Canada is awash in agricultural data that’s not being used to its full potential by farmers, researchers, or the government. Now, work has begun to try and improve that situation.
“There’s a lot of information that exists electronically, but we need to give farmers control of their data so they can use it and flow it to others while reducing the burden of their paperwork,” says Karen Hand, founder and president of Precision Strategic Solutions. Hand is also director of research data strategy for the Food From Thought program at the University of Guelph.
Currently, she says, farmers don’t really own their own data. Many agricultural technology companies say the information they collect is the farmers’ property. But they don’t have transparent explanations on their websites — or in service contracts — as to what that claim actually means.
Hand adds that the work currently being done by the U.S. non-profit Ag Data Transparent (ADT) is a good start — at least towards building trust with farmers about the way their data is collected and used.
ADT was created as a result of many farmer members of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and other groups raising concerns about their privacy and how companies were using their information. The farm bureau conducted a series of roundtables with farm groups and relevant businesses in 2014 to develop the idea, and together they came up with the Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data.
Among the principles are: service contracts that use simple, easy-to-understand language; spelling out what farmer ownership of data means; needing farmer consent before data is used; notification of how the data will be used; the ability for farmers to access their data; and clearly defined contract termination processes.
Several companies agreed to use the principles, but the farm groups wanted a way to verify that they were actually being put into practice, which is why ADT was formed.
Now, companies that want ADT certification submit their service contracts and answer a series of 10 questions that are based on the core principles. The applications are then evaluated and if successful, ADT provides the companies with a designation that demonstrates to customers and others that they are transparent in how they collect, use, store and analyze farmers’ data.
“It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” says Todd Janzen, an attorney and ADT’s administrator.
A total of 12 companies were ADT-certified as of early July 2018 including John Deere, Growmark and Farm Credit Canada (FCC), the first company in Canada to obtain the designation.
“We wanted to give our customers the confidence that FCC is going to treat their data respectfully and that they own it,” says Darcy Herauf, the crown corporation’s management software director, and a grain farmer himself. “We were also moving from developing strictly desktop applications into cloud applications that would be available on an open platform.”
Herauf says that the ADT process was easy to understand, used plain language and was really transparent. FCC had already been researching ways to provide the kind of assurance that ADT provides, and thought that rather than develop something new, they could bring the U.S. model to Canada.
Having done most of the legwork allowed FCC to complete certification for its AgExpert farm management software in a few months — from an initial meeting with Janzen in December 2017 to a public announcement in May 2018. In fact, Herauf says it only took a couple of days to actually complete the questions.
FCC released its cloud-based AgExpert Field software in early 2018 and plans to release AgExpert Accounting in early 2019.
“Several ag tech companies have expressed interest in integrating with our platforms, and since we’re customer-obsessed, we want to make sure they’re ADT-certified, too,” Herauf says, adding that, if they wish, farmers can download their own data from FCC and then upload it to another company’s application.
Herauf hopes that in two or three years, all ag tech companies will be certified by ADT. He’s also hoping that, in future, FCC will be able to aggregate enough data for paying customers to measure themselves against industry benchmarks.
What Karen Hand envisions for the future is a farm-centric data “bank account” with field and livestock information deposited by producers. It’s secure, backed up regularly, easy to use and provides actionable real-time knowledge.
Ideally, farmers could increase their productivity by permitting the sharing of their data with their agronomists, financial advisers, veterinarians and others. Sharing some of it with government could reduce their paperwork burden for such things as taxes, censuses and surveys.
Researchers, too, would benefit from being able to aggregate data from those who want to participate in improving their respective industries. Hand says farmers could also get recognition for the data when they are used.
“If farmers don’t want to share their data, it’ll choke off innovation,” she says. “And if we want government to make smart policies, we need it to understand what’s going on on the ground.”
Hand cites global trade negotiations, disease surveillance and sustainable practices as some of the areas in which government could really use data that has been de-linked from individual farmers (anonymized) and aggregated.
“With this, our farmers could stand up in the global community and say, we are sustainable and we have the data to back it up,” she says.
Hand believes that setting up a workable system is doable, but needs to strike a balance by helping farmers realize the value of their data, protecting their rights as data generators and encouraging them to move data off the farm in a responsible manner.
“I see it as data stewardship,” she says.
Hand has been working with others for a number of years to develop a digital resource for agri-food that would serve all agricultural commodities right across the country. But it’s slow going: most funding programs are directed towards narrower industry demands and it is a big project.
“We want to do this properly, with farmers, to make sure we’re offering what they need and that it’s also of value to everyone,” she says, adding that the data bank account is one piece of a system that could seamlessly be connected up, down or across the supply chain for whoever needs the information to answer a question or solve a problem.
Hand and the team she’s working with have already done some testing with a system from the EU that’s internet-of-things ready, has all the security precautions built in and could be the base technology to realize her vision.
But it takes more than good intentions, and Hand says what’s needed to go forward is for governments and industry to provide the support and financing to give her and her team the core capacity to take this on.