Perspective: In Data Battle, Prepare To Surrender

Perspective: In Data Battle, Prepare To Surrender

After years of sharing with anyone who asked, farmers are growing uneasy about private data. We are learning a growing appreciation for information. Although totals and ratios were respected, especially for lender negotiations and taxes, data chores used to detract from “real” work.

Knowing how to tease trends and causes from data is now a requirement for competitiveness. Time at the computer is no longer busywork. With this new respect, powerful tools to collect and manipulate data have engendered data-intensive decision-making. Ag is gradually learning to mine the gold it has been plowing over. It is a short leap from appreciating your own numbers to coveting competitor numbers. Meanwhile, the large support sector is bubbling with strategies utilizing our numbers. Holding our cards closer seems prudent.

Yet there remains enormous asymmetry in pricing information. Farmers have little idea how valuable their data are to users. Our intuition confounds our ability to measure this value. Producers have a meager background in statistics, less in analysis and scant understanding of how agribusinesses can distill powerful intelligence from our data.  

Even further from our minds is the value of metadata, which is data about data. This is what the National Security Agency watches and Google monetizes. The characteristics of data itself such as date, location, time and file size can be mined to reveal real-time trends.

Health officials monitor flu outbreaks by tracking Internet searches for “flu symptoms.” Similarly, measurements of how much, where and when data flows from planters or combines is raw material for quantitative analysts to make precise guesses as to yields, planting progress and so on. Just like postmen, quants don’t need to read the mail to interpolate from the envelope. Not participating in data exchange offers little defense, as statistical methods such those used in the Census of Agriculture can approximate your data with surprising accuracy for nothing in return.

Meanwhile, we love gadgets that generate data. The benefits of electronic enhancements are immense—so great that we struggle with the idea that hardware is unbelievably cheap to build (though you’d think we would learn from flat-screen TVs). Once equipment is in place, the cost of service is virtually zero. 

The outcome, I predict, will resemble what happens when you finally decide to call and drop your pricey satellite radio and TV. Farmers will get an offer too good to refuse. 

Metadata Harvest Swells. Knowing how to negotiate with data partners will be key. Each party will give something of apparently low value for something of apparently high value.

It is hard to fault what is seemingly a win-win scenario because the price is extracted so imperceptibly. Just as Amazon now knows how to push my buttons to sell another space-opera novel, my farm data partners will be able to offer gee-whiz features designed precisely for me. All the while, those partners will obtain ever more accurate information about my farm and industry. When you add in the emerging Internet of Things, in which everything from tractors to appliances communicates via the cloud, the metadata harvest swells.

Our fears of data theft divert us from the more important transaction. Even when data are kept vault-secure with multi-page agreements we hastily sign without reading, quantitative analysis might make our numbers our most valuable crop. 

Knowing the shiny beads offered in return are only worth $24 might stimulate better exchanges. Regardless, this deal is going to happen. 

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