The First Question We Need To Ask About Big Data

08:56AM May 16, 2014
( Syngenta )

As a consumer, you may already be wary of the Big Data buzz. And with good reason – private companies are collecting a disconcerting amount of information on their customers. (Your utility company can tell when you get home from work, when you go to bed and when you wake up just by monitoring minute-by-minute electricity use, for example.)

But as a farmer, the explosion of data collection and analysis services has provided more positive opportunities. After all, you’re collecting the data, not private companies, and you own the data you collect. Right?

Depending on the situation, that answer isn’t always crystal clear. Service provider agreements are notoriously difficult to read and understand. Rather than dig through page after page of legalese and contract lingo, most farmers would rather skip to the end and sign on the dotted line. That’s not always a wise practice, says Shannon Ferrell, associate professor of agricultural law at Oklahoma State University.

"When you sign up for a service, you have to read the terms of the service agreement," he says. "Make sure you’re comfortable with them before you sign anything. Public enemy No. 1 is signing off without reading the agreement. It happens all the time."

Read the agreements and ask the right questions, says Iowa farmer Nathan Legler. Everyone should start with this one question in particular, he says.

"The No.1 question every farmer should ask is who will have access to their data?" he says.
Most companies mitigate the risk of privacy breaches by keeping the data locked up, only accessible through user names and passwords. Farmers can then grant permission for their consultant or employees to see different levels of their data.

Farmers who are worried this safeguard is inadequate may also want to see where the data servers are located. If you collect data through Company X, and that data is stored on Company X’s servers, is that a cause for concern? It’s hard to say for sure, but it has affected how some companies store farmer data. Syngenta, for example, uses a third party called Ag Connections to store data from its AgriEdge Excelsior farm management software.

"The biggest question we’ve gotten this past year is about data privacy," says Missouri AgriEdge specialist Brad Koch. "It’s a huge concern to farmers right now. Some love to show their data and some don’t. We’re fine with that, and that’s a big reason we use a third-party partner to warehouse all of our data."

That’s one of the reasons AgriEdge has enjoyed a 96% customer retention rate, he adds.
AgriEdge allows farmers to track exact cost of production and plan out their season task by task.

The payoff potential is huge, but Koch admits farmers won’t get on board the Big Data train until they trust their data is in good hands.

"We have to get to a level of data consistency and transparency," he says.