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Open data for agriculture

By - Dickson Mutuma Posted On : 07th May, 2019 Your Category Name

Weather represents the greatest opportunity – and risk – in the agriculture sector. Climate change presents major risks for long-term food security and developing countries may suffer the greatest share of damage in the form of declining yields and greater frequency of extreme weather events.

According to the national Meteorological Services Department (MSD), Zimbabwe used to have 2,000 weather stations distributed throughout the country, including a weather research station at each of the eight major research centres; but, despite this, annual research findings show a lack of correlation between weather data and research results, which is important when addressing the prevailing weather-related challenges faced by smallholder farmers in the country. This lack of correlation could be attributed to limited knowledge in analysing weather data in relation to crop growth.

The principles of open data, which require data to be ‘FAIR’ – i.e. findable, accessible, interoperable and to be re-used – are not well known within MSD. It is in this regard that a two-day training workshop was organised by the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS), one of departments in the Zimbabwe Ministry of Lands Agriculture Water Climate and Rural Resettlement, in partnership with CTA, under its project ‘Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Action’ from the 26 to 27 November, 2018.

The workshop’s aim was to strengthen researchers’ capacity to access weather data by using and sharing weather-related research findings with various stakeholders, including smallholder farmers. The anticipated key outcome is an increase in research protocols that are informed by weather data.

Participants of this workshop were:

  • data providers from MSD;
  • data recorders (field workers) responsible for collecting rainfall and temperature readings direct from the weather station;
  • agricultural research assistants responsible for recording agronomic data;
  • research technicians responsible for setting up trials and assisting researchers;
  • research officers who put the data into context to provide information and a meaning in the form of research findings.

The workshop

A total number of 20 people participated in the workshop, of which 11 were women (55%). The workshop was opened by the director of DR&SS. He emphasised that, “Access to credible weather data, combined with agronomic data, will go a long way in improving the reliability of both the DR&SS and MSD. These data will inform research on its planning activities, such as irrigation scheduling, decision-making on cultivar selection, planting and harvesting.”

The training tackled different topics including open data principles, weather parameters and linking weather data to agronomic findings, benefits of open data in agriculture, data management and quality control, and data visualisation. Only three participants (13%) had heard about open data from a colleague, the internet or the GODAN Action online course. Seventy-seven percent felt that access to raw field data should be made accessible and 96% felt that the department should adopt an open data policy.

The participants also did a group activity where they critically analysed case studies from other countries, including Colombia: “In our observations, we managed to appreciate the importance of climate information for decision-making. Beforehand, most farmers had a propensity for the traditional way of farming, i.e. old farming practices and variety biases, due to lack of climate data to make best decisions. From the study, we could see that the data set kept by the Federation of Colombia helps farmers to make decisions on what to grow in a particular season and what farming practices to consider when cropping. This information goes a long way in providing high rice yields as the farmers will be able to compare variety performance in terms of yield over seasons. Moreover, farmers will be able to resort to new farming technologies which ease production and increase productivity of rice farming.”

The workshop participants took a poll to rank the major hindrances to implementing open data principles in research. At the top, they rated bureaucratic systems within government institutions; followed by conflicts of interest with national policies; lack of relevant ICT software and skills; misinterpretation of data; and lack of monetary benefits in publishing data.

The workshop was an eye-opener to John Mupuro – an agro-meteorologist at MSD, who participated in the workshop as a facilitator and trainee – considering his past experiences: “Many organisations have approached MSD and encouraged the department to use open data principles. As an individual, I didn’t understand what they meant. This workshop has been an eye-opener as I now understand what open data is. The acquired knowledge will help us to be more sensitive to requests from research officers. I was also delighted to be a facilitator and to share the data sources that we have in Zimbabwe with colleagues from research.’’

Results

One of the encouraging results of the training was that the relationship between MSD and research officers was strengthened. MSD committed to sharing weather data every 10 days while researchers committed to submit activity calendars and diaries frequently. This will help researchers to access updated weather data, using and sharing weather-related research findings with various stakeholders, including smallholder farmers. The key outcome was an increase in research protocols that are informed by weather data. The workshop deliberations will also contribute to the development of a policy brief that will enable lobbying for institutional reforms in line with open data principles.

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