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Who owns farmer data? Exploring the rights and codes of conduct for transparent agricultural data sharing

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There is a need to develop transparent data sharing codes of conduct, and balance the distribution of benefits between agricultural value chain actors

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Data-driven services have the potential to effectively propel agricultural innovations and contribute to the sustainability of food systems. But despite a continuous increase of initiatives facilitating common data exchange in agriculture, a lack of legal and policy frameworks continues to hamper ownership, control and access of data.

To steer a new paradigm of agricultural data governance, there is a need to develop transparent data sharing codes of conduct, and balance the distribution of benefits between agricultural value chain actors. This can only be achieved if the data ownership rights of farmers are considered; where the control and privacy of their data is neglected, farmers are less willing to share their information.

In response to this matter, a workshop was organised by the Association for Technology and Structures in Agriculture (KTBL), together with the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) and CTA on 25-26 July 2019, in Darmstadt, Germany. The workshop brought together lawyers, farmer group representatives, policy makers, researchers and data specialists from Europe and Africa with additional colleagues joining by videoconference from Australia and Kenya. Under the theme ‘Legal and Policy Aspects of Open Data in Agriculture Affecting Farmers’, the workshop explored how to unblock legal and policy bottlenecks that limit data exchange optimisation in agriculture – both in developed and developing countries. The goal was to empower farmers and raise awareness and about their rights within the data value chain, promote dialogue between all the actors involved in agricultural data sharing, and enhance the role of farmers’ associations in setting codes of conduct.

Senior programme coordinator of Data4Ag at CTA, Chris Addison, introduced the meeting with a presentation on Findings from CTA’s work in the Data4Ag project relating to the work to date on codes of conduct and practical issues arising with the farmer’s organisations in sharing data with third parties.

The workshop comprised of three sessions:

  1. A recap and feedback session on findings of the GFAR/CTA/GODAN “codes of conduct” working group to date following the workshop in 2018
  2. Presentations and discussions to provide the legal, policy, farming and research perspectives on the components of existing codes of conduct and related policy from Africa, Europe, US and Germany
  3. Group work on a framework for the development of a code of conduct for the exchange of agricultural data – This framework is a guide which prioritises key elements of the code, elaborates their application and makes suggestions for implementation

A research perspective

When discussing agricultural data ownership and sharing, it is important to consider how data is collected and the implications of sharing particular research findings. If badly handled this can affect the willingness of the farmer to provide data to the researcher. A ‘nine-step’ approach was elaborated during the workshop, based on the priorities set by the research participants group :

  1. Data clarification – metadata and source description.
  2. Verification of legal and contractual obligations between the provider and processor of the data.
  3. Type and sensitivity of the data.
  4. Risk assessment of the data system: how secure is it, what is the potential for misuse.
  5. Clearly defined purpose is given for the collection of data. For example how are data going to be used and to what effect.
  6. Consent from research subjects.
  7. Point of contact identified for both farmer and research communities.
  8. Control of data flow and how this can be controlled by the use of technology (software safeguards such as access controls and work practices ensuring restricted exchange.
  9. Data management – storage and access security.

Farmers’ rights

In many of the cases considered by the farmers group, farmers lack the rights to control who accesses and uses their data , and at the same time, few farmers are aware of the ways that agricultural data can be shared to provide services in production, finance and access to markets and their potential strengths and weaknesses. There is a need to empower farmers with information about their rights and to engage more farmer associations in discussions on data privacy and ownership rights.

During the workshop, the following top 10 elements of the framework were identified by those participants in the farmer discussion group. The group focussed on prioritising farmer data rights through clarifying the existing situation with regard to rights and taking action to ensure that the elements of the code are implemented fairly.

  • Ownership
  • Definitions
  • Notify farmers in advance of data collection through a clear briefing
  • Farmer consent of data collection and use, and access control
  • Clear and understandable contract
  • Rights of the data originator
  • Distribution
  • Liability and protection of IP rights
  • Sharing value
  • Enforcement-certification

Protecting data privacy: the role of government

The group’s analysis of framework priorities shifted when considering the government perspective. Government representatives of the workshop considered their responsibility in ensuring the participation of all stakeholders in developing a national or commodity based data code of conduct, and guaranteeing that the code safeguarded public interest. They felt that there should be a provision for the involvement of farmer organisations in developing data contract agreements. They also proposed to consider share-alike licensing for data (e.g.CC-BY-SA) through the value chain – if the farmer agrees to share data. Their priorities were outlined as follows:

  • Develop simple and understandable contracts, together with clear definitions
  • Ownership – covering the principle and application
  • Collection, access control and consent of data use
  • Rights of the data originator to portability
  • Contract termination – possibility to opt out
  • Unlawful and anti-competitive activities should be prohibited
  • Participatory certification schemes should be designed and enforced
  • Data protection safeguards should be put in place

Developing a homogenous and stable code of conduct is just one of the many required processes in protecting farmers’ data rights. This workshop has brought together organisations that are taking the lead to harmonise existing diversified policy and legal frameworks, an exercise that requires the continuous establishment of stakeholder partnerships and dialogues on open data rights and ownership.

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