The freely available information will include climate data, soil moisture readings and satellite data, which will be used to improve crop yields and quality as well as deal with disease outbreaks.
The data will be used to help the farming sector deal with an increasingly unpredictable climate, including extended periods of drought in some areas and flooding in others.
“With a rapidly growing global population, it is essential that farmers, suppliers and consumers have the data they need to make informed choices,” said Jeni Tennison, technical director at the Open Data Institute (ODI).
Climate change is already cutting the output of the UK food sector, the National Farmers Union (NFU) warned this week, with two-thirds of producers having noticed an increase in extreme weather. The survey provided a “stark reminder” that agriculture is on the front line of climate change impacts, said the union’s VP Guy Smith.
Shaky supply chains
The plight of farmers – and not just in the UK and EU – will inevitably create supply and demand issues further down the supply chain, especially for some of the key commodities.
Many leading food businesses now rate food security as a major concern – and not just in the long-term. How to use data to improve agriculture and nutrition will therefore become a key area of focus for the food industry.
Speaking at an ODI event this week, UK environment secretary Elizabeth Truss said the demand that increased population and volatile weather patterns will place on the industry should be seen not as a problem but as a “huge opportunity”.
“The UK has always been an early adapter of new technologies and we already feed the world better and more cheaply than in the early 1960s when our population was half the size,” Truss said.
Data floodgates open
Open data was originally supposed to be a mechanism for keeping tabs on the government, going beyond the laws on freedom of information. However, it’s increasingly being used for commercial gain.
The Met Office, the UK government’s weather service, released its first tranche of data in 2011. Back then there were 90 registered users; now there are 6000, of which about 1200 are making money from mining the datasets.
Businesses further up the food production chain are no strangers to data either. Marketing teams use everything from social media updates, web browsing and loyalty card activity to personalise promotions and increase sales. This data often comes at a price, but open data is free – combining the two can create a real competitive advantage.
Arla Foods, for instance, has used real-time weather data, data on location and customer data to help increase sales of its Kelda barbecue sauces in Sweden. When the sun shone, promotional coupons were sent by SMS to relevant consumers resulting in a 25% conversion rate – much higher than if the discount had been offered when it was raining.
The company’s digital manager, Christina Skoglund, warned that food brands must be careful how they use any data. Open data is “the essence of transparent information supply” so companies need to be up front about how they use any information, she said. The more open companies are, the more personal data consumers will be willing to share, she added.