July 2013
Farm & Field

A New Information Age Currency?

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack headed the United States delegation at the recent G8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference.  

by Jim Erickson

You may not be able to buy a cup of your favorite morning brew with it, but agricultural data is now being viewed by some as the new currency in the current information age.

Emphasizing that point was the recent G8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference held in Washington, DC. The conclave’s stated goal was to "obtain commitment and action from nations and relevant stakeholders to promote policies and invest in projects that open access to publicly funded global agriculturally relevant data streams, making such data readily accessible to users in Africa and worldwide, ultimately supporting a sustainable increase in food security in developed and developing countries."

That is, to be sure, a lofty objective. But in the everyday world where death and disabilities caused by starvation and malnutrition are commonplace in many countries is the goal practical and achievable?

Dr. Catherine Woteki, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist and under secretary for research, education and economics, thinks so.

Noting open data is information that should be freely available without restriction or charge, she stated, "In the food and agricultural realm, open data is an essential piece of finding the answers we’ll need to feed the world.

"Right now, most of the cutting-edge scientific research being done on agricultural issues is being done in developed countries. The countries can, and often do, share their findings with researchers in other countries by way of collaborations and educational opportunities. Opening that data without restriction to every scientist in the world would democratize access and accelerate innovation."

What is the G8 and what is its impact on major world issues?

The Group of Eight or G8 refers to a group of eight highly industrialized nations – France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Japan, United States, Canada and Russia.

The group’s yearly summit meetings are intended to foster consensus on global issues ranging from terrorism and crisis management to economic growth and energy.

According to the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, the G8’s limited membership and inability to force its members to comply with policies and objectives cause some experts to question its overall effectiveness.

The fact that some of the world’s fastest growing economies such as China, India and Brazil are not included in the group’s membership often is cited as a major shortcoming.

However, others maintain the G8 never was intended to decide policies on development or to have much political impact. Instead, its primary role is to provide a forum where leading nations can focus and work toward consensus on a variety of issues.

Closing the gap of scientific achievement between developing and developed nations will enable farmers "from Uganda to Bangladesh" to become as fruitful and productive as producers anywhere, Wotecki observed.

In a video presentation, Microsoft founder Bill Gates also addressed the conference and emphasized the importance of open data to entrepreneurship and innovation.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who headed the U.S. delegation at the conference, declared that data "is among the most important commodities in agriculture" and sharing such information openly increases its value.

According to Vilsack, the U.S. is committed to an action plan including these steps:

– A partnership to support plant and microbial genebank collections that make genetic resources available via the Germplasm Resources Information Network or GRIN-Global.

– Assuming a leadership role in the United Nations’ global strategy to improve agricultural and rural statistics.

– Maintaining actions already under way to develop national policies and implementation plans ensuring that results of federally funded scientific research are made available and useful for the scientific community, industry and the general public.

As part of that commitment, Vilsack announced the launching of a food, agriculture and rural data community atwww.data.gov, a website to catalog agricultural data generated and held by the federal government and to make that information more readily available.

"The digital revolution fueled by open data is starting to do for the modern world of agriculture what the industrial revolution did for agricultural productivity over the past century," Vilsack said.

"The fact is, we are making new advancements in agricultural technology every day," he added. "But, as important as the technological advancements themselves are, we also recognize that data in isolation is not as powerful as data shared."

While the concept of open data may seem relatively new in the agricultural sector, the concept of openly exchanging information, practices, technologies and teachings is a centuries-old practice that laid the foundation for modern agriculture, Vilsack asserted.