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Open data and the war on hunger - a challenge to be met

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 7, 2017
According to Andre Laperriere, executive director of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative, the private sector has a significant, if so far largely unacknowledged, role to play in solving the seemingly intractable problem of world hunger.

Although the private sector is seen as the villain of the piece in some quarters, it actually has a substantial role to play in helping solve the problem of world hunger.

This is the view of Andre Laperriere, executive director of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (Godan) initiative, who is due to give a couple of keynote speeches at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture Europe conference. The aim of event, which is being held in Utrecht in the Netherlands between 9-10 May, is to showcase new developments in sustainable agriculture.

Laperriere himself heads up Godan’s small secretariat of five full-time equivalent employees who are based in Oxfordshire in the UK. The goal of the organisation, which currently has 511 members, is to encourage governmental, non-governmental (NGO) and private sector organisations to share open data about agriculture and nutrition. The idea is to make such information more available, accessible and usable in order to help tackle world food security in the face of mounting threats such as climate change.

But to do so, it is necessary to bring the three key actors originally identified by James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, into play, believes Laperriere. He explains:

You have states, which generate and possess much of the data. There are citizens with lots of specific needs for which the data can be used, and there’s the private sector in between. It’s in the best position to exploit the data and use it to develop products that help meet the needs of the population. So the private sector is the motor of development and has a big role to play.

This is not least because NGOs, cooperatives and civil societies of all kinds often simply do not have the resources or technical knowledge to either find or deal with the massive quantities of open data that is released. Laperriere explains:

It’s a moral dilemma for a lot of research organisations. If, for example, they release 8,000 data sets about every kind of cattle disease, they’re doing so for the benefit of small farmers. But the only ones that can often do anything with it are the big companies as they have the appropriate skills. So the goal is the little guy rather than the big companies, but the alternative is not to release anything at all.

But for private sector businesses to truly get the most out of this open data as it is made available, Laperriere advocates getting together to create so-called pre-competition spaces. These spaces involve competitors collaborating in the early stages of commercial product development to solve common problems. To illustrate how such activity works, Laperriere cites his own past experience when working for a lighting company:

We were pushing fluorescent rather than incandescent lighting, but it contains mercury which pollutes, although it has a lower carbon footprint. It was also a lot more expensive. But we sat down together with the other manufacturers and shared our data to fix the problem together, which meant that everyone benefited by reducing the cost, the mercury pollution and the amount of energy consumed.

Next revolution

While Laperriere understands the fear of many organisations in potentially making themselves vulnerable to competition by disclosing their data, in reality, he attests, “it not the case”. Instead he points out:

If you release data in the right way to stimulate collaboration, it is positive economically and benefits both consumers and companies too as it helps reduce their costs and minimise other problems.

Due to growing amounts of government legislation and policies that require processed food manufacturers around the world to disclose product ingredients, he is, in fact, seeing rising interest in the approach not only among the manufacturers themselves but also among packaging and food preservation companies. The fact that agriculture and nutrition is a vast, complex area does mean there is still a long way to go, however.

But that is not to say open data is not being used to positive effect already. For example, in South Africa, Netherlands-based company eLEAF is contributing to the so-called FruitLook programme using its PiMapping technology. The scheme is supported by the Agriculture Department of the Western Cape, the European Space Agency and Hortgro Science, a local research body focusing on the deciduous fruit industry.

eLEAF’s technology, which works by employing raw satellite and routine weather station data to assess soil quality and enable precision irrigation and better water management, is helping to increase the yields of orchards and wine farms while also cutting water consumption. Three out of five participants in the scheme now use water 10% more efficiently, while for another one in five, the figure is more like 30%.

In Ghana, meanwhile, NGO Esoko developed a platform called ‘TradeNet’ to collect national data on the selling price of a range of basic commodities produced by farmers as well as the cost of materials such as seeds and fertilizers. This information is sent to rural farmers each day via an SMS message, with the aim of helping them cut their costs and increase their profit margins.

More than 350,000 farmers across 10 African countries now use the platform and see an average income boost of about 11% from doing so. Laperriere concludes:

The internet has opened up a lot of new options in information terms, and I believe open data will be the next revolution. The primary source is governments around the world as they hold a ton of data. But people are also starting to say ‘you owe us’ and are putting increasing pressure on them to make use of it in a productive way, so that will have a clear impact too.

My take

That companies would use open data resources to help them build products and services able to better meet the needs of the people and markets they serve makes sense to me - as does getting together in pre-competitive spaces to iron out common problems. The hope is that the commercial advantage to be gained will also have spin-off benefits elsewhere as a result of ethical decision-making.

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