Washington — Shared data acquired from publicly funded research can allow farmers around the world to produce more food, says the United States' top agriculture official.
Greater access to data also can increase individuals' access to food and "provide ladders of opportunity" for improved incomes, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said April 29 at the opening of the two-day G8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference at the World Bank in Washington.
Vilsack used his remarks to announce a new U.S. data-sharing network for food, agriculture and rural issues. The network at www.data.gov will help the public more easily find, download and use high-value, machine-readable data sets generated and stored by the U.S. government, he said.
"This new, virtual community will enable entrepreneurship, empowerment and better participation in solving our global challenges," Vilsack said, adding that the United States already works with partners around the world to make select food, agriculture and rural data available to other governments and industry.
Open data has become one of the "most important aspects in expanding agriculture's reach," Vilsack said. He explained that open data means "making data available without restriction in formats that both humans and machines can easily read and use."
"Data in isolation is not as powerful as data shared," Vilsack said, adding that the data is to be shared without charge for its use.
The conference, organized by the United States, aimed to unify countries around accelerating data collection and sharing as a tool to strengthen food security.
At the G8 Summit outside Washington in 2012, leaders of the world's eight major economies agreed to share agricultural data from their countries with farmers, researchers and policymakers in developing nations by means of a global platform.
The G8 leaders also formed a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition to achieve sustained and achievable agricultural growth and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022.
"Creating a platform to effectively share key data and the tools to analyze it is a critical next step in confronting the fight against hunger and fulfilling the promise of the New Alliance," President Obama wrote in a letter welcoming conference delegates.
Vilsack emphasized that never before has it been possible to collect as much data as it is today. He said that open data is fueling a digital revolution that is beginning to do for modern agriculture what the industrial revolution did for agriculture during the 1900s.
He said the types of information that can be shared among farmers includes that about weather conditions, crop growth and nutritional content of crops.
Global positioning systems use open data to guide planters and combines to do "precision planting" that optimizes crop growth while conserving fertilizer and water.
Data also can be shared through text messages about topics such as when female livestock are ready to mate, what type of feed cows need to produce more milk and what the fair market prices are for crops and animals.
Vilsack said an existing example of data sharing is the U.S. Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
Today the network, known as FEWSNET, is a valuable resource that governments, international relief groups, nonprofits and researchers can use to plan for and respond to humanitarian crises, he said.
He also noted that the United States supports the Germplasm Resources Information Network, a Web server that provides germplasm information about plants, animals, microbes and invertebrates and makes the information available to researchers around the world.
Vilsack said the United States, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank are working together to develop a model that uses open data from satellites to monitor vegetation growth.
That data can help monitors understand where disease-carrying insects are and help communities prepare for potential outbreaks, Vilsack noted.
Speaking to the conference via video, U.S. entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates said that data collectors need to develop minimum standards for interoperability, measurement and accountability and evaluation.
"Now is the time for big data to solve our biggest challenges in agriculture," Gates said.