Data-Driven Economy: Communicating Across Borders

Viewpoints / Focus on Agriculture February 3, 2015

Data is everywhere. It drives decisions, enhances creativity and generates wealth. It’s a language derived from actions, choices and simple ideas. Think about it for a second. From tracking your morning run to analyzing traffic patterns and urban growth, companies are using data tools to drive better performance. In the day of $3 to $4 corn, farm growth will occur from farmers using data and technology and using it as a competitive advantage against those farmers who don’t embrace technology. With data driving today’s economy, savvy farmers and companies are mining their data for trends and applying what they learn in near real-time.

Ideally, every farmer—domestic and international—would have access to technologies that store, transfer and interpret their operational data allowing them to make better managerial decisions. Of course, without broadband access, big data technology is useless. Simply put, no broadband means no big data— and that’s a real problem for any farmer looking to keep up in the global marketplace.

Today, some 140 countries have developed a national plan, strategy, project or policy to promote broadband, while another 13 countries are planning to introduce such measures in the near future. There are still 43 countries, however, that do not have any form of broadband plan, strategy or policy in place. Infrastructure deployment to broadband services must be a priority for telecommunication service providers and governments moving forward.

As we continue to enhance the ability to communicate across borders with speed and efficiency, competition in broadband must exist. Today’s broadband rollout bears a striking resemblance to the electrification of rural America in the 1930s. Access to affordable electricity improved both the rural standard of living and the economic competitiveness of the family farm. The policies promoting rural electrification gave private utilities the incentive to build up infrastructure and electrify the countryside at an affordable price. Similarly, as the broadband infrastructure increases and advances, any government policy put in place must encourage competition to provide the best service at the most efficient cost.

But, with broadband access and precision technologies on the rise, farmers’ ability to exchange their data at their choosing is also important. Vendor lock-in is a pitfall that must be avoided. Seed and equipment companies are now broadening their services to include data algorithms that create “prescriptions” for farmers. The prescription that was meant to be used as a “recommendation,” however, has the potential to become a “requirement” to access other services or products from that company. Even with competing services and products in the market today, the industry needs to accelerate efforts to increase interoperability that would allow farmers to exchange their farm data with a precision technology or platform of a different make. Vendor incompatibilities badly fragment the equipment market and serve no one but the vendors themselves.

Collaborative, private sector models are essential for driving innovation and serving the diverse demands of farmers, and agriculture in general. Broadband development and infrastructure investments have to be tailored, integrated and structurally updated into new business models for strategic success in the global marketplace. Continuous development in broadband infrastructure along with advancements in portability must parallel one another. Imagine the possibilities: A farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, with access to mobile data services to help identify pests and diseases, could send a photo of that pest or disease and get advice on how to get rid of or manage it from a crop consultant anywhere in the world.

If we want bear the fruits of what big data can become and what it can do for us, we cannot lose sight of the importance of broadband and the ability to share that data on different platforms at home and abroad. The real power of big data lies in its ability to communicate across borders, to be a resource in helping to feed a population of 9 billion by 2050.

Matthew Erickson is an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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