Paul Stacey


Open Harvest

How can we build a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food? That was the big question on my mind when, at the invitation of Agroknow, I set off to Chania Greece for an event called Open Harvest. This event brought together organizations from around the world who are all engaged in research, knowledge, and capacity development related to agriculture, food, nutrition and the environment. Organizations like GODAN, CGIAR, INRA, CABI, CAAS, ISI / DRTC, EMBRAPA and many more. It is always special when a network of organizations like this are brought together as it provides a forum for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Open Harvest Sign

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

The first two days of Open Harvest were done workshop style with groups discussing how they define a “scientific data commons” and “shared scientific data infrastructure”, why we need it, and how it relates to relate to specific initiatives & agendas organizations are working on. A big topic was open data. Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike. Everyone made reference to the FAIR principle. Data must be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. Discussion related to these questions and open data was wide-ranging touching on policy, privacy, security, standards, technology, research, services, management, and how best to collaborate around this work.

On the third day I gave an opening keynote  which I called “Beyond Licensing: the social and economic aspects of building an open data commons.” Drawing on insights from the recently published Made With Creative Commons I aimed to provoke new thinking about not just how to make data open but about how a commons works and the innovations and economic potential it has.

One of the ways I’ve been reflecting on and assimilating what I learned at Open Harvest is framing what took place against a simple equation I’ve been using from Made With Creative Commons. That equation looks like this:

Sustainability = open resources + social good + human connection.

Sustainability relates largely to open business models and the ability to generate revenue to sustain operations. Open resources are digital goods that have been licensed, (usually using Creative Commons), to be freely and openly available for others to retain, revise, reuse, remix, and redistribute. Human connection refers to prosocial human connection that openness enables. A move from anonymous market transaction to co-creation interactions where a community is built up around the resources being shared.

Let me use the lens of this equation to share what I learned at Open Harvest and describe what I see as the next steps for creating a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food.

Open Resources

So just what are the resources organizations have that could be made open and shareable? They are many and diverse including things like policies, practices & processes (workflows, data management plans, …), models, ontologies/semantics/metadata, technologies, and data. Focusing simply on open data is limiting. We’re really talking about a whole ecosystem of openness including open policy, open knowledge, open practices, and open data. When I look at a collection of open resources like this I think about which ones will be the most important and valuable to the consortium. But I also look at what resources will be most valuable and helpful for the intended beneficiary – farmers and industry. The strategic themes and the drivers for industry needs mapped out in Campden BRI’s Innovation for the food and drink supply chain document does a great job of defining the practical and applied resources needed. I wish there was something similar for farmers.

When you have such a large number of organizations doing related work it is helpful for there to be a level collaboration and sharing taking place to reduce redundancy and ensure interoperability of outputs. An event like Open Harvest shows just how important that is but going forward there is a big need to look at some overarching mechanism for ongoing collaboration and coordination. There needs to be a means for participants to identify what they have in the way of resources and what they need. A means for inter-organizational collaboration and exchange of shared resources. A coordinated effort toward a common goal.

Driven by Social Good

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

Social Good

In 2016 world leaders at the United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals. Goal number 2 is – “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Clearly this is a major social good, one that all the organizations at Open Harvest are working in support of.

Open Harvest participating organizations are all working to make agriculture and food relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide. As GODAN, one of the participating organizations notes in their statement of purpose: “Open access to research, and open publication of data, are vital resources for food security and nutrition, driven by farmers, farmer organizations, researchers, extension experts, policy makers, governments, and other private sector and civil society stakeholders participating in ‘innovation systems’ and along value chains. Lack of institutional, national, and international policies and openness of data limits the effectiveness of agricultural and nutritional data from research and innovation. Making open data work for agriculture and nutrition requires a shared agenda to increase the supply, quality, and interoperability of data, alongside action to build capacity for the use of data by all stakeholders.”

The social good being generated through the work of Open Harvest participants encompasses many of the other sustainable goals too including: poverty, health, gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, and sustainable consumption. The extent to which the resources coming out of Open Harvest organization work can be directly shown to positively contribute to the realization of these goals should be a metrics dashboard by which their success and impact is measured.

Human Interaction

Having open resources that contribute to social good attracts participation. Ideally the resources are of interest and useful to large numbers of people. At Open Harvest I found myself listening to what others were saying with an eye to who is generating resources of interest not just to government and researchers but to farmers and citizens. One of the big opportunities associated with openness and creating a commons is the way it opens up participation and engagement to everyone. It not only levels the playing field it invites new players to engage.

Open Harvest Workshop

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

However, going from an autonomous, proprietary, all-rights-reserved model to an open one that provides access and promotes reuse is a big change. For this to become widespread it will require incentives, new means of evaluating performance, and clear articulation of benefits.

When thinking about what open resources to create and share I think about which ones will generate the greatest interest, the largest number of users, the most impact. What resources provide maximum value? If we have an Internet of Things with sensors collecting data related to food and agriculture what data will be of interest and use to consumers and producers? Which resources are relevant globally? Which ones have the potential to build a community of users around who all engage in using, improving, translating, localizing, and updating the resource? Ensuring open resources, including open data, have impact involves building a relationship with those who benefit from the use of those resources.

In my experience the social and community based aspect of openness is the one part of the equation least attended to. And yet I would argue it is the most important. If we are going to build a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food then lets build one that provides access to all, maximizes participation, generates value collectively, spurs innovation, and brings people together for a common cause. Lets not use openness to just improve existing practices but rather to do innovative things not possible any other way.

I commend the Open Harvest participants for putting together a fantastic Open Harvest 2nd Chania Declaration and Call to Action mapping out a way forward.

Special thanks to the Agroknow team for hosting an amazing event and to all the participants for welcoming me and sharing their work and aspirations.

Originally published as Agroknow blog post 19-June-2017.

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