ODI Futures: How can open data improve farmers’ choices?

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In April 2015, agriculture company Syngenta published its first open datasets as part of The Good Growth Plan, with a view to improving global resource efficiency, soil and biodiversity conservation, and the prosperity of small farms in developing countries. But can open data really help to solve our world food crisis?

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Photo: flickr – US Department of Agriculture (CC-BY-2.0)

Syngenta will be taking part in ODI Futures: Agriculture in partnership with Defra, and in the run-up to the event we asked Elisabeth Fischer and Graham Mullier from Syngenta to tell us more about how open data can improve choices for farmers around the world.

The food security challenge is huge. Population growth, climate change and increased weather variability coupled with a decline in biodiversity and soil quality, water scarcity and food price volatility all present enormous barriers for feeding the world equitably and sustainably.

However, we have a growing number of technical solutions to meet this challenge. Since the 1990s, on a global level the world’s farmers have been growing more food using fewer inputs. The biggest drivers for this were investment in agricultural technologies and education for farmers. However, productivity gains were unequally distributed and sub-Saharan Africa in particular has lagged far behind. Sadly, the regions with lowest levels of agricultural productivity tend to be the least food-secure.

How do we bridge the productivity gaps?

The data Syngenta is collecting from real-world farms in 40 countries is a unique resource with the potential to help us understand what could make the world’s big and small farms more productive and efficient. Turning the data into knowledge and insight takes time and expertise. We can’t do this all on our own. Publishing our data is the best way to help us collaborate better, be accountable as a trustworthy partner, improve the rigor of our data, and track the effectiveness of our value proposition.

We feel privileged that the Open Data Institute is supporting us on our open data journey. Not only have they advised us on how to publish our data in a way which is most useful to others, they have also trained 45 Syngenta colleagues in three countries on two continents about open data. The positive feedback we received with publishing our data triggered a change in our company; we realised the opportunities across the data spectrum for creating impact in agriculture.

How can open data create impact in agriculture and nutrition?

A wonderful example for how open data can create impact is Field to Market, a tool that helps farmers to understand how their management choices can improve sustainability performance, for example on soil quality or greenhouse gases. An alliance of agricultural businesses developed this online platform to calculate field prints, where farmers can compare their sustainability performance against benchmarks derived from publicly available data of the US Department of Agriculture.

Benchmarking is a technique which has been used by farmers ever since the beginning of agriculture around 11,500 years ago. A farmer learns about and adopts practices from another farmer with a better growing crop. This requires an abundance of data about what works, where, when, why and for whom; data which often is not available in the detail needed to allow farmers to literally compare apples to apples.

Where are the gaps?

While many farm data initiatives exist, they are not necessarily open or harmonised. Integrated open data standards would support information exchange and knowledge transfer across initiatives. To help build those, Syngenta joined the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative (GODAN), a consortium of governments, NGOs and companies working to make agricultural data accessible and usable worldwide. We want to work with GODAN to help build open, integrated data ecosystems that can support farmer’s choices with transparency on what works best for them. In this way we can help build the data infrastructure that will bring value to all of us, farmers, consumers, governments and commercial organisations.

We need a culture shift and a change in our mindset. We need to ask whether our assumptions about the benefits of closed data are still valid. We can learn about the benefits of making data open, how to mitigate risks and how to use and publish data better. The ODI is offering inspiring and practical training that makes it easier to navigate in the new open data world.

Our approach to partnership and open data is bolstered by the new Sustainable Development Goals. The global food security challenge calls for multi-stakeholder partnerships to address governance issues and invest in new technologies and business models.

We need better data for sustainable development, monitoring and accountability. Ensuring the availability and accessibility of key data in open and transparent ways will accelerate sustainable innovations and technological advancements for people and planet.

Elisabeth Fischer is a development economist and Graham Mullier is Head of Data Science at Syngenta.
You can follow Elisabeth, Graham and Syngenta on Twitter.

If you have ideas or experience in open data that you’d like to share, pitch us a blog or tweet us at @ODIHQ.

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