Opinion: Without open data, there’s no big data for smallholder agriculture | Medium

Opinion: Without open data, there’s no big data for smallholder agriculture | Medium

Afew weeks ago, I spoke at a big data and open data event in Ethiopia. On the first day, William Wu, CEO of QED, gave an inspiring talk about how his team builds innovative technology to collect and analyze big data.

A cow on grazing land in Huila, in the Colombian Andes. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

The op-ed was originally posted on Medium.

As everyone in the audience hung on to his every word, a phrase from him caught my attention and made my heart sink in dismay.

He first noted that he has been working with CGIAR research centers and their partner organizations for years now and that CGIAR had created the Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

“So where’s the data?” he asked, providing personal examples of the problems he had encountered while trying to get access to data.

My reply to him, as we discussed this topic over dinner, was that there’s data. But it’s not all open, and it is not big yet — not according to his high standards anyway.

William’s comment nonetheless is valid when we consider the agricultural sector as a whole.

One issue is the digitization of agriculture. Even in the United States, agriculture is the least digitized sector, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report.

Another and more important issue is opening of research and other agricultural data to the public. Most of the data remains in C-drives.

As Andy Jarvis, a co-visionary of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, once wrote: “Researchers often don’t realise the value of sharing [data]. They don’t realise it’s part of a greater whole.”

To create big data, we first need to have open data. And this data needs to be reusable.

CGIAR has an open data policy. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations likewise has publicly available data sets.

Some of CGIAR’s researchers and partners in countries, such as the national agricultural research agencies, however, don’t share their data. Transforming this data culture is a large part of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture’s mission.

If we all open our data, it will make a meaningful difference to the lives of smallholder farmers.

In Kenya, a digital revolution in agriculture is happening. Mobile phones and the Internet have become ubiquitous.

Startups are harnessing those technologies in a bid to serve farmers. There have been some successes but far below the potential for this country with a throbbing tech community that is creating a “Silicon Savannah.”

The reason: absence of open data.

One success story is iCow. Developed by TED Global Fellow Su Kahumbu Stephanou and her social enterprise Green Dreams TECH Ltd., this mobile app uses text messages to provide all the information smallholder farmers would need to take care of their livestock and crops, including contextual data for their animals, as well as where to get inputs, access to finance and needed technical support.

Currently used by thousands of Kenyans, the app, for instance, recommends what to do from the time a cow gets pregnant. It tells what a farmer should be feeding the cow and when it needs to have supplementation of nutrients.

When I met Su Kahumbu Stephanou in 2013, I asked her one question: “How do you get the data that you pass on to farmers?”

At that time, Su explained that her team had a problem getting sufficient research information and data. To gather the data, Su and her team had to visit research institutions and get whatever little research information and data they were willing to share. The iCow team would then process this to produce meaningful information for farmers that could fit in a simple phone text message.

CIAT is doing its part. We have data sets from our research such as on heat-tolerant beans and Brachiaria humidicola, a type of forage that shortens the period to raise cattle, boosts milk production and contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We open our data sets to anyone because this is our way of giving back. We are a publicly funded institution and thus it is our duty to make our data public.

We open our data because as a research center, we don’t provide services directly to farmers. We work closely with local organizations and government ministries, which can use the data to render extension support.

And we open our data because that’s the only way we can have big data.

We are not the only ones. The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative, or GODAN, facilitates open data on agriculture and nutrition, ensuring it is available, accessible and usable to all. With 653 partners from governments to international and private sector organizations, GODAN does it at a high policy level, too.

More people should share their data, but this is not enough. Open data will still need to be transformed and put together to create sufficiently big data, so that data geeks like William Wu and social entrepreneurs like Su Kahumbu Stephanou can use it to make a difference.

In the future, I hope we won’t have to address the question “where is the data?” My fervent hope is that nobody would have to ask at all.


This post also celebrates the seventh edition of Open Data Day being marked on March 3, 2018. CIAT believes in the power of open research data in transforming agriculture.

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture aims to harness the capabilities of big data to accelerate and enhance the impact of international agricultural research. The six-year initiative will provide global leadership in organizing open data, convening partners to develop innovative solutions, and demonstrating the power of big data analytics through inspiring projects that focus on improving agriculture in developing countries, and informing policymakers. It is led by CIAT and the International Food Policy Research Institute. bigdata.cgiar.org.