Last week, Elizabeth Truss MP, the UK’s Environment Secretary, announced that over the next year virtually all of her department’s data will be opened up for full and public access – amounting to more than 8,000 datasets. Could this trigger a disruption to the agri-food supply chain similar to Uber’s entry into the world of passenger transit ?
Whether you took a stroll down the row of tech service providers at the Cereals 2015 event this month, or you caught the recent news that Google is investing in low-cost agronomy services, one can’t help but notice increasing role data is playing in the agri-food supply chain. It’s always been there, of course, however for a long time it may have been viewed as transactional data that was simply an artifact of doing business, or was inconveniently spread across a multitude of different systems, spreadsheets, notebooks and, indeed, parties in that supply chain.
That’s changing though, and the goal of the “big data” approach is to pull together the business data you’ve already got and supplement it with more data from other, often complementary, sources to give you the context behind the data. It’s about gaining a better understanding of what that data’s actually telling you and using it to observe trends, to identify when, where & why things are different to the norm and ultimately to drive investment in new opportunities. In some cases, you might already have agreements to access proprietary data held by someone else in the supply chain. You could be sharing information with your peers, a trade association or other members of your co-operative. You may be working with an organisation like Geomatics to understand things in a geospatial context, or you could be mixing in data from any number of existing open data sources, from weather to conservation areas to stock prices to roadworks.
This is where the Environment Secretary’s announcement makes things a whole lot more interesting. The sheer scale of Defra‘s operations – and those of the various other government departments that have been folded into it over the years – means they now hold an incredible amount of historical information and continue to collect a bewildering array of current data. Whether you’re wanting your big data to factor in animal movements since World War 2, changes in the rural economy since the Doomsday Book, the flow of rivers, the shape of farmer’s fields or surveys of crops via satellite imagery … these and over 8,000 other themes are the data that will be opened up over the next year, for full and open access.
In the US, Google recently invested in Farmers Business Network who are using this big data approach to improve yields and turn farmer’s data into insight, rather than just information. By leveraging the extensive USDA datasets on farm & field boundaries, soil analysis records, historical weather data and adding to that the current activities of hundreds of other local farmers, FBN are able to track how varieties perform across a wide range of growing conditions, make suggestions on seed rates and enable farmers to benchmark their performance both year on year and against their peers. With a single annual fee of just $500 per farm and a relatively simple feature set at the moment, they’re looking to expand their operations beyond the 17 US states and 16 crop types they currently cover. The more farmers they acquire, the more data gets uploaded, the more accurate their modelling becomes and the more features they can offer.
It’s a shrewd strategy. Particularly when you consider their approach to farmers uploading data from the wide variety of machinery in use today, most of which in incompatible … their mantra is simply “upload it and let us figure it out”. They’ve only been up and running for a year, after all, but once they have the data on a whole crop cycle for example, they can then start to make predictions on things such as input requirements, machinery usage and overall farm profitability.
Could opening up Defra’s datasets be the trigger for a similar disruption to the UK market? It’ll be fascinating to see the types of information that are made available and the uses they get put to. How will these new products and services improve the lives of farmers? And what value could merchants and suppliers drive from extending their reach – from gaining insight into how the seeds they sell are used, better understanding the input requirements throughout the year, all the way to more accurate predictions of when, and what yield, harvest will bring?
For sure, in the next 12 months someone will put an X and a Y together that make no sense at first glance – until you see the new Z they just created, whereupon you’ll say “aaaahhhhh!” and find yourself wishing you’d thought of something that now seems so obvious …