The Dirt on Data Ownership

A Look into Data Privacy, Ownership and Security on the Farm

Editor’s note: This post was provided by By Ben Craker, Product Manager, Global Fuse: Data Partnerships & Standards, AGCO


Ben Craker, Global Fuse, AGCO

Farmers want to embrace technologies to work smarter not harder. However, they want to understand how their precious farm data is being protected and stored and validation that they own it.

A recent research report from the Rabo Bank Food & Ag research group has highlighted some of the key hurdles to the adoption of precision farming, also referred to as digital agriculture. The report recognizes digital ag as the most promising innovation to the agriculture industry.

One of the biggest issues preventing adoption is data ownership and control.

A Complicated Web of Data

In several surveys and other research efforts, growers repeatedly cite concerns over sharing data with 3rd parties as a main reason they are not comfortable using new products and services resulting in much of the data collected going unused. The issue of data ownership may seem pretty simple and straightforward, but there are many layers to dig through.

Many companies agree with the “Principles of Data Privacy and Security” drafted by a group led by the Farm Bureau. These principles state the farmer owns the data generated from his farm. However, this can get complicated quite quickly.

For example, Farmer Joe runs a mid-sized farming operation. He rents land from Bill and has the local cooperative handle all his fertilizer and pesticide applications for the rented field. In this situation, who owns the data generated on that rented field?

  • Does Joe have rights to all the data since he is the one “farming” the field and it’s his “secret sauce” on what rates he is applying the various products and when? Or, does Bill the landowner have rights to all the data since he owns the actual land?
  • Finally, does the co-op have the rights to the application records generated by their sprayer, or do they have an obligation to provide that data to Joe or Bill? And what data sharing can the co-op do if they are using a 3rd party software tool to generate prescriptions or wirelessly transfer data to and from the machines?

Generally this should all be covered in the agreements between these parties as suggested in this AgLaw blog post. Bill should have his expectations for access to the data laid out in the rental agreement. Farmer Joe should have something included in the custom application agreement with the co-op on what happens to the data generated by the machines and what software tools they will use to create and manage any variable rate files.

This is a new way of thinking for farmers. They have never had to consider including data from field operations in agreements that historically were made with a handshake.

These issues are not impossible to overcome, but must be sorted out to really enable the next revolution in the ag industry to take place based on the use of all of this data. Other industries are also working to figure this out, providing lessons the ag industry can learn from.

The Power of Big Data

For example, BMW recently announced a portal enabling the drivers of their vehicles to share information generated by their cars with different third parties. Initially this might just help good drivers get better insurance rates, but it is not too far off to consider customized “info-tainment” and other tailored services offered to drivers based on their particular habits behind the wheel when that data is available for others to analyze.

This is very similar to a farmer enabling a dealer, OEM, or other service provider to help monitor and manage their fleet of equipment using a telemetry system not that different from what BMW is offering. The BMW article clearly points out the driver is in control of the data and has direct control over who it is shared with and when. Additionally, the data is securely stored with only permissioned access, something that is common with how many of the telematics systems in the agriculture industry function as well.

Another great example to look at is in a recent Economist article about how companies like Google, Amazon, Uber and others are using data. Clearly there is an advantage to getting access to data and providing a better value added service back to the data generators. Due to the nature of how these services are based on algorithms that can “learn”, often it is the system with the most data that wins. This clearly translates to the ag industry and the number of startups and even established companies that are working to get as many acres as possible into their systems. The more data they have to fine tune their algorithms, the better their services get. This should, in turn, drive more users of their now improved services which will again make their services better with more data and so on.

The article proposes an interesting idea that some of the big companies like Google and Facebook are able to access so much data they may actually be operating similarly to the oil empires that were eventually broken up by the government’s antitrust watchdogs. This will be an interesting space to watch as these agencies begin to navigate this new area. The article even suggests that publicly-owned and controlled data sets may be needed to ensure competitiveness so the large companies do not squash out competition simply due to the fact they have access to more data.

Consumers may also need to band together to form data cooperatives to help strengthen their position with these large tech companies. We are already seeing this concept within the ag industry with groups like the Ag Data Coalition advocating for farmers to have an independent data storage system they control.

The potential for better-informed decision making driven by data is pretty clear within the ag industry. There are hurdles to overcome but we have other industries to watch and learn from. The future for precision ag and farming in general is bright. There will undoubtedly be a few stumbling blocks along the way, but I am excited to see how our industry continues to digitize and grow.

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