The power of open data: Innovation, improved agriculture, impact

The power of open data: Innovation, improved agriculture, impact

Open data can mean different things to different people. For me and my team, it’s not about giving away data, it’s about giving it back.

Leroy Mwanzia, Data and Information Manager at CIAT. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Over the last 50 years, CIAT scientists have generated a gamut of data, ranging from crop models to maps of climate change risks. A lot of these are open to everyone.

That’s because as a publicly funded institution, we owe it to the public that they have free access to our data.

But it’s more than just a moral obligation to our donors and the public more broadly.

We can keep our data private and still have an impact — but we could reach many more people, and amplify the reach of our work if we make that data open.

To get our science to those who need it, we ensure our data — apart from being free and of high quality — are “FAIR”:

  • They are Findable. You can locate them easily.
  • They are Accessible. They are not behind a password.
  • They are Interoperable. Humans and machines can read, use and share them.
  • They are Reusable. Anyone can create or improve products out of our data, depending on their licensing terms.

By freely sharing our data — what we call “democratizing our C-drives” — development agencies, startups and government ministries can take the data to develop innovative solutions. These can help improve the lives and incomes of subsistence producers, adapt to the changing climate and get better access to nutritious food.

Such may come via a mobile phone app that sends text messages about how to better manage crops and livestock. Or they could be bulletins with climate forecasts and recommendations on which crop varieties to grow at a particular time.

But it’s more than that. Open data can also promote informed decision-making by policymakers.

Recently, CIAT launched an application that tracks pests and diseases in certain crops. It was born out of open data, as well as results of tests* done by our scientists and plant protection experts in partner institutions.

Called PestDisPlace, the app can show through time – from 1894 to be exact to the present – confirmed cases of, for instance, the devastating cassava mosaic virus.

By looking at the map, we know, based on the number of red pins, if such a disease is spreading or not, or whether a pest has surfaced in a particular region. The goal is for the app to send SMS and email alerts to registered users when confirmed cases of a pest of disease are growing at an unabated pace.

In that sense, PestDisPlace can serve as an early warning system for a pest and disease outbreak.

It could also prompt authorities to act, such as a nationwide survey to determine the extent of an outbreak or an overhaul of plant quarantine protocols, in case tests confirm the virus has crossed borders.

Open data likewise promote collaboration.

When we showed PestDisPlace to plant pathologists in partner institutions, their immediate questions to us were: “How we can we contribute to this? How can we share the data we’ve collected?”

To me, the power of democratizing data is clear. With it comes innovation. With it comes improved agriculture. With it will come the opportunity to reach even more people, even more quickly.

That’s the best way of giving back.


* Some of the data have been cleared to be made public; some remain private and only available to users that have been granted access.

This post is one of a series of CIAT blogs to mark Open Access Week 2017, a global event now entering its 10th year. Open Access Week is an opportunity for the academic and research communities to continue to learn about the potential benefits of Open Access, to share what they’ve learned with colleagues, and to help inspire wider participation in helping to make Open Access a new norm in scholarship and research. The theme of Open Access Week 2017 is “Open in order to…” For more info: and