Big minds work on solutions to big data privacy concerns

Vicky BoydThe growth of big data within agriculture has created some big privacy concerns. But a collaborative effort among several universities, agri-businesses and ag groups hopes to develop an independent national online repository to help allay some of those fears.

The Agricultural Data Coalition seeks to develop a way to securely store and control digital information collected by producers’ tractors, harvesters, fertilizer spreaders and other devices.

Only if farmers choose will the data be transmitted to third parties, whether researchers, crop insurance providers, government officials or vendors. And producers will be able to select how much or how little personal information is tied to the data.

Members of the coalition include AGCO, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Auburn University, CNH Industrial, Crop IMS, Mississippi State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Raven Industries, Topcon Positioning Group and Ohio State University. The project was formally announced at the recent Commodity Classic in New Orleans.

“I think this gives producers greater power to control what becomes of their data,” says Keith Coble, W.L. Giles Distinguished Professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University, Starkville. “This is a way a producer can control who gets use of the data and who does not.”

The ADC is an offshoot of earlier discussions among nearly 40 entities, including USA Rice, about data privacy, access, portabililty, security safeguards and other related issues. The result was a list of 12 data privacy and security principles.

Say a producer wants to change fertilizer dealers. But he may hesitate because he doesn’t know if his soil test, field fertility and yield monitor data will be transferred to the new dealer. Even if the information is sent, will it be in a useful format and will all of the data be forwarded? The ADC project addresses that.

“We wanted a place where farmers could put the data and they could store it there or send it to their agronomist or to their crop insurance agent,” says Mary Kay Thatcher, American Farm Bureau Federation senior director of Congressional relations. “So that data would be there and portability would not be an issue.”

The project goes beyond what could be considered just cloud-based storage. Coble says one goal is to build a platform where data would be compatible regardless of source. The group also wants to set up an entity where data privacy could be maintained and wouldn’t be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

This spring, the ADC plans to conduct a pilot program with a small group of growers and a few co-op and retail service providers within five to six commodities, says Matt Bechdol, interim executive director. It will be limited in scope, focusing on a centralized environment for farmer data and farmer control.

Read the latest survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau that shows farmers want to control their own data.