Ensuring Data Takes its Rightful Place in the Agricultural Toolbox
10th November 2023
An excerpt from Council Member, Sarah Bell’s presentation to the Institute of Agricultural Management Conference, November 2024
Last week we saw the man who bought Twitter say that Artificial Intelligence would make work optional. I am pretty sure he has never battled with the multiple challenges of harvesting or establishing crops in an ever more turbulent climate. It is inevitable that AI will, in time, influence agriculture ever more and I will be the first to applaud when it can deal with slugs or blackgrass with precision accuracy on saturated soils!!
Why Farm Data Governance is Important
Google defines data governance as everything you do to make sure data is secure, private, accurate available and useable. In business, I describe governance as a hygiene factor; we expect it to be in place, and to work, offering us a framework of checks and balances, and the security that allows the human brain to make projections based on generalisations.
Trust sits at the heart of governance; it arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. Without it, we continue as we are, sitting on disparate pots of data and information inside our businesses, whilst others outside both clamour for it and build often clumsy fragmented systems to capture it. However, with the principles of good governance in place, and a little more talking and listening, we can build that trust.
But what does that mean for agriculture? I think as farmers we take our social responsibility very seriously; whilst the policy to keep the country fed must be the responsibility of government, we take the mechanics of producing the supply of high-quality affordable food, fuel and fibre very much to heart.
What would good Farm Data Governance look like
Understandably farmers are sensitive in wanting the sharing of any data that we generate in its production to be undertaken fairly and with organisations who take their responsibility seriously. You can imagine that good governance might require rules to ensure that employees of those entities also treat data security and privacy with the appropriate level of rigour, which would then feed into processes for holding, analysing, securing and potentially commercialising that data.
For me, data security is paramount. I tend to frame data sets much like genies, as once they are lost from a company’s systems as a result of a breach, hack or simply an employee downloading something and walking out of a door with a memory stick in their pocket, they are very much out of the bottle and there is no way back.
Interoperability is the bane of my life! I have data sitting in 8 separate systems on our mixed farm none of which allow me to transfer it from one to another. The amount of re-keying is hugely time-hungry and means I spend more time thinking, constructing spreadsheets of raw data to analyse, and hacking things about on paper than is sensible.
Farmers have for too long been given “bare minimum” information on what the need is for their data and information, and where it is offered, it is often bogged down in legal agreements written in anything but succinct plain English.
Ultimately farmers need the insights that processed and analysed data can give us. It has never been more in demand, whether in the form of animal electronic identification which can give insight into the length of that animal’s life and its carbon footprint, or whether a crop has been produced to an added value protocol. Equally, information from data can derive huge value in our own businesses from improvements in efficiency or reducing risk, but we need the tools to help us.
The difference between insight and information.
If data and information is useful, embedded and easy to access and analyse, it adds value all day long, whether in choosing cereal varieties, or selecting heifers to retain with easy calving traits, these things can have real impact on the farm.
As data and information are pooled and aggregated, data issues can be magnified making insight more powerful or misleading accordingly. It is worth noting that as data travels, the understanding of the reasons for the results deteriorates. A great example is the carbon footprint of milling wheat; light land will inevitably give a lower footprint, but I have lost count of the number of times in my career that I have had to explain the impact of drought to someone who needs the security of supply.
Critical questions to ask of your Data Partner
Given the need for data-driven decision-making opportunities, what assurities or questions should we be asking of our potential data partner?
• How easily can I transfer my data?
• Will it drop into another system?
• What about historic data?
• Is there a common language?
• How do you look after my data?
• What are you doing with my data?
• What is in it for you?
• What is in it for me?
• Are you planning to share my data?
These are all easy questions to ask where there are people involved, but a little more difficult where we find ourselves involved in larger, faceless organisations such as Government or accreditation bodies which can be bereft of personal relationships. With the wrong agreement in place, such organisations can aggregate, mine and share data with almost no boundaries. This justifies us asking the most basic of questions:
• How are you protecting me/my business, for example in the situation of a Freedom of Information request?
• What are you doing with my data?
• How will it be used?
• How long will it be held for?
Working with the British Farm Data Council
This seems like a lot of work, which is why I have spent time with the British Farm Data Council over the last 2 years, ensuring that there is a basic framework of governance principles to start from.
The Council has developed a set of principles and a self-audit questionnaire for companies and organisations who wish to sign up to them to demonstrate their compliance. We are in the process of registering a logo which certified members will be able to display publicly to demonstrate compliance.
Asking the Right Question
Each and every one of us is taking information from our fields, flocks, herds and nature every day and storing it away mentally, in our notebooks or, more recently, software.
We use this to manage everything from integrated pest management decisions to marketing decisions so having a trustworthy, safe, useful, intuitive and fit-for-purpose place to put that information is critical.
As we go forward, I would encourage you to ask the question of those who want to access farm data if they have signed up to the British Farm Data Principles which demonstrate a willingness to be fair and equitable. If they say no, there is only one more question: why not? It will be up to you to decide on the validity of their response....
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