Can Big Data Help Feeding The World?

Aymen, October 20.

Big Data goes beyond just the existence of data. The ability of Big Data techniques to generate insights through synthesizing data from a range of sources may hold the greatest potential and carry the greatest risks of all. On one hand, Spratt and Baker, in their report “Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options”, explain that Big Data can be manipulated to promote certain political agenda or increase the possibilities for governments and large corporations to discriminate against certain groups or individuals.

big data feeding world

On the other hand, Big Data may have a positive environmental impact as well as a great potential in agriculture and rural development. It can bring new insights and decision points that lead to product/service innovations. This potential touch on, for example, precision farming with very efficient water and fertilizer use, food security coordination through tracking, tracing and transparency and personalized health and nutrition advice. The availability of easily accessible data plays a major role in documenting quality standards of agricultural products, saving time and improving productivity.

Several projects launched by development organizations rely on Big Data to optimize agriculture. For example, FAO launched in more than 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Near East the Virtual Extension and Research Communication Network (VERCON). According to FAO, VERCON is a conceptual model that employs internet-based technologies and Communication for Development methodologies to facilitate networking, knowledge sharing and interaction among agricultural institutions, producer organization and other actors of the agricultural innovation system.

In Egypt for instance, where the first project was launched in early 2000, 100 VERCON access points had been installed in various places, such as extension units, agricultural directorates, research institutions and stations, and Development Support Communication Centers. They were connected to the internet to allow farmers to access to an agricultural economic database as well as news and bulletins that help them in solving their problems. In addition, the platform was useful to share ideas and experience of local farmers and monitor the whole project.

The VERCON project was successful since it relied on existing organizational structures and links. Also, the platform ensured rapid response to user feedback thanks to regular monitoring and access to monitoring results. It used rural and agricultural appraisals at the field level to ensure that the virtual network would be accurately focused on the information and knowledge needs of the larger agricultural community.

The project was successful and the Rural and Agricultural Development Communication Network (RADCON) was set up to engage with a wider range of rural and agricultural development issues and to extend the VERCON network to a wider range of stakeholders, including farmer organizations, youth centres, universities, and NGOs.

However, the challenge that the project must take is the use of ICTs by farmers themselves.  Despite the success of projects that imply Big Data for rural development, developing world-based farmers often face difficulties in meeting the quality and safety standards set by the developed world. The conditions that stimulated the growth of Big Data in the farming industry in the global north such as the widespread adoption of mechanized tractors; genetically modified seeds, computers, and tablets for farming activities are less prevalent in developing countries. While large growers can afford specialized machinery, small farmers do not have this opportunity. As a result, they can neither access the data nor interpret it.

Big Data for rural development can help analyzing large amounts of information related to rainfall data or the pest vector could give valuable insights into important issues such as climate change, weather patterns and disease and pest infestation patterns. However, this valuable information largely benefits the Big Data industry in the Global North. It can have a positive impact on big farmers in the global south, but rural communities might be excluded as they still have little or no access to ICTs.

Nowadays, as evoked by Spratt and Baker, those who are in favour of Big Data adopt an evangelical tone to argue for its benefits; while those who are against it tend to stress its dystopian nature. It is important to remember that Big Data is a very recent phenomenon; according to sciencedaily.com, a full 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated since 2011. In practice, we don’t have the necessary distance to evaluate its real impact.

When it comes to agriculture, farmers all over the world must produce more to feed world’s rapidly expanding population in the coming decades. Will big data help feeding nine billion people by 2050? Time will tell…

 

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2 comments

  1. Interesting, educative topic and suitable example. I didn’t think that big data could have an impact for such a challenge as feeding the world. I would like to know if this project (or any other similar project) has considered the challenge related to rural communities, as you point out, and what their answer to this challenge might be. Another question that I always ask myself when it comes to feeding the world is the issue of population growth. I feel like this is still a controversial theme in development, but I wonder whether this might change. Will an increased awareness of population growth as a challenge in development help facing the challenges of feeding the world? But that’s another story 🙂

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