Science & Environment

Open data aims to boost food security prospects

Combine-harvester working in a wheat field (Image: AP) Image copyright AP
Image caption Universal access to global agriculture data will improve food security policies, say campaigners

Rothamsted Research, a leading agricultural research institution, is attempting to make data from long-term experiments available to all.

In partnership with a data consultancy, is it developing a method to make complex results accessible and useable.

The institution is a member of the Godan Initiative that aims to make data available to the scientific community.

In September, Godan called on the public to sign its global petition to open agricultural research data.

"The continuing challenge we face is that the raw data alone is not sufficient enough on its own for people to make sense of it," said Chris Rawlings, head of computational and systems biology at Rothamsted Research.

"This is because the long-term experiments are very complex, and they are looking at agriculture and agricultural ecosystems so you need to know a lot of about what the intention of the studies are, how they are being used, and the changes that have taken place over time."

However, he added: "Even with this level of complexity, we do see significant number of users contacting us or developing links with us."

One size fits all

The ability to provide open data to all is one of the research organisation's national capabilities, and forms a defining principle of its web portal to the experiments carried out at its North Wyke Farm Platform in North Devon.

Rothamsted worked in partnership with Tessella, a data consultancy, on the data collected from the experiments, which focused on livestock pastures.

The information being collected, as often as every 15 minutes, includes water run-off levels, soil moisture, meteorological data, and soil nutrients, and this is expected to run for decades.

"The data is quite varied and quite diverse, and [Rothamsted] wants to make to make this data available to the wider research community," explained Tessella's Andrew Bowen.

"What Rothamsted needed was a way to store it and a way to present it in a portal in which people could see what they had to offer."

He told BBC News that there were a number of challenges that needed to be tackled.

One was the management of the data, and the team from Tessella adopted an "agile scrum" approach.

"Basically, what you do is draw up a list of the requirements, of what you need, and we break the project down into short iterations, starting with the highest priority," he said.

"This means that you are able to take a more exploratory approach to the process of developing software. This is very well suited to the research environment."

Mr Bowen outlined that an additional challenge was the need for data to be scrutinised by a team of experts to ensure no false readings were added to the dataset.

"The back-end database was relatively complex just in terms of collecting, managing and organising the data. This presented another challenge in terms of how we presented this in an attractive, acceptable and accessible way (to end-users)."

Working together

Although Rothamsted has a long history of making the data it collects available to the wider research community, it is an area that is coming to the attention of policymakers.

The Godan (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition) initiative was established in 2013 with the aim of encouraging and promoting open-data policies regarding agriculture and nutrition information held by governments, business and NGOs.

The initiative has more than 330 partners around the globe, including the UK, US and Kenyan governments.

"Even before Godan existed, Rothamsted has had a long-term commitment to making its data available to other scientists," observed Dr Rawlings.

"We have been managing data from our long-term experiments with an express intention of sharing and for the benefit of the scientific community."

We do talk to different communities about how we can simplify the data.

He added: "I think the Godan movement is a very important one. At the moment, a lot of the focus is on the policy level of national governments rather than individual institutions. However, institutes like Rothamsted are taking it very seriously."

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