The future is bright – the future is ‘open data’?

The idea of ‘open data’ could bring enormous benefits to the development of sustainability policy, and when Grantham Scholar Daniel Casey visited the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he found policymakers who were well aware of its potential. In this blog post, Daniel digs into the ideas behind open data and examines the importance of making sure everyone’s voices are heard.

Daniel Casey

Earlier this month (2 December), I attended a joint event hosted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Open Data Institute (ODI). Stakeholders across the agriculture industry attended. Farmers and agribusinesses, as well as researchers, listened to talks from The Rt Hon Liz Truss MP (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), a panel debate (featuring speakers from Defra, ODI, Agri-Tech East, Syngenta) and some quick presentations (from organisations such as Senseye and CABI). The conference’s theme was the future of agriculture and the role that open data has in agriculture’s future.

At this point, you may find yourself asking what exactly is open data? Simply put, it’s information (usually statistical) which is made freely available to everyone, without any copyright restrictions and other forms of red-tape usually associated with data (which many of us often know all too much about!).

Opening the discussion, Liz Truss discussed the role Defra is playing in agriculture. She outlined the challenges facing farming, often referred to by some, like Sir John Beddington, as ‘the perfect storm’. With demand for food rising, and climate change certainly set to have an impact, Liz suggested that data which can be harnessed to improve science and technology is crucial to future agricultural success.

Arguably, such data should help to kick-start innovation and inspire more entrepreneurs within the agriculture industry. Defra is at the heart of this open data movement through their ‘Open Defra Program’ which will provide tools for individuals and businesses to use. In March Defra plan to release 1,000 datasets in farming alone, and in June, one-third of all open data released by the government is expected to come from Defra! Such datasets could benefit farmers and the subsequent management decisions they take. Open data could connect up the challenges presented by ‘the perfect storm’ and help us to imagine a wider range of solutions not already thought of. Wouldn’t it be great if there was integrated datasets freely available across societies that would allow us to think of more innovative solutions that otherwise may not be possible?

However, as panellists later discussed, as yet there is no framework or system available to merge all this data together. So who should be responsible for open data? Who owns what data? How do we gain the trust of farmers to get them to engage with and use or provide this data? What about ‘bad data’? It’s also all well and good debating the future of agriculture in London but is wider outreach by agribusiness and government needed outside of London in more agricultural areas? Whilst there are many benefits to be gained from open data that I learnt about, and a lot of excitement in the agriculture industry towards open data being able to tackle ‘the perfect storm’, many questions still remain.

A quote from William Edwards Deming was presented at the conference: “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion”. However, in my opinion and from my background in geography, there’s a need indeed for data, but also for the opinions of those who may not necessarily have a voice to be valued, and for those that have provided the data to be heard. There’s a need for connected data, but it should be used in conjunction with smaller scale agricultural studies as well, so that individual voices can be heard and individuals can make informed decisions based on open data, as well as collected opinions.