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A new global agriculture: using big data to bring farmers together

For thousands of years, farmers have looked to the clouds for the next sign of rain to irrigate their crops. Now farmers are also looking to another cloud—the digital cloud—for insights that can make a critical difference for their operations. Through this network of servers, satellites, and mobile devices, the cloud is helping farmers share and access massive volumes of data.

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is helping to facilitate this new relationship between farmers and the digital world. Using the emerging tools of Big Data, the CGIAR Platform is developing approaches for solving complex problems in agriculture, especially smallholder farming in the developing world. CGIAR, which is the largest network for agricultural research in the world, is working to bring these analytical breakthroughs to farmers and to transform how farming research is conducted and potentially transform farming itself.

At CGIAR, the term Big Data refers to the collection of digital trends that are accelerating the process of data collection and analysis. These trends include improvements to satellite imaging, the spread of inexpensive remote sensors, distributed computing networks, and the new technology of the mobile revolution.

Today, more than five billion people have cell phones. For a tool that barely existed 20 years ago, mobile phones have become indispensable for conducting education, business, and most daily activities. But for farmers, the benefits of the mobile revolution are still being realized. Leveraging the spread of cell phones and mobile technology for farmers is one of the strategies of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

The application of Big Data through mobile technology can work in both directions, by allowing farmers to receive more information from researchers and to share data about their farm back with scientists to guide their research.

A recent example of using Big Data to deliver information to farmers is a mobile information service designed to assist herding communities in Mongolia. Like many places around the world, the climate in Mongolia has become more unpredictable in recent years, which has led to serious problems for farmers. Extremely hot summers followed by droughts and frigid winters have been the cause of more than 20 million livestock deaths since 2000, impacting the lives of more than 300,000 households.

In response, researchers at CGIAR developed an information service that gives Mongolian farmers access via text message to real-time information about weather, pasture conditions, and emergency alerts. Called the Advanced Weather Information System, the platform accesses and analyzes databases of spatial information and then interacts with farmers through the mobile network to deliver this information, which gives herders the ability to plan ahead and make critical decisions to ensure the well-being of their herds.

Traditionally, this kind of information sharing for farming has come through extension services, which are satellite offices of research universities in rural areas staffed by agricultural scientists. These offices are responsible for keeping farmers updated on any new developments in farming systems and are available for farmers to consult for guidance. With new digital systems like those being developed through the Platform for Big Data, this could be a new model for extension services in the 21st century.

In the other direction, there are also benefits from Big Data through farmers sharing data about their farms back to researchers. “In the past, agricultural scientists made new discoveries through control experimentation in experimental stations,” says Dr. Daniel Jimenez, a scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) within CGIAR and one of the leaders of the Platform for Big Data. “This resulted in blanket recommendations, recommendations that were supposed to work for larger areas.”

The difference with farmers sharing unique data from their individual operations is that the recommendations they receive back is unique and individualized. According to Jimenez: “What we are proposing now are recommendations for a specific site, for specific environmental conditions.”

Big Data also enables other forms of data collection for agricultural research. Dr. Rosemary Shrestha is a Data Coordinator who works on the Platform for Big Data at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) within CGIAR. “Farmers are using drones with advanced sensors that can produce granular data points on soil conditions, detailed atmospheric information, water availability, and pest infestations,” says Shrestha. “These recent technologies are helping them to survey their crops, update their data, and notify them of areas that need improvement.”

The implications of Big Data for smallholder agriculture can be huge. Farming communities in the developing world make up the vast majority of the global agricultural system, but due to the size of the individual farms, it has been difficult to generate a critical mass of data to prove whether the farming methods used in these parts of the world are working. More often than not, farming practices from other, more developed parts of the world are applied to these communities since they have been scientifically proven. Now, using Big Data, researchers at CGIAR can test a wider set of farming practices in different parts of the world and produce a more diverse and dynamic foundation for agriculture.

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is working to make the opportunities of mobile technology and other digital tools available to these farmers around the world. By empowering smallholder farmers with greater access to information and increasing the connections of different farming regions around the world, the Platform has the potential to bring global agriculture into a new era.

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