Waiting for Godan - sharing open data to tackle world hunger

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett September 12, 2016
Summary:
The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative has set itself the ambitious goal of getting governments around the world to share information that could be used to solve the problem of world hunger. But despite excellent progress to date, there are still a good number of obstacles in its path.

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If governments around the world would commit to opening up their agriculture and nutrition data for analysis, it might well be possible to see patterns and trends that could be used to solve the problem of world hunger.

This is the opinion of Jaime Adams, senior adviser for international affairs at the US Department of Agriculture, who also represents the US government in the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (Godan) initiative.

The issue is a critical one because, although enough food is produced across the world to feed everyone, 800 million people - mainly women and children - go to bed hungry every night. The figure equates to 11% of today’s global population of seven billion, and the situation is only likely to get worse if, as expected, the number of people in the world continues to grow at its current exponential rate to 9.7 billion by 2050.

As a result, a desire to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” unsurprisingly comes a significant second on the list of the United Nation’s (UN’s) 17 sustainable development goals, behind only ending “poverty in all its forms everywhere”. But according to Adams, the problem of world hunger is a deeply complex one. She explains:

It’s not an easy problem to solve or otherwise we’d have done it by now. A lot of people say ‘produce more’, ‘distribute it better’, ‘waste less’. But they’re all micro-solutions, and people are still hungry and the problem is getting bigger. They’re very good, important initiatives, but they’re all band-aids, quick fixes, and not a comprehensive long-term solution. But I don’t feel we can really identify that long-term solution until we have all of the data needed to make good decisions.

It is here that Godan comes in. Godan was born out of a 2012 meeting of G8 leaders who committed to release and share agricultural data with their African partners as part of a wider ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’. A G8 Conference on Open Data for Agriculture, which Adams helped to organise, followed in April 2013 in a bid to encourage reluctant nations to open up their data, promote access and invest in related projects.

Godan

But it quickly became obvious that, although lots of organisations were already working with agriculture and nutrition open data from a range of different sources, few opportunities were available for them to network and share their findings and experiences. Which is why Godan came into existence.

The first step was to develop a statement of purpose, laying out the initiative’s aims. These goals include encouraging the development of high-level policy and public and private sector support for opening up agriculture and nutrition data. They also involve fostering cooperation and collaboration between interested parties to try and find practical ways of tackling the food security issue.

By October 2013, Godan was formerly launched at the Open Government Partnership Conference with the support of 20 partners, including its biggest funders in the shape of the UK and US governments. The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (Cabi), a non-profit inter-governmental development and information organisation, also hosts a secretariat of five full-time equivalent employees at its base in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in the UK.

Although Godan does not run any programmes or projects or hold any data itself, the secretariat facilitates meetings, workshops and also working groups. These working groups are made up of volunteers who focus on solving challenging issues such as standardising international agricultural terminology and developing data infrastructures for use across the entire global agritech sector.

But equally thorny issues include the fact that, unlike international meteorological data, which has been collected by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) for decades, there is no single repository of agriculture and nutrition information for big data-style analysis. Instead it is fragmented all around the world. But even if such a repository did exist, the holder would experience the same problems as Noaa in providing open access to it. Adams explains:

The data set is so large that there’s no internet line that could handle its transmission. Noaa has to download it all to servers and physically ship them to whomever needs it. So there are capacity issues.

First Summit

Godan’s next big step, meanwhile, will be to host its first Summit on the margins of the UN’s General Assembly in New York City on Thursday 15 and Friday 16 September. The aim is to illustrate the importance of open data and how it is being used, or could be used in future if more of it were available. Just as importantly, a meeting will also take place on the Friday between “high-level UN officials and VIPs from the Summit” to discuss how it might be possible “to advance our agenda”, says Adams. She explains:

Godan’s aim is to advocate for policy to facilitate the next step. There’s immediate value in making open data available for people to use immediately in initiatives in the short-term, but we’re trying to get them to think about the big picture. If it were as simple as we don’t produce enough food, we’d produce more, but there are a lot of different issues – distribution breaking down, production not being in the right location and the like. There is a solution – we just can’t find it now right now as we don’t have the data to do so.

A key challenge here is that many governments consider agriculture and nutrition data to be sensitive and so are not prepared to share it publicly. But Adams believes that technology such as drones and satellites do provide potential opportunities for collecting it in new ways, although she points out that human intervention for fact-checking purposes will always be vital. Adams also believes that getting buy-in from heads of state is key:

We’ve still got a way to go to get government and private sector bodies on board. We now have 350 partners [that have agreed to open their data] compared to 20 when we first started, but each country has multiple ministries, and agriculture and nutrition data sits in more places than just the agriculture ministry. You also need data on things like weather and health, which is why we try to get the endorsement of heads of state. It seems more effective to get them to agree on open data rather than go to each individual ministry in each country. It’s also why we focus on multinational meetings such as the G20 and G7 to get the major players on board.

In fact, a key personal goal for 2017 is to see all of the G7 and G20 heads of state acknowledge the importance of agriculture and nutrition open data and to pledge to open it up within agreed timelines. As to what percentage of this data has been collected to date and how much more there is still to go before a complete picture can be gained for analysis purposes, Adams says it is impossible to tell:

It’s hard to assess what you don’t know. If all the governments around the world made their agriculture and nutrition data open, we’d most likely have enough. But we have to collect uniform information on what’s planned, what’s been produced and harvested, where it’s been shipped, what price it’s been sold at and we’re so far from that. And that’s just for commodities. We then have livestock. Agriculture and nutrition data is defined very loosely because there are so many components. There’s so much that goes into food security that I’d hesitate to put a percentage on it, but we probably have a very small fraction of what Noaa collects.

But time is starting to run out for Godan in its current form at least. The initiative is now three years into a five-year funding term and its partners will get together in autumn next year to evaluate progress. At that point, it will either be disbanded or “they’ll need to make plans for what next”, says Adams.

My take

Despite making amazing progress in only three years, Godan seemingly still has a mountain to climb if every government around the world is to open up its agriculture and nutrition data for third party organisations to analyse in a bid to solve the problem of world hunger.

It also has potential funding issues with its two major financial backers in the shape of the UK and US governments. The future direction of both countries is currently unclear - the UK is contending with huge uncertainty in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote, which led to a change of Prime Minister; the US, meanwhile, is in the throes of a presidential campaign that will again result in change at the top.

But if either government fails to step up to the plate, the hope is that other partners will come forward to fill the void. Because the fact remains that each year another 800 million people die of hunger and, as Adams says, if only we can see it, “there will be a macro solution in the data”.