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Janzen Ag Law Blog

RSS By: Todd Janzen, AgWeb.com

Janzen Ag Law is a blog written by Todd Janzen, former Kansas farmer now practicing attorney in Indiana. Topics include all types of legal questions facing modern farmers and agribusinesses, including contracts, environmental regulations, nuisance, big data and privacy concerns, as well as other issues. His email is tjanzen@psrb.com. He tweets from @JanzenLaw. His regular blog columns can also be found at JanzenAgLaw.com.

What Agriculture Can Learn from Medical Data Privacy Laws

Aug 29, 2014

 Earlier this year, I suffered sudden hearing loss in my left ear. The condition caused me to visit a number of different doctors and medical providers. These visits made me realize, although we live in the digital age, doctor’s offices still treat data like they did 100 years ago.  Each time I visited a new physician or medical center, I filled out a similar stack of paper forms asking for the same information I had already given other providers--health history, prescriptions used, insurance, date of birth, SSN, symptoms, acknowledgments, etc. There was no data sharing between providers.

I can’t help but compare how the medical industry treats data to the discussion the agricultural industry is having right now about sharing big data and privacy. 

Medical information is strictly private.  Dr. Smith doesn't share information with Dr. Jones unless I tell him to.  But it is not Dr. Smith’s fault; laws like HIPAA prevent him from sharing my medical information.  I understand the reasons for this.  I don’t want my medical records in the public domain or shared between physicians I do not know.  Nor do I want my doctor selling my data to a local pharmacy, so that I get a coupon in the mail for a prescription that purportedly addresses my symptoms. 

But this privacy comes with a cost. My doctor visits generated tons of medical data.  An MRI of my head alone produced thousands of digital images.  This information was reviewed by my radiologist and my ENT, but after that, no one will ever look at it again.  In other words, no other patient will benefit from my MRI because it is private.  That is a shame.

Medical records could be aggregated anonymously.  If every MRI from every patient with my symptoms were shared in a central database, what could medical data analysts learn from the collective, aggregated data?  Likewise, if every person with my condition had their medical history uploaded into a database, think of how much analysts could learn.  Do treatment X and 50% of patients responded with Y.  Do treatment A and 20% responded with B.  But because my medical data is kept private, these big picture discoveries based upon patterns--that can only be done by aggregating lots of data—don’t happen.  Instead, medical research relies on isolated studies of small groups of volunteers.

Agriculture's big data revolution is at the privacy and data sharing crossroads today.  As farmers sign up for farm data storage and analysis tools, they must decide whether they are willing to share their data or whether they want to keep it private, like medical data.

Fortunately, farmers have a choice that is not given to medical patients.  Farmers can share their data anonymously, stripping away personal information so that it can be collectively viewed and analyzed with others’ farm data.  This means a farmer wanting to share his data doesn’t have to give up much privacy.  Unlike medical data, who you are (height, weight, gender, etc.) has no bearing on the data’s usage.  For example, Beck’s Superior Hybrid’s FARMserver, a data storage and analysis tool, allows users to upload their data then share anonymously with others to conduct "benchmarking" with other fields.  (This level of comparison is much more accurate and useful than the benchmarking that occurred at the local grain elevator when I was a kid.)

The real value in big data comes from aggregating it with other similar data.  Aggregated data could track movement of pests across counties and states, leading to predictions and recommendations for pesticides to preemptively control these problems.  The migration of herbicide resistant weeds would become obvious when viewing millions of acres instead of just one field, leading to suggested crop rotations and herbicide treatments.  Aggregation of data could also predict which hybrids will perform best in certain soils at certain latitudes based upon expected weather conditions.  But if farmers are unwilling to share their data, farmers will not realize these and other big data benefits. 

Luckily, my journey with hearing loss concludes with a happy ending.  Today, I have regained most of my hearing in the left ear and I continue to incrementally improve each day.  I am grateful, as many people that have sudden hearing loss never regain functional hearing.  Still, the experience has kept me wondering, if everyone with my condition had aggregated their medical data anonymously, how much more would we know about the causes of sudden hearing loss and the effective treatments?

Farmers, whether to share your farm data with technology providers is your choice.  My advice is to share it with technology providers you trust.  Because it's only by sharing that information so that it can be aggregated--which can be done anonymously--that ag’s big data will truly revolutionize farming.  

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