Open data and the war on hunger – a challenge to be met

Diginomica: “Although the private sector is seen as the villain of the piece in some quarters, it actually has a substantial role to play in helping solve the problem of world hunger.

This is the view of Andre Laperriere, executive director of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (Godan) initiative, …

Laperriere himself heads up Godan’s small secretariat of five full-time equivalent employees who are based in Oxfordshire in the UK. The goal of the organisation, which currently has 511 members, is to encourage governmental, non-governmental (NGO) and private sector organisations to share open data about agriculture and nutrition. The idea is to make such information more available, accessible and usable in order to help tackle world food security in the face of mounting threats such as climate change.

But to do so, it is necessary to bring the three key actors originally identified by James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, into play, believes Laperriere. He explains:

You have states, which generate and possess much of the data. There are citizens with lots of specific needs for which the data can be used, and there’s the private sector in between. It’s in the best position to exploit the data and use it to develop products that help meet the needs of the population. So the private sector is the motor of development and has a big role to play.

This is not least because NGOs, cooperatives and civil societies of all kinds often simply do not have the resources or technical knowledge to either find or deal with the massive quantities of open data that is released. Laperriere explains:

It’s a moral dilemma for a lot of research organisations. If, for example, they release 8,000 data sets about every kind of cattle disease, they’re doing so for the benefit of small farmers. But the only ones that can often do anything with it are the big companies as they have the appropriate skills. So the goal is the little guy rather than the big companies, but the alternative is not to release anything at all.

But for private sector businesses to truly get the most out of this open data as it is made available, Laperriere advocates getting together to create so-called pre-competition spaces. These spaces involve competitors collaborating in the early stages of commercial product development to solve common problems. To illustrate how such activity works, Laperriere cites his own past experience when working for a lighting company:

We were pushing fluorescent rather than incandescent lighting, but it contains mercury which pollutes, although it has a lower carbon footprint. It was also a lot more expensive. But we sat down together with the other manufacturers and shared our data to fix the problem together, which meant that everyone benefited by reducing the cost, the mercury pollution and the amount of energy consumed.

Next revolution

While Laperriere understands the fear of many organisations in potentially making themselves vulnerable to competition by disclosing their data, in reality, he attests, “it not the case”. Instead he points out:

If you release data in the right way to stimulate collaboration, it is positive economically and benefits both consumers and companies too as it helps reduce their costs and minimise other problems.

Due to growing amounts of government legislation and policies that require processed food manufacturers around the world to disclose product ingredients, he is, in fact, seeing rising interest in the approach not only among the manufacturers themselves but also among packaging and food preservation companies. The fact that agriculture and nutrition is a vast, complex area does mean there is still a long way to go, however….(More)”