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“Big Data” is Critical to a Water and Food Secure World
By Ann Steensland, Senior Policy Associate
Water, data, and agricultural productivity were on the agenda at the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute’s 6th Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington, earlier this month. (The Water for Food Institute is a consultative partner of the Global Harvest Initiative.) Co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the conference attracted more than 250 participants from 25 countries. In his welcoming remarks, Dr. Roberto Lenton, Executive Director of the Water for Food Institute, told attendees, “the data revolution can help with the productivity and sustainability of farming systems, both large and small, around the world.”
Jeff Raikes, former CEO of the Gates Foundation and Co-founder of the Raikes Foundation opened the conference by outlining several ways that “big data” can help create a more water and food secure world, including: precision agriculture which helps farmers increase their output with the same or fewer inputs; mobile technologies, such as cell phones, that give farmers in low-income countries access to information on weather forecasts and market conditions; and digital soil mapping which allows farmers and policymakers make better decisions both now and in the future.
The conference also touched on the challenges of turning “big data” into a useful tool for farmers, particularly small producers in low-income countries. During a panel on the “View from the Field”, several speakers pointed out that “data” without “knowledge” is just “information”. Jennie Barron of the Stockholm Environment Institute said, “data needs to create new knowledge in order to stimulate changes on the ground and in policy.” Other speakers urged that the power of local knowledge should not be overlooked and suggested that communities be provided with data in a format that they can analyze themselves.
The data revolution also faces several capacity-related challenges, many of which were addressed by the conference speakers. How and where will this abundant data be stored? How will it be integrated and who will take the lead in doing so? What are the respective roles and responsibilities of the private and public sectors in collecting, collating, and distributing data, and providing farmers with the training to use it? Despite the many challenges and unanswered questions, the conference’s presenters and participants agreed that the data revolution will be critical to achieving a water and food secure world.