Clarifying data ownership for higher ROI

Researchers says greater ownership of data could help bring down barriers

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University of Guelph researchers say farmers and agribusiness people need greater clarity on data ownership issues when it comes to the adoption of precision technologies.

Sarah Marquis and Emily Duncan, a masters and PhD student at the school, presented this thesis at the recent Precision Agriculture Conference and Technology Showcase in London.

Why it matters: Data ownership concerns are sometimes cited as reasons for farmers’ slow uptake of precision technology.

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As two central researchers for a new precision-tech adoption study, they say dubious or convoluted ownership claims continue to be a recurring barrier to greater precision-technology adoption among Canadian farmers. Ownership concerns are contributing to a perceived lack of return-on-investment, which itself is the No. 1 barrier.

The survey is part of a multi-year look into precision-technology adoption barriers and solutions.

So far, Marquis and Duncan have garnered responses from 122 Canadian field-crop farmers — 72 per cent of which were from Ontario. Respondents had an average age of 52, and operated a diverse size of farms. They were questioned on what technologies they have adopted or would like to adopt, as well as why they are not interested in others.

Reflecting the revelations drawn from similar surveys, Marquis and Duncan say most respondents believe digitization offers many opportunities to refine production by providing more operational control. However, they simultaneously see becoming more dependent on technology providers, but what respondents mean by dependent is not clear or uniform.

Lack of confidence in companies

Marquis and Duncan say part of the issue stems from overly complex user agreements.

“Every app has terms and conditions and none of us read them. They’re impossible to understand,” says Marquis. “Most [respondents] either didn’t read it or didn’t understand.”

She adds there is also a lack of confidence in companies, making it easy to transfer information between different digital systems, such as farm management software.

Duncan says most respondents indicated they were concerned about who actually owns their farm data, but believe corporations do a good job at keeping that data secure. However, both presenters say security guarantees are few and far between.

They provided an example of security policy from a real company to illustrate the point. The company’s official statement, while sounding reassuring near the start, concludes by saying no one can be totally immune from data breaches.

Marquis says ending with such a caveat essentially makes the statement meaningless.

“Commodity prices wouldn’t respond well to a massive data breach,” says Marquis.

What can be done

A strategy to improve data ownership clarity involves thinking about governance rather than the definition of ownership. Saying “you own the data,” say Marquis and Duncan, can mean almost nothing if company practices are not clear. But good data governance supports mutual agreement by making what the company is doing clear to the farmer.

Making clear one’s intentions could also help improve the return on investment of a given technology. Marquis and Duncan say many farmers in their study indicated they would give up ownership of their data if they were compensated for it.

This could take the form of cash for data, or even free access to a given piece of software.

Companies can also be certified by Ag-Data Transparent, a non-profit originating in the United States that audits the transparency policies and contracts of technology providers.

This option has been adopted by some companies in Canada, says Marquis. However, she adds many more have said they support the initiative, though have not taken steps to be certified in any way.

Another possibility is to set up “data co-ops,” where member farmers pool their data to gain business insights. This, say Marquis and Duncan, is an option being explored by several groups, including Grower’s Information Services Co-op in the United States.

About the author


Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.



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