the need for new models in collecting, validating and distributing the data. He also talks about the future role of mobile apps in filling this role.

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In your article in the last issue of ICT Update you mentioned that we need to coordinate efforts to monitor the impact of applications since there are so many of them. Have there been any positive signs during your stream sessions that this may be accomplished?

As mobile phones, tablets and improved connectivity spread across the world, the amount of data we are gathering and storing is increasing exponentially. With every satellite launch we add further data at ever increasing detail. Knowledge is a core input to agriculture, while data and information are the foundation of knowledge. Is agriculture making the most of the data revolution?

Past issues

Spore N. 90

Women and Digitalisation in Agriculture

Spore N. 89

Data4Ag: New opportunities for organised smallholder farmers

Spore N. 88

Unlocking the potential of blockchain for agriculture

Spore N. 86

Precision agriculture for smallholder farmers

View all