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Removing the locks: Fostering open data in agriculture

Panelists at the GODAN session at GFIA Africa 2015

A lot of times, data are released (or made open) when they are no longer really useful”.

That was the view of Summer Allen, a research coordinator in the Markets, Trade and Institutions Division of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); and one of the panellists at the Open data for agricultural innovations sessions organised recently by the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) in collaboration with GFAR and CTA, at the Global forum for innovations in agriculture (GFIA), Africa edition in Durban South Africa.

Among the panellists and participants at the session, as well as with promoters of open data, there is little doubt about the merits of making data accessible. Open, shared and accessible data/information has the potential to spur new innovations as well as help farmers in making decisions related to their farms. In addition, data such as weather, soil, agricultural inputs and market price data guide farmers’ decisions and help to improve their productivity, profitability and reduce risks.

But, while the quest and the global push, for open data has continued to grow especially in many human endeavours – including in agricultural research and development – there have been legitimate concerns on issues of privacy, security, intellectual property theft among other issues Ms Allen herself acknowledges that. However, she states that  there is a need to make it easier for people to (want to) share their data.

Among the category of people whose fears of sharing their data need to be allayed are farmers who themselves generate data used by public managers and private corporations to guide their investment decisions. According to Fatma Ben Rejeb, one of the panellists and the CEO of the Pan-African Farmers’ Organization (PAFO), the discussions on open data are important because the consent of farmers is needed to access their data and  farmers have a right to retain the rights to the data they generate.

Another challenge with open data, posed as a question by a participant, and this time from the perspective of a user (not the sharer), is how does one verify the reliability and genuineness of data from open sources especially when using those data as the basis for making important decisions? The consensus on this appears to be double-checking the source and if possible cross-checking with other more reliable or long standing sources. However, none of this (in my view) is fool-proof.

In the end, after lots of interactions, there was a general view that despite all the associated challenges, the benefits of open data for agricultural innovations outweigh the demerits. However, there is a need to foster conditions that will encourage people, especially farmers who generate lots of primary data, to want to share their data. One of these conditions, in my view, is seeking the consent of data owners and ensuring that their rights to the data are acknowledged. This way, they are reassured of their position as stakeholders in whatever innovation comes out of the further usage of their data.

By Oluwabunmi Ajilore, YPARD representative during the GODAN session at GFIA.