Precision ag data ownership may well be a moot point

Your data may already be out there

For as long as there have been precision agriculture tools and data collection, there has been debate over who, ultimately, should own that data. Should it be the sole property of the farmer, or the agronomist or consulting company he or she uses to help interpret it, or should it be available for general, public use?

In today’s digital, connected world, data ownership may well be a moot point, according to Devin Dubois, CEO of FieldAlytics, which provides a platform to aggregate, analyze and interpret farm production data to help facilitate better management decisions.

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“I think the concern over data sharing and data ownership is mostly benign, and I would say ownership is a poor term because it’s entirely about control and disclosure, and once information is disclosed you can’t un-disclose it,” says Dubois. “People come from a different context, where they’re thinking about their personal financial information, but I don’t see the digital agriculture realm is encroaching on (their privacy).”

There’s a lot of public data out there

Producer-generated data, whether it comes off the combine’s yield monitor or from drone imagery, is uniquely created data; however, if farmers use any outside parties in the process, there will always be a clause in user contracts that allows the companies or services to aggregate, analyze and retain copies of that data.

“They would never be able to sell this (data) or disclose it to someone … but it could be part of an anonymized, aggregate information (set),” says Dubois, who adds people rarely understand the scope of public data that is already freely available.

“I can go to any piece of land in the Canadian Prairies or the U.S. soybean and corn belt and in seconds I can generate reams of satellite imaging for that land,” says Dubois. “I can see the soil zones and topography — everything about that land. I can go to the Property Registry in that province or state and see who owns the land and if there is a mortgage on it.”

That may cause some to feel discomfort, but people need to know what information is publicly available, says Dubois, and who is already using it.

“What you planted last year or this year, how well it’s doing, how much of it you have, there are a lot of companies that can already discern this with publicly available data,” says Dubois. “I don’t think it denigrates the value of people’s information, but in terms of keeping your information from someone else, the honest truth is, in bulk commodity production, and when land is your primary asset, there’s nothing that special about your information, there really isn’t, and large companies are finding access to get the information they want.”

The information is still valuable

Farmers’ farm and production information does not decline in value when they allow it to go into an aggregate pool, Dubois adds.

“Your information is no less valuable to you because it’s in some other system, and that specific information, honestly, is most valuable to growers if they do something with it,” says Dubois. “If they digitize it and analyze it, their information is highly valuable to them. It’s not that valuable to these aggregators. There’s no market for an individual grower’s information. Nobody makes money off of an individual grower’s data, and as far as I know, no business industry is making money off of aggregate data, even. Part of the reason is large companies who are extremely interested in this information are finding other ways to get it that don’t require growers to disclose it.”

Anybody with any knowledge of agriculture, who has the ability to remotely assess yield on any particular field, can more or less calculate the financial information for that crop, says Dubois.

It may be time to shift the focus from who owns the data and who has access to the data to what can that data you’ve collected do to increase profitability on your farm.

“I think people are wasting mental energy on trying to protect something that is already gone,” says Dubois.

About the author

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Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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