Using open data to protect food supply

Using open data to protect food supply

Policy makers and industry experts gathered at a roundtable hosted by New York University’s Governance Lab (GovLab) to discuss how open data could help the Department of Agriculture improve yields, climate change resistance, boost nutritional quality and create “fertile ground” for new business opportunities.

In the resulting report, Using Open Data to Protect the Food Supply, the roundtable participants offered recommendations on data access and availability, interoperability, collection, sharing, storage and dissemination.   The report also includes the USDA’s responses as well as further suggestions for industry and government.

A major issue the roundtable addressed was how to make USDA data more readily available and the best formats for agricultural data.

Common Land Use (CLU) records, for example, show common ownership of units of land associated with USDA programs. They are considered useful for farmers as they hold a potential for contributing to greater crop productivity, but are not currently available in an open database format.  The roundtable recommended USDA create an application called myCLU that could house CLU data and be accessed and disseminated by farmers. The datasets could be modeled after the VA’s Blue Button or Energy’s Green Button program, which provide citizens with easy and secure access to various datasets.  

Additionally, the roundtable suggested  USDA improve the availability (and quality) of information on food resilience by aggregating data concerning the impacts of climate change on food security. The agricultural agency could work with NASA to publish information on floods and pest and disease outbreaks in near-real-time. That data could be integrated into the Foreign Agricultural Service workflow to quantify the effects of natural disasters on global agricultural production.

Noting that when datasets are combined, their value significantly increases, roundtable participants suggested standardizing data fields and processes to increase interoperability and make datasets more valuable.  The goal would be a one-stop-shop for agricultural information that could include both public and private sector data, according to the panel. Likewise, mapping and geographic information system data could be combined to allow users to view land with a crop-specific focus.

Frequently and widely collecting data can make it more valuable, but traditional methods of data collection like surveys are becoming less effective.  One suggestion: greater use of the Internet of Things as a tool for data collection, dissemination and sharing.

By cultivating the IoT, data can be available from device to device, allowing government to serve as an aggregator. The report cited Boston’s Street Bump app as an example of such a platform.  Street  Bump updates the conditions of city roads in real-time by using the driver’s smartphone’s accelerometer and GPS to locate and report bumps or potholes in city streets that require repair. 

After collecting and sharing data, government must be able to store and disseminate it properly.  Here, GovLab indicated that cloud services could serve a dual role in allowing greater access as well as  dissemination of information collected and stored.  Cloud based services could also allow real-time access to such information, the report noted.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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