Connecting the Data and Science Dots

tweet on open data

I came across this tweet some days ago and I could not resist clicking the retweet button. Not that I support wholly the resignation of individuals but it touched on various subjects that over the last two weeks have become music to my ears.

Data. Open data. Fair data. Accessible data. Operable data.

Again and again, I heard these words from the panelists at the “Data, Information and Knowledge Systems” parallel session at the recently concluded 7th Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW7) and FARA General Assembly. The parallel event organized by The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in partnership with FARA, IFPRI and GODAN aimed at bringing together players in the open data sphere to discuss more on what type of data, information, and knowledge systems are specifically needed to support the implementation of the Science Agenda for African agriculture at the country level.

Four panelists shared their views on open data in agriculture and how it could support the implementation of the Science Agenda for African agriculture. To start with, Andre Laperriere, the Executive Director of Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), pointed out the need to have a concrete action plan on open data as well as invest in capacity development and trainings on open data that really reflect the needs of end users. Additionally, he stressed on the importance of having key open datasets that can really respond to the needs of users aside from standard formats or interfaces that allow data to communicate one with each other.

Likewise, Dr. Joel Sam, the Director of the Ghanaian CSIR-Institute for Scientific and Technological Information (INSTI), presented a concise view of open data and open science through the lens of Open Data Landscape in Ghana (GODI). The GODI initiative aims at developing an open data community by bringing together government, civil society organizations, developers and citizens to interact with one another on the issue of data. The end goal of the initiative is the development of an open data portal to enhance transparency, accountability and efficiency in government and spur economic growth.

For Samuel Benin, a Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, the focus was on public expenditure as a key data tool for achieving sustainable development objectives. He analysed how these data tools can be used to develop and implement better polices. From a farmer point of view, Emmanuel Mbewe, the Head of Africa 6th Grain Corporation, shared with the participants the case study of the Farm Digitization and Farmers Registry (FDFR), a COMESA Project aiming to strengthen agricultural statistics for better informed evidence-based interventions in farming activities.

biotech infographicAnd given that data needs to be communicated in an understandable manner, Winnie Kamau, the Founder and President of Association of Freelance Journalists in Kenya, underlined the role of data visualization in helping to communicate data. Tools such as maps, graphs, charts, infographics that could help audiences absorb and interpret data quickly and easily. In addition, she stressed that data visualisation can help reveal important trends and different variables such as environmental factors, geographical locations, and socio-economics trends that can help in holding governments accountable for delivering better services. Take for instance the infographic (below) by ISAAA on the state of biotech crops adoption in the world. At a glance, one is able to decipher lots of information at once unlike when the data is tabulated in forms and spreadsheets.

Although, I have always known that data is a key output of science and research, I did not understand the different formats or ways of making it accessible to various categories of users. This session improved my understanding (and I believe that of other participants) on how data combined with agricultural knowledge could go a long way in solving some of the challenges many farmers face. Take for instance, combining data with remote sensing and mapping could offer support in terms of advice and early warnings for farmers and in turn be a solution when it comes to protecting crops from pests and extreme weather. It could also help famrers to improve their farm management decisions and increase farm yields – an important value given the ever rising demand for food.

But, this can only be realised if, somehow, data is made accessible to all. However, as generally agreed at the session, the current situation is still far away from the ideal.

Challenges facing Open Data

From the discussions, some challenges related to open data and open science identified are:

Understanding: There is general lack of full understanding around the concept of open data and open science among key stakeholders in the agricultural sector. This in turn inhibits the full usability and potential for open data.

Cost: Each set of data comes at a cost and currently there are no serious efforts in terms of investments for generating and making data accessible to different categories of users.

Commitment: It is one thing to commit to open data but it is another to actually do it. By and large, commitments have been made on the use of open data and open science, but there is a need for more efforts to keep and fulfil the commitments made at all levels.

Sustainability: Open data more often than not suffers from lack of sustainable financial model. The production and curation of open data comes with significant costs given the need and demand for appropriate technologies and skilled handlers.

Session Recommendations

In the end, 8 important recommendations came out of the session

  1. Stronger advocacy for an enabling environment for open data and open science at all levels (national, regional and global) is needed.
  2. Improved engagement and commitment from key (and all) stakeholders to push forward the open data agenda to benefit policy-makers, farmers and other the end users.
  3. Decisions from policy makers need to be data driven.
  4. More attention should be paid to the sustainability of open data initiatives as well as creating initiatives with sustainable funding. Open data initiatives need to have a business model approach.
  5. Prioritising investments that increase support to data openness and to open data initiatives.
  6. More initiatives bridging the gaps between data developers and data users are needed.
  7. It is of utmost importance to invest in capacity development and data skills to improve the understanding of both the custodians and users of open data.
  8. There is a need to provide quality data in the right format.

PS: Data is just a series of binary numbers. What you do with data is what counts – Andre Laperriere

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