Open data at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA),Abu Dhabi.

Laureene Reeves Ndagire

Open data presents both challenges and opportunities for agriculture as moves get under way to unlock information and make it available to a wider audience. That was the verdict of a roundtable session during the recent Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) 2015, held in Abu Dhabi.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) had a strong presence at the February international forum, which was designed to showcase sustainable agricultural technologies and explore some of the most pressing concerns facing agriculture, together with innovative developments that can offer solutions.

Topics on the agenda included climate smart agriculture, food loss and waste prevention, ICTs for sustainable agriculture, urban agriculture and aquaculture. A roundtable programme saw exchanges of opinion on more than 50 issues affecting agriculture and rural development. Among them were discussions on the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative. GODAN, a global partnership of 100 governments, international organisations, research organisations, universities and the private sector, was officially launched in October 2013 to promote more open access for agricultural knowledge and information.

The roundtable session explored the current open data situation in the agricultural sector and future goals, as well as key challenges. It also took a look at how agriculture compares with other scientific disciplines regarding open data, and what might be learned from them.

Strong partnerships

Many donors for agricultural research are starting to insist on open access for the work that they sponsor, the session heard. The challenge now facing the sector is how to translate that data into useful information for producers and other players in the value chain. There is an urgent need for capacity building and partnerships, so that some communities are not left behind, creating a new digital divide.

A steering committee member of the GODAN initiative, CTA is firmly committed to making agricultural data more open and accessible by contributing to support the participation of farmers’ organisations, open-data developers and policy-makers in a series of open-data events. The first of these was GFIA. The Centre was involved in GODAN’s first conference in Wageningen, the Netherlands.

“Through our current work we see several areas where open data can improve smallholders’ productivity,” said Chris Addison, Senior Programme Coordinator, Knowledge Management at CTA. “In our work with mobile applications for smallholder farmers we see the open data sets from satellite observations improving information at farm level, despite limitations to resolution. We see the use of historical market data available from local and international open data sets and the use of open datasets to produce infographics to attract investment in farming.”

Getting open data benefits to farmers will be crucial if the move towards open access is to have any real impact, according to several speakers. Lack of reliable data is currently working against farmers and others in the value chain. A case in point is market information, much of which continues to be unavailable to small-scale farmers, said Theo de Jager, President of the Pan African Farmers’ Organisation (PAFO).

“On a farm, whether it is one thousand hectares or only one hectare, I need real-time information. What does the market want now? What’s the cost of my inputs now? What’s my soil like now? What’s the weather like now? So the information must be quickly accessible, on my smartphone or my tablet, without having to worry about its integrity and what the agenda is behind this information,” he said.

“Having better market information would help farmers to decide what to plant and where best to sell it. That’s why open data is so extremely important. It must enable me as a farmer to make a decision here and now. It’s a tool to assist me to make the right decision, on the right day, in the right place.”

Opportunities for the youth

Open data that is accessible to producers should make it easier for African farmers to overcome one of their biggest problems – access to financing, since it will provide greater assurances to banks and other lenders, if information is readily available on crop performance, inputs and other critical points, the session heard.

Before agricultural data is made open, it will be important to establish who is the owner, and what use will be made of it, said Ajit Maru of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR). In certain circumstances, data should have a monetary value, at least for some users. “Open data does not necessarily mean free data,” said the roundtable chair Dr Mark Holderness, Executive Director of GFAR. “Someone has to pay for it… Not all data has to be open, because people are also looking at how they can make a living from that data, through services, technologies, access systems, advisory systems and market information systems,” he added. “There is huge opportunity, particularly for youth, in this sector, which can really revitalise rural environments.”

Learn more on open data for agriculture and nutrition


For further details and multimedia about the GODAN roundtable organised at GFIA in March 2015, browse this special blog elaborated by CTA through the Storify online tool.