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Data in agriculture: should we be sharing more?

Data and technology experts gathered at the AHDB SmartAg conference in Birmingham, with the aim of exploring how farm data could be used more effectively. Abby Kellett reports.

Benjamin Cave and Dr Shamal Mohammed on the panel at SmartAg 2015
Benjamin Cave and Dr Shamal Mohammed on the panel at SmartAg 2015
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Open data is required to move UK agriculture forward #data #SmartAg2015

The growth of new technologies and software has led to the movement from gigabytes to megabytes to the recent introduction of zettabytes. Agriculture is no different, more extensive use of soil mapping, satellite crop monitoring, weather forecasting and much more means farmers have a lot of information to deal with. This poses huge challenges for the industry.



What is a zettabyte?

Not……………………......................................................... 1000000 bytes

Not…………............…............................................ 100000000000 bytes

But....................................................1000000000000000000000 bytes = 1 ZETTABYTE


To put it in perspective, 1 gigabyte can store 960 minutes of music while 1 zettabyte could store over 2 BILLION YEARS of music!!!


The growing amount of data within agriculture means zettabytes will be required soon.


Dr Shamal Mohammed, director at Geoinfo Fusion, began the data discussion by highlighting some of the challenges agriculture faces. He said: “Data we have is currently in ‘silos’ which makes it difficult for farmers to make an informed decision. We need to collect data in a much more integrated way.”


Typical data collection systems on-farm include soil mapping, which is being used to measure soil moisture, texture and nutrient status. Geo-satellites enable weed numbers to be quantified specific field areas, allowing use of the most appropriate spray rates.


Similarly, infrared radiation systems are able to evaluate the ‘greenness’ of a growing crop so that farmers can assess nitrogen demand and alter fertiliser programmes accordingly.


Farmers have gathered data for centuries, however while once it was collected by observing something and remembering it, now we have adopted much more advanced technologies and with them come potential challenges.


Data Challenges

  • Lots of variables - for example, a number of factors may determine variety choice, including soil texture, sowing date, expected disease pressure, so it is difficult to come up with a single, definite solution
  • Complex biological systems - it is difficult to know what effect different inputs may have
  • Multiple data management systems - growers have to correlate data from different software suppliers
  • More data experts are needed in a agriculture
  • Experts need to work more closely with farmers and agronomists
  • Requirement for fields to ‘communicate’ with farmers
  • Farmers need to record valuable information - for example a lack of farmers are reporting yield data
  • A new data business model is needed, which takes into account ownership, privacy, value for money and security

Open Data

Benjamin Cave, Trainer at the Open Data Institute (ODI), highlighted the importance for both farmers and agricultural businesses of sharing data received from current technologies.


He said: “keeping personal data creates blind spots. There is a feeling that data is valuable and should be protected and so businesses are reluctant to share, in fact the value is in the service you can offer on the back of data."


This suggests data has little value unless we know the meaning of it and how it can be used. The general consensus was that enough on-farm data was being produced, however the reluctance of farmers and businesses to share this information meant the industry was not using it to its full potential.




A group including Rothamsted Research, the University of Reading, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) is working on plans to establish a centre that will provide a platform to allow open-data sharing among stakeholders. This platform will include software and expertise which allow data to be analysed and shared in a more usable form. It will be called the Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability (AIMS).


Professor Richard Tiffin, chief scientist at AIMS told the SmartAG conference the centre would receive £12 million funding to help create the platform.


He said: “There is a requirement for farmers to receive ‘red and green light’ indicators. For example many farmers across the country use yield mapping but too many do nothing with the information because maps are too complicated. Instead we require a system that generates an appropriate output and gives clear instruction to the farmer. The project relies on building trust with farmers to overcome common worry surrounding data being shared and used.”


Using data case study - Weather aWhere

Weather Awhere

Weather aWhere provides software that aims to improve farmers decision making, including localised weather and agronomic data for:


  • Easy integration with existing software
  • Daily updates
  • Historical data and forcasts
  • Pest and disease alerts
  • Seasonal comparisons
  • Prediction of crop stage and yield potential

The aim is to enable farmers to make informed decisions about spray and fertiliser applications, for example, in order to minims risk and maximise yield.

Using data case study - Good growth plan

Good Growth Plan

Syngenta collects internal and third-party data to provide a resource for scientists and experts. The company uses this information to benchmark farms and recommend new protocols.


Their global aims are to:


  • Make crops more efficient
  • Rescue more farmland
  • Help biodiversity flourish
  • Empower smallholders
  • Help people stay safe
  • Look after every worker


So what does this mean?

Both Weather aWhere and Syngenta are offering a service on the back of data collection which is having positive effects on the industry, it is claimed. For example, the Good Growth Plan is said to have rescued 800,000 hectares of farmland worldwide in 2014 alone. A platform where all data collection programmes can combine information may prove even more beneficial since more data provides more accurate results.

Applying data

Applying data

Dr Jordan Boyle, lecturer at the school of Mechanical Engineering, University of Leeds, spoke about the potential of data being used to encourage new technology. He focused specifically on technology that is inspired by living organisms.


Commenting on the issue of pollinator decline, he said “If bees ever become low in numbers, I see a possibility of producing tiny robots that mimic the actions of bees and have the ability to pollinate crops, they could be solar powered and be programmed to find sunlight in order to recharge”.


Dr Pete Berry, head of crop physiology, ADAS examined how data could be used in practical farming. He said “We must use technology data to improve timeliness of inputs and to bridge the yield gap between trial and on-farm yield figures. There is a lack of good field validation to encourage farmers to take up technology”.

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