WASHINGTON, April 30, 2014 -- As the debate emerges over who owns and controls “big data,” there are a host of related issues that also need to be addressed, including federal support for public data collection, opportunities for public/private partnerships and underlying infrastructure issues such as: how to provide “big broadband” so that data can be transmitted from remote rural areas.

Those were some of the conclusions resulting from a panel discussion at the Inaugural Jon Brandt Policy Forum on Tuesday, entitled ‘Increasing U.S. Agriculture’s Competitive Edge: How Do Public Data and Big Data Fit? The Forum was hosted by the Council for Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (C-FARE).

“Data-directed” innovations “can greatly improve productivity and product quality, while also helping to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint,” noted J.B. Penn, Deere & Co. Chief Economist. “There is enormous potential, but there are also issues such as data ownership, privacy, security, availability, compatibility and interoperability.”

“There will be winners; there will be losers…. And this will have a big impact on competitiveness,” Penn noted. He demonstrated some of the commercial possibilities in a video, “Farm Forward.”

One of the challenges in collecting massive amounts of on-farm information – perhaps down to the square foot – is the inability to transmit the data, explained Ted Crosbie, who recently retired to his farm near Des Moines, Iowa after serving as Research and Development Lead for Monsanto’s Integrated Farming Systems platform.

“If you think we have big data now, it will be nothing compared to what you are going to see,” Crosbie emphasized. “We can collect more information than we can transmit.”

“The rural bandwidth is critical.” … so we can transmit that data,” he added. “It would be immensely more valuable if there was a universal telemetry system. It would be a beautiful thing if we had broadband on every acre.”

Mary Bohman, Administrator of USDA’s Economic Research Service, made the case for making federal investments in public sector data, which she noted has “additional strengths” because of the types of information collected and analyzed. Bohman said she was very interested in working with “Big Data” providers to make their public analysis more valuable for policy makers.

American Farm Bureau’s Chief Economist Bob Young agreed with Bohman that, “there is true value of publicly analyzed data.” He noted that farmers are primarily concerned about data ownership and privacy and raised several questions, including: What does the data mean; who captures the value from the data; who controls the secondary and tertiary use of the data and how can someone pull data back out of a system, once it has been aggregated. AFBF recently hosted a discussion on this topic with other farm organizations and agribusinesses and plans to continue the dialogue.

While Young and others expressed confidence that the marketplace will sort out the answers to some of the most pressing questions, he agreed that there are still a lot of unknowns.

“I don’t think we know yet what this will look like five years from now,” Young said. “We will likely see tremendous productivity and environmental gains.”


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