Canadian researchers have identified data ownership concerns as harmful to farmers’ return-on-investment, adding yet another barrier to precision-tech adoption.
These conclusions join a growing body of statistics from both in and outside the country indicating ownership concerns continue unabated in much of rural North America – and not necessarily without good reason.
Sarah Marquis and Emily Duncan, a masters and PhD student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, are two central researchers for the new precision-tech adoption study being conducted under the school’s Arrell Food Institute.
The survey in question is part of a larger, multi-year delve into precision-technology adoption barriers and solutions. Respondents, who came from a variety of farms and age demographics, were questioned on what technologies they have adopted or would like to adopt, as well as why they are not interested in others.
While the project itself is still in relative infancy, evidence thus far indicate dubious or convoluted ownership claims continues to be a significant and commonly-recurring irritation. In fact, the researchers say farmers are indirectly tying ownership difficulties to the value of their investment.
Every app has terms and conditions and none of us read them. They’re impossible to understand
Most respondents, say Marquis and Duncan, believe digitisation offers many opportunities to refine production by providing more operational control. However, they simultaneously see becoming more dependent on tech-providers – but what respondents mean by “dependant” is not necessarily clear or uniform.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marquis and Duncan say part of the issue stems from overly complex user agreements. “Every app has terms and conditions and none of us read them. They’re impossible to understand,” says Marquis. “Most [respondents] either didn’t read it or didn’t understand.”
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She adds there is also a lack of confidence in companies making it easy to transfer information between different digital systems, such as farm management software.
While ownership concerns abounded in their results, however, respondents simultaneously indicated they believe corporations do a good job at keeping that data secure.
But in speaking to attendees at a farm-technology conference, the researchers reiterated security guarantees are often few and far between. An example security policy from a real (though unnamed) company was provided to illustrate the point.
The company’s official statement, while sounding reassuring near the start, concludes by saying no one can be totally immune from data breaches. True though it may be, Marquis says ending with such a caveat essentially makes the statement meaningless. “Commodity prices wouldn’t respond well to a massive data breach,” says Marquis.
In discussions following the researchers’ presentation, attendees from outside Canada said experiences interacting with farmers in their own countries suggested almost identical data-use concerns – particularly in instances where that data could be employed to give someone other than the farmer an upper-hand in business dealing.
Since both researchers gave their aforementioned talk – and as if to lend credence to these boundary-crossing concerns – an example of seemingly-nefarious data usage has arisen involving Climate FieldView and it’s (now-cancelled) partnership with Tillable, an online marketplace for farmland rental.
To illustrate how vulnerable producers can be if companies play fast-and-loose with subscriber data, farmers have been accusing Tillable of using their ClimateView data to increase the price of farmland rental rates. Indeed, many have said they began receiving letters from Tillage this winter offering to rent farmland for peculiar rates, both high and low.
Both companies have denied any wrongdoing and non-voluntary data sharing. But whether this is the case or not, the issue has prompted some farmers to abandon the tech platform altogether – regardless of the value it brought.
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A strategy to improve data ownership clarity involves thinking about governance rather than the definition of ownership. Saying “you own the data,” say Marquis and Duncan, can mean almost nothing if company practices (e.g. whether data is provided in a useable way) are not clear. But good data governance supports mutual agreement by making what the company is doing clear to the farmer.
Making clear one’s intentions could also help improve the ROI of a given technology. Indeed, Marquis and Duncan say many thus far involved farmers in their study have indicated they would be willing to give up ownership of their data if they were compensated for it (like a commodity). This could take the form of cash for data, or even free access to a given piece of software.
Companies can also get certified by Ag-Data Transparent – a non-profit originating in the United States that audits the transparency policies and contracts of technology providers. This option has been adopted by some companies in Canada, says Marquis. However, she adds many more have said they support the initiative, though have not taken steps to be certified in any way.
Another possibility is to set up “data co-ops,” where member farmers pool their data to gain business insights. This, say Marquis and Duncan, is an option being explored by several groups, including Grower’s Information Services Co-op in the United States.