AGRICULTURE Secretary Tom Vilsack noted, "Never before has the world been able to collect so much data on such a wide range of topics — from weather conditions to crop growth to nutrition." However, he warned, "Data in isolation are not as powerful as data shared."
Vilsack made the comments at the G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture held April 29-30 in Washington, D.C., where he officially launched the U.S. government's new Food, Agriculture & Rural virtual community on Data.gov. This will serve as a single access point for related data sets, databases, tools, applications and data resources. Other countries shared similar data.
"Data is among the most important commodities in the world," Vilsack said. "By making our data accessible and encouraging others to do the same, we will enable collaborations of data users that will spur innovation and drive economic growth."
U.S. chief technology officer Todd Park added, "By liberating data from the vaults of government and the private sector, we can accelerate the use of open agriculture and nutrition data to advance global food security while also fueling the growth of new businesses and jobs."
U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary and chief scientist Dr. Catherine Woteki explained that the data portal includes more than 300 different data sets that can be used by the private sector, scientists, entrepreneurs and others to build applications, conduct analyses and perform research.
USDA agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration hold more than 200 data sets that are relevant to natural resources and the environment.
These include global satellite data, which can help enhance agricultural preparedness for climate- and weather-related variability and change.
Examples include VegScape for satellite-based crop conditions and monitoring, as well as the Genetics and Genomics databases for use by scientists and plant breeders.
"Today, the digital revolution fueled by open data is starting to do for the modern world of agriculture what the industrial revolution did for agricultural productivity over the past century," Vilsack said.
Unlike 50 years ago, a tractor today comes with more than 10 million lines of computer code, Vilsack said. Global positioning systems and precision agriculture have helped the agriculture industry optimize output while limiting inputs.
Although the new portal provides access to an enormous amount of information, Woteki explained that researchers and entrepreneurs can take the data and create a myriad of applications to help farmers make more informed decisions.
While today's farmer might use a weather app that draws from satellite imagery rather than the Farmer's Almanac, future farmers will turn to mobile devices and applications like never before, Vilsack added.
For example, dairy farmers in Kenya are using a text messaging service called "iCow" to tell them when their cows are in heat, what to feed the cows to boost milk output and what a fair market price would be for the cows.
Vilsack said open data will help combat food insecurity today while laying the groundwork for a sustainable agricultural infrastructure that's needed to feed a projected population of more than 9 billion people by 2050.
One example of open data already being put to use to shore up food security centers on the U.S. government's Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).
FEWSNET was developed to collect and analyze data that could predict food shortages after devastating famines occurred in East and West Africa. Vilsack said governments, international relief agencies, non-governmental organizations and researchers use FEWSNET to plan for and respond to humanitarian crises around the world.
The U.S. also worked on a model with the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization and World Bank to help developing nations prepare for outbreaks of Rift Valley fever, a mosquito-borne disease that can kill livestock and people.
The model uses open data from satellites to monitor vegetation growth. By doing so, Vilsack said users can predict when and where disease-spreading insects could become a problem and take proactive steps to prevent or mitigate the consequences. The model has saved lives and is being adapted to predict outbreaks of other diseases, he added.