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Open data for agriculture and nutrition

Harnessing data for the benefit of farmers and agribusinesses in ACP countries is about more than tapping the burgeoning flow of information

March 3, 2016

Saturday 5 March was international Open Data Day.

More data is available than ever before. The data explosion is a blessing for farmers and agribusinesses but, to fully realise the benefits of burgeoning data, the movement for making agricultural and nutritionally relevant data openly available, accessible and usable worldwide needs to accelerate. Governments can play a part by supporting policies that encourage good quality, open data. 

The use of data in sustainable development has expanded rapidly since the term ‘data revolution’ was first coined in May 2013. Since then, CTA has been working to develop open data initiatives that benefit smallholder farmers and agribusinesses. Building on Open Data Day in March, CTA will shortly publish ‘Data Revolution for Agriculture’, a paper drawing attention to the need for policies to enable open data in agriculture and nutrition.

Climate change and population growth affect rural communities that are dependent on agriculture. Reliable, up-to-date, easily accessible data is important for making decisions to deal with these challenges. As a result, the open data movement has gained momentum in recent years. The quantity of data that is available is steadily increasing. Satellite images and the exponential growth of mobile communications have helped extend access to data rapidly. In addition, our ability to share data effectively is increasing. This is leading to a growing interest in putting it to good use.

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Opportunities for open data to benefit rural communities

Open data offers significant potential to benefit rural communities. The idea of providing agricultural information freely is not new. Various agencies and research organisations have launched initiatives to make data available. For instance advisories combining agricultural knowledge with data from remote sensing and mapping provide farmers with early warnings of adverse conditions. Such advice and warnings can be crucial for protecting crops from pests and extreme weather, for increasing yields, for monitoring water supplies and for anticipating changes brought on by climate change. Giving smallholder farmers access to reliable data can translate into higher productivity, greater access to markets and better nutrition.

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CTA Director, Michael Hailu, points to the potential of open data, estimated to be worth trillions of dollars a year. “As a knowledge broker with experience across African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, CTA is uniquely positioned to promote awareness of the benefits of open data based on its knowledge of tangible experiences in various contexts,” he says. “While others have focused on research information, CTA tries to look at a broad range of data that can benefit smallholder farmers and agribusinesses.”

Collecting and processing data to provide useful information is a sound investment. Brynjolfsson estimates that the output and productivity of firms that adopt data-driven decision making are 5% to 6% higher than from their other investments in information technology. These firms also perform better in terms of asset utilisation, return on equity and market value. Growing investment in data management and analytics reflects the increasingly important role of data. Data can be key to building support among policy makers for initiatives on food and nutrition security.

Open data for improving food and nutrition security

Opening up agricultural data for improving food security and nutrition in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries faces significant challenges. Statistical surveys are expensive, capacity is limited, methods and tools are not fully developed, and key agricultural and rural development actors are not yet fully engaged. As a result, data is often inaccurate, out-dated, incomplete or inaccessible.

As the volume, variety and availability of data increases, and the push for open data gains impetus we need to strive to understand:

  • The dynamics of constantly changing flows of data;
  • Ways and means of engaging existing and potential data owners and users that are meaningful, pragmatic, adaptable and fair; and
  • The responsibilities of data owners and users for developing data tools and practices, and involving people who can translate data into practical tools and business models for improving agriculture and nutrition.

We need to ask:

  • How do we use open data to unlock untapped potential to innovate, experiment and adapt?
  • Who really benefits from open data?
  • How can we use open data to tackle global challenges such as food security and nutrition security?
  • How do we ensure that people, organisations and even governments are not left behind or excluded from the open data revolution?

Sharing data more openly has the potential to provide farmers with better services, such as services to access farm inputs and market produce. The key issue for farmers to be able to use open data effectively is that it needs to be available and accessible in a timely, fair and equitable manner. Data must also be affordable, relevant, useful and trustworthy.

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This means involving farmers when deciding on the information, data and knowledge to be generated, shared and exchanged. Farmers are not only providers and recipients of data, but also contribute traditional knowledge, innovations and practices important for food production and agriculture. Farmers have the right to give prior informed consent for accessing and using their knowledge, innovations and practices, and to benefit from the use of their knowledge, innovations and practices in a fair and equitable way.

Collaborating

Addressing challenges in making data openly available means collaborating – to experiment, to learn and to share what we learn. In most developing counties the public sector is mainly responsible for collecting data and providing information. However, the shift to market-oriented agriculture and the information revolution driven by new technology have triggered innovative services for farmers and other stakeholders to access, share and exchange information.

Collaborating in small-scale pilot projects that bring together the private sector, regulators, civil society and local communities provides insights and local knowledge to address challenges. Improving cooperation between old and new data producers and ensuring data users engage fully helps develop ethical, legal and statistical global standards to improve the quality of data and to protect people from data abuses.

Enabling

The benefits of open data largely flow to those with the resources to access it and the capacity to effectively analyse it. Researchers and governments seeking to use open data to improve agriculture, and food and nutrition security require good quality data and cost-effective ways of turning it into a usable format. Transforming open data into information that policy makers can use involves empowering and financing independent offices of statistics to collect, process and disseminate high-quality, open, disaggregated, geo-coded data.

Regulations relating to using and managing data need to set and enforce common standards for collecting, producing, anonymising, sharing and using data to ensure that new data is safely and ethically transformed into global public goods. This means establishing and maintaining quality control and audit systems.

Care needs to be taken to prevent the concentration of benefits among those with power, resources and access to technology. The realities of the changing agricultural sector, the mass exodus out of agriculture in many countries, and the ownership of land and resources will influence who benefits from the application of open data in the future.

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Resources

• Download CTA's Open Data Day infographic
• Read about the International Open Data Day
• Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN)

Stay connected

• Follow @CTAflash on Twitter for regular updates
• Find more on Twitter with the #OpenAgData hashtag

Related articles

How might open data in agriculture help achieve food security?
Agricultural data – a two-way flow
Harnessing the data revolution for ACP agriculture
Open data for smallholder farmers – strong potential, but little impact yet 
Continuing the Open Data discussion