How GODAN Wants to Empower the World’s Farmers Through Big Data Sharing

October 17, 2016

Nearly 800 million people struggle with debilitating hunger and malnutrition across the world. Established at the G7 summit in 2013, GODAN — which stands for Global Open Data for Agriculture Nutrition — is promoting and supporting the proactive sharing of open data globally to make information about agriculture and nutrition available and usable to the world’s farmers and other food-related initiatives in an effort to reduce this figure.

Over 387 partners from national governments, international and private sector organizations have joined the initiative and signed a joint Statement of Purpose. GODAN held a summit in New York last month and continues to build out its program.

On World Food Day, AgFunderNews caught up with Andre Laperriere, the executive director of the GODAN secretariat, to find out more ahead of his speaking slot at CropWorld in Amsterdam later this month.

What is GODAN?

It’s an association of partners united by a common belief that open data will bring the world to the next level of innovation, especially in the areas of agriculture and nutrition. It’s our long-term goal to contribute to addressing the food security problem ahead of us resulting from the world’s changing demographics and climate change, which will impede our ability for production.

Why was GODAN launched and why?

The concept launched in 2013 after the G7 summit where food security was identified as one of the major emerging challenges the world was to face in the next 30 years.  As a response to that, it was thought that a key tool for the world to address this challenge is to share knowledge, best practices and techniques to give all nations the greatest potential for productivity, particularly in Africa and Asia where demographics are going to increase the most.

As the potential of open data was finally acknowledged as key to bring the world in general, and agriculture in particular, to its next level of innovation and to maximize its potential everywhere,  it became a global issue.

Why limit knowledge/data transfers to just one direction? Food security is a global challenge, requiring a global response.  To make sure this would happen, a Secretariat was created to steer these efforts, and to advocate and convince more partners to join the movement and open their data sets.  This is the Secretariat I have the honour to lead as its executive director.

What types of groups are you approaching to share data?

There are four main groups or categories of potential partners: states and governments, the private sector, research and academia, and civil society. Data is not just a matter of knowledge, but of rights, and citizens are essentially paying for research and data through their taxes and activities. We see it as a triangle where government and research institutions have the data, and the private sector is trying to find ways to use the data to meet the needs of citizens in the third corner.

What has happened at GODAN since 2013?

One of my first priorities was to establish representation across the world; we want to be owned by the world. As of this morning, we have almost 400 partners, representing governments, international organizations, research, academia, civil society, and farmers associations from across the globe.

How will the data you collect be shared?

Data sharing is a big project and much more complicated than it seems. Events like the one in New York a few weeks ago are important for advocating the need for data sharing and for people to share their experiences and best practices, and for them to pledge to open up their data reserves.

Ensuring data is made available is the first step. Second is some sort of standardization and structure. Data can be codified and stored very differently leading to incompatibility. It’s like talking about the same topic but with different words. Many of our partners are very focused on standardization and terminology to help promote interconnectivity. However, even that’s only the next step. After that we need to make the data usable, especially for farmers who are in isolated parts of the world where general access is hard. So we need to find a way to generate easy access to data through mobiles or other means, and there are a few projects looking into this for both farmers and consumers.

We want farmers and citizens to make better decisions around food choices or operations based on data. There are several countries where people aren’t hungry but they’re malnourished, so it’s not all about more food, but better food and nutrition.

What about using data to help with food waste?

This is a big concern for us and there is so much of it across Africa where people lack the means to store and preserve food. Preservation is so important as it prevents food contamination and spoilage, but there are also a lot of infestations that hamper the quality of food produced that we can capture data about.

And this is just looking at farm-to-fork, but our outlook is even bigger. We are looking at data from genomes to satellite imagery. Producing food is only part of the problem. Having the right food at the right time and the right place is also essential. So we need to look at transport, logistics, import-export restrictions and other food mobility issues.

Will GODAN focus on one part of the value chain first?

Our first priority is to empower farmers; that’s the greatest need and highest on our agenda.

The second priority is knowledge generation, so we are putting a lot of pressure on research and academic institutions to disseminate knowledge better than they have in the past.

We see ourselves as knowledge or data brokers. But there are still lots of data gaps. In Kenya, for example, the government only does agriculture surveys every 10 years, which means the response time to any change is just too long. We are trying to accelerate that to allow governments and stakeholders to react faster or even predict the occurrence of disasters and problems so they can be addressed even before they occur.  Furthermore, a better understanding of the agriculture sector by its leaders — public and private — is key to managing its productivity and feeding populations.

One way we can do that is by initiating a series of training and data journalism programs to train people to understand data, extract useful pieces and translate it in a way that policy makers can make use of it.

We can also see what happens when we overlay nations’ data with those from satellites, drones, private databases, the FAO, and so on. All these different layers will increase accuracy overall and if we do it in an historical manner, governments will be able to see patterns or repeat positive actions.

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