Our Farm Journal editorial offices sit on a nice piece of Marion silt loam in Mexico, Mo. If we ever decide to raze the building and farm the ground, I know it’s considered prime farmland, although it drains somewhat poorly, so we’d probably get started straightaway on a tiling project.
How do I know all of this? I simply pulled in a public "layer" called Soil Web into Google Earth, creating an instant (and free) soil map right on my laptop.
Here’s another interesting way I used Google Earth to learn a little more about the world. There’s another publicly available layer called "USGS streamgages," which shows the amount of water flowing in our nation’s streams and rivers – red is dry, blue is wet and green is normal.
Thousands of layers files have been created by the government, public universities, private businesses and even individuals. They are accessed via keyhole markup language (KML) and KML-zipped (KMZ) files, and are often free for the taking for anyone who can find them and put them to good use.
You can even import your own data or create your own custom layers, says Noel Anderson, a consultant with Madison Information Systems and Analysis, who specializes in webinars that help farmers put Google Earth to use in their operations.
"There is no such thing as information in isolation," he says. "It’s always connected to other things, and you become a better manager as you understand that. You can bring in as much information as you care to assimilate."
Anderson hopes to help train a new generation of what he calls "Da Vinci farmers" using tools such as Google Earth.
"Someone like Da Vinci could look at a grain of sand and see a river," he says. "They could see connections. Connecting the dots is much more important than any single dot."
For Anderson, the obvious solution of getting information out of silos is a more standard adoption across the ag industry to use KML and KMZ files. AgGateway, a nonprofit group supporting the expansion of "eBusiness in agriculture," want sstandardization as well.
One current AgGateway project, titled Standardized Precision Ag Data Exchange (SPADE), is trying to directly address the way ag data is often put in silos, says Matt Weeks, AGIIS Product Manager at AgGateway.
"The SPADE project is aimed at solving the problem of every equipment, precision ag, crop insurance and crop protection company not have a standard language to communicate through, and as a result, they all have separate formats and languages that often don't connect or talk to each other," he says.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a push specifically to adopt KML and KMZ file formats, but rather to standardize how farmers and other stakeholders communicate information among one another, Weeks adds. AgGateway hopes this project and others will lower the barrier for adoption of precision ag products for farmers, as well as lower developmental costs for agribusiness.
The federal government has been another proponent of making Big Data transparent and accessible. The USDA recently announced the launch of new "virtual communities" at www.data.gov that shepherds in a new wave of open and more easily accessed data, including genetic sequencing info, ag statistics data, and geological survey information.
Farmers might not have much use for the direct data, but they will benefit greatly from expected public and private ventures that will develop applications for on-farm use, says USDA chief scientist Catherine Woteki.
"We’re looking, [by] making these data available, to entrepreneurs developing new applications that are meaningful to farmers," Woteki says. "The beauty of open data is getting it out there to people who have an idea and people who have the talent to develop those applications.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calls data is one of the world’s most important commodities.
"By making our data accessible and encouraging others to do the same, we’ll enable collaboration of data users that will spur innovation and drive economic growth," he says. "The digital revolution fueled by open data is starting to do for the modern world of agriculture what the industrial revolution did for agricultural productivity over the past century."
And so technology continues to allow us greater, easier access to more information, one "layer" at a time.