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Don’t Fear the Data

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The big topic at most of the state and national farm meetings this winter has been “big data”.  Like sustainability, organic, and food security, the term “big data” gets used by lots of people without a clear understanding what it means. This does not stop people from using it, nor does it stop people from being afraid of it.  Big data was a major issue at the American Farm Bureau Federation policy resolution session back in January. But is big data something to be afraid of?

Generally speaking, the term “big data” refers to the information that is collected by farmers’ GPS systems. This can mean anything from yield, to soil fertility, weather conditions and much more. Today farmers can collect data about their fields down to the square inch.  In recent years, the equipment growers use has become more sophisticated and can not only collect lots of data but can move that data from the machine to another machine, a computer, a wireless device, and a databank at the equipment  or seed company headquarters.  More and more companies have set up programs that collect and aggregate this data, and that has raised concerns by farmers as to who owns the data and what is being done with it.

As I have watched this debate unfold, it seems that farmers fall into two groups: those who do not feel comfortable sharing their data, and those who are willing to share their data but want something back in return.  Those off the farm fall into similar groups: those who advocate for the benefits that big data can provide, and those who raise red flags about the unintended consequences it may bring.

 Dr. Lowell Catlett, economist and futurist at the University of New Mexico, is one who feels the benefits of big data are worth the risks.  He believes that the next big breakthrough in production agriculture will come as a result of big data.   Catlett makes the case that by collecting billions of bit of data we can see patterns that would otherwise not be evident.  He postulates that insect control, weed control, soil fertility, and yield could all be improved by aggregating data from farm fields.  Catlett believes that the reluctance by some to share their data is due to a generational shift. He told me baby boomers are reluctant to share their data, but younger generations have no problem sharing data, “Just look at what they are putting up on social media; they will share all kinds of personal data.”

 

Kip Tom, a farmer from Warsaw, Indiana, is already sharing his data and happy to do so. Tom told a panel discussion on big data at the Indiana Livestock, Forage, and Grain forum that he shares his data in exchange for useful information and analysis in return. He said he trusts the people he is working with and has put restrictions on what data they can have and how they can use it. He envisions groups of farmers in key geographies getting together and pooling their data. They could then negotiate with companies to share the large set of data for a specific price.  Catlett says the data has value and, in some cases, as much value as the crop.  Tom suggests that it is not just farm companies who may become interested in the data, but software firms may soon begin to take an interest in agriculture’s big data.

 

Taking a more cautious approach to big data are producer and commodity groups. AFBF is very concerned that farmers maintain control of their data and receive benefits for any data they share.  They are looking to industry to set some standards and guidelines for how farmer data is shared and used. Matt Erickson, a White County, Indiana native now serving as an economist for American Farm Bureau, said AFBF is approaching data from the policy perspective and facilitating data conversations among like-minded ag organizations. He stated, “It’s important that farm organizations have that conversation with the industry to make sure that like-minded terms and conditions, data privacy statements are consistent with one another and transparent within what you’re signing up for. We’ve got policy based on ownership. Farmers own the data. It’s your data. You should have the choice of where your data goes. With security and privacy issues, privacy is probably the biggest heartburn that gives our folks sleepless nights, because you can implement the best management practices on your farm, but once that data goes to the company, it’s with the company.”

 

Kenneth Cukier, in his book Big Data, describes how big data can turn on those who provide the data. A small company called Farecast developed a program that predicted when airline ticket prices would be going up or down.  Based on millions of bits of ticket data provided by the airlines, Farecast was able to produce a service that told consumers when to buy to get the lowest price. As Cukier told the Forum, the airlines’ own data was used against them.  This is the very thing that some in agriculture fear.

 

Big data is here to stay and will play a significant role in the future of farming. So while you should not fear big data, you should be cautious.  Producers have to strike a balance between trust and benefit. The industry must provide some standards and guidelines to protect those who provide the information and to win their trust. 

 

By Gary Truitt