Opening agriculture and nutrition data requires confronting power, influence and industry

U.N. forum calling on countries to adopt GODAN
U.N. forum calling on countries to adopt GODAN

The 2016 Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Summit this September featured the highest level endorsement of open data by a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to date, coupled with resounding endorsement of the importance of providing increased access to knowledge that would mitigate world hunger, increase resilience against climate change and stem negative influence of environmental pollution. It was both inspiring and encouraging to see representatives of countries from around the globe convening at the United Nations to call on world leaders to commit to releasing more open data about agriculture and nutrition.

If we want to make real progress on GODAN’s ambitious and important goals, we must do a deeper examination of the real challenges to opening agricultural data.

Until secretaries, ministers, academics, advocates and non-governmental organizations that cast an optimistic light on the role of open data recognize how copyright, proprietary standards, and powerful industrial interests keep it closed, rhetoric is not going to be matched by real change.

Sustainability, resilience and responsibility need to be the watchwords of the global open data movement in every context, in agriculture and nutrition as much as in telecommunications and consumer technology.

While opening data can provide enormous  societal, economic and transparency benefits around the world, there needs to be a clear and well defined recognition by governments that economic and privacy risks exist for farmers who create or share data about their work, assets and crops.  We should be alert to potential harms from agencies that move too quickly to release data without appropriate redaction of personally identifiable information.

We must also be aware of how access to sectoral data works within broader principles of public access to information. Nations that do not have freedom of information laws need to commit to the simple but fundamental principle that the public has a right to access information created and stewarded on their behalf. Connecting open data to this right is critical.

Where freedom of information laws exist, they also provide useful guidelines for deciding when it is in the public interest to redact information. Nations that do not have privacy laws on the books must think through the potential harms of releasing data about the public. Mosaic effects resulting from combining different existing sources of public data and the presumption of harm standard that is familiar to journalists and advocates.

The good news is that the GODAN Secretariat, the organizing and convening body behind the global effort to open agricultural data, is not only aware of the real challenges to open agricultural data but has commissioned and published research that directly explores and recommends pathways for improvement.

Reaching out to the people that the democratized information needs to benefit should be a priority in the year ahead. From the farmers with privacy concerns, to the future users of data, apps and services, any responsible use of data should acknowledge their use of equities and build with communities, not for them, from the very beginning.

Research published during the GODAN Summit by the Engine Room’s Zara Rachman and Sunlight alumna Lindsay Farris on responsible data helps bring this perspective to light:

Those with the fewest resources, on the margins of the sector, such as indigenous populations and smallholder farmers, are most at risk of having their needs ignored here. Without awareness of their rights, or of how their data is being used and the subsequent effects, inequalities are at risk of growing due to data-driven insights, rather than being reduced.

As a result, there is a clear need to build capacity among smallholder farmers and less well resourced actors in the sector on how to deal with the growing amounts of data that are becoming available. Simply making data available is not enough to address these differences, and more needs to be done, potentially through providing low-cost advisory services on data use, or more accessible capacity-building options which clearly outline the reasons behind such offerings.

Similarly, research published by Jeremy de Beer, a law professor at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law, Technology and Society, recognized the challenges that surround ownership of open data in poor countries and states.

Where public data can be copyrighted and powerful agribusiness interests with deep pockets can capture its value, agriculture data belongs to private actors rather than to a national or global commons.

Open agricultural and nutritional data is becoming an increasingly vital resource in the advancement and innovation of farmer organizations, food production, value chain development, and provision of services. Modern farmers use a considerable amount of data in making their day-to-day decisions, relying on key datasets such as weather data, market price data, and agricultural inputs data… [However, the]…predominant model of driving open data via voluntarily licence agreements, as opposed to more fundamental changes in the instruments governing data rights and responsibilities, presents substantial risks for all stakeholders. The most vulnerable actors lack the ownership rights to redress power imbalances in respect of open data. Intermediaries who have the most enforceable ownership rights have little guidance regarding the line between legal and ethical responsibilities to adopt fair data and benefit sharing practices. And the open data community as a whole faces uncertainty and instability in the governance of data ownership issues.

De Beer also emphasized the significance of digital inequality in the development and use of open agricultural data. Without better support, open data has the potential to accelerate inequalities, not reduce them.

While] everyone should have the potential to make use of open data, not everyone does. Many people lack the legal ownership rights—as well as digital infrastructure, financial resources, or skills and education—to share in the benefits of open data.

Numerous studies note the advantages open data can promote for governments and its citizens, including for example improving economic growth through innovation and enhancing social value. However, without the basic building blocks such countries remain unable to capture the bene ts open data can provide. Ultimately, this also speaks to the potential risks of greater exploitation by powerful actors, as those most vulnerable and without information may be willing to share more, while those least vulnerable may actually be the most cautious.

We strongly encourage world leaders to embrace the mission and statement of purpose advanced by GODAN in the months and years ahead. We also encourage the public to demand more transparency and accountability from governments in acknowledging where power and politics are preventing data from being collected, disclosed or used.

At its best, open government data provides a backbone for humanity to understand how our world is changing and to adapt, from climate change to evolution to human behavior. In this context, an expanding ecosystem for open data about agriculture and food represents civic infrastructure, providing a foundation not only for shared facts but for the public to build and co-create insight, services and shared outcomes. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates shared his thoughts on the potential of agriculture in a video for the GODAN conference last year that remains relevant:

The transparency that releasing agricultural and nutrition data provides, however, is not enough to bring about technical or policy changes on its own.  That requires political agency and elected representatives of the people challenging the industry giants of the Silicon Age today, just as they did a century ago in the Gilded Age.

We look forward to working with our partners and allies around the world to advocate for reforms that help us make progress on our share of challenges together.