3 challenges in the digital era

There are two sides to every coin: with the many benefits that digital technologies bring about, come problems such as digital exclusion, data colonisation, and questions about privacy. We ask ourselves: how can farmers be put in the centre of data collection in agriculture and make sure they are not exploited in the process?

With digital technology becoming ever more ingrained in our lives, data has become a currency with which we often pay to use online services. Data is the new ‘hot’ commodity as the collection of data allows organisations to address problems and needs, and tailor their services to these.

Farming has not been spared by the technological revolution. Already in 2019, at least 390 digital solutions for smart farming were actively being used across the African continent, according to a report by CTA. With new knowledge, better systems are developed that increase productivity and efficiency with the hope of increasing yields and thus, for any well-meaning tech-developers, incomes. For the constant strive for improvement, data is collected. Digital agricultural services collect data that serves many purposes, one of which is transactional data, valuable to all parties involved as it increases transparency in the supply chain.

But we should take the spurt of data collection in agriculure with a pinch of salt, as it isn’t entirely without risks and dangers (or something like this). We explore the three most pressing hazards of the digital age:

Issue 1: Exclusion – Putting Women at a Disadvantage  

With mobile networks expanding, it is ever more important that rural smallholder farmers are not left out so that they are able to keep up with developments in the industry. Luckily, the numbers of mobile ownership are increasing worldwide. In emerging economies, this might not always include smartphones, but about 83% of adults report having a mobile phone. However, there are still a number of people who lack the access. A common hurdle they may face is the financial capacity to purchase a phone.

This just so happens to be an even bigger problem for women. A recent GSMA report puts a spotlight on a reality that the world is only just starting to wake up to: the mobile gender gap. Pakistan, the report states, has the highest mobile gender gap, followed by Senegal, of the 15 countries included in the previous survey. Only 50% of women in Pakistan report owning a phone, compared to 81% of men. The main barrier is family disapproval, but factors such as literacy skills, affordability, and lack of access to finance only add to the difficulty for women to access and use a phone. 

Looking at our own field of work, this inevitably puts female farmers at a disadvantage to male farmers. Mobile phones with internet access allow farmers to keep up with developments in the industry, gather advice and insight into price changes and new farming practices, which allows them to increase efficiency and productivity and therefore, remain competitive. Additionally, climate change and requirements for sustainable farming practices increase the need for farmers to adapt their practice. With women not having as much access and use of mobile phones, they are at a great disadvantage to their male competitors. This information can also be accessed through traditional services; however, these are limited in physical outreach and remote areas are often left behind.  

There’s more to female exclusion than meets the eye. If women are underrepresented in the data, the services provided may not address their needs, subsequently making it unlikely for them to use it when they do gain access. A downward spiral, you may say. This is because digital services are often based on a 2-way learning system. Just as farmers can gain information and connections, organisations learn about farmers’ priorities, solutions, and what questions farmers need answers to, as well as gain feedback on what works and what doesn’t. A data gap may inhibit female farmers to take part in discussions about best farming practices and share their knowledge and provide information that lets services tailor their technologies to the needs of all farmers.

These global flows of data are as expansive as historic colonialism’s appropriation of land, resources, and bodies…
Nick Couldry Professor, LSE

Issue 2: Data colonisation – Imbalanced Power Dynamics

Often compared to oil or gold, data is of great value. Personal and transactional data can reveal a lot about trends, behaviour, needs and wants. That is what makes it so valuable. However, data colonisation is an issue that we cannot ignore. The organisations gathering data from farmers are often big corporations that take what they need for their own good. Rural farmers may not be aware of how valuable their data can be and might willingly or unknowingly give their data away freely. 

But it is not just the taking, it is also the keeping, or owning of data that brings about the term ‘colonialism’. It is usually the agri-businesses or platforms that own the data. Stored in data centers that are mostly located in Europe and the US, developing countries are often where most data is collected. At the Osaka summit in 2019, there had been a push for these countries to claim back their data with local data centres, allowing them to be part of the digital economy. The discussion of data governance is expected to continue at the G7 Summit in June.

Developments in this area seem to be relatively slow. Only adding to the theme of exploitation is the problem of awareness and informed consent from the more vulnerable. Although service providers seek consent from farmers, the question is how informed farmers are to what they are consenting to and if they are properly reimbursed for practically handing over ownership of their data. This introduces a power imbalance in the data transaction.

When collecting data, the focus should be on collaboration rather than establishing power dynamics. By making the process transparent and giving the farmer control over their data (self-sovereign identity), the farmer is being included in the process. By being made aware, not only how data collection can bring benefits to the farmers themselves, but also of the value of their data and highlighting that data can become an additional product they produce, data collection can become a fairer and more inclusive practice.

Issue 3: Privacy – In Need of Fair Data

Data colonisation calls for more transparent and open data systems. This however raises questions about privacy. 

Issues of privacy keep being raised in discussions on fair data. Whilst around 90% of European and American countries have established legislation on data protection, in emerging economies these regulations are still lacking. FAIR protocols ensure that data is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. However, they are incomplete in addressing issues of privacy, consent, and control. Hugh Williamson, research fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences at the University of Exeter, asks that CARE principles (collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility, and ethics) are also considered when designing data management systems and legislation. “What these [principles] allow is the development of tools that can ensure that data management and use really address privacy, consent, control, major implications for data management for communities around the world”, so Williamson. 

Data collection in agriculture

To ensure fair and open data that is readily accessible, clear protocols need to be established and used when collecting and managing data. Although there are agriculture-specific codes of conduct on data protection, Foteini Zampati, Data Privacy Expert at KTBL, suggests that farmers are included in the code of conduct decision process. This is how they will be able to be made aware of their rights, give informed consent on their data management and use, as well as establishing trust between agri-businesses and farmers. 

Data sharing is another challenge identified by a GSMA report from 2019. Whilst it has been criticised that only few companies own and tend to not share data, the sharing of data raises issues of privacy and security. Well-established data coalitions could be the answer to allow an effective and secure way of working together with sharing data. But bringing back the focus to the farmer, data on transactions, for example, lets the farmer build up an accessible record and makes it easier to receive loans. This should really be a main focus; how the collection of data can directly benefit the farmer.

Now, after such a realistic look at the current challenges in digitalisation, we don’t want to end on a sour note. But more importantly, make sure we are not swept away by the big shiny claims of big data organisations and encourage keeping in mind the rights of the farmers, who should be the ones benefiting the most from the collection of their data. After all, we mostly see how the digital era offers opportunities to finally make fair value distribution a reality.

Good news is, Brazil, South Africa, and India, amongst others, are making moves on building a ‘digital sovereignty’. Having realised the exploitative nature of big data firms, they are keen to take over control. This has also brought forward advances on building data protection frameworks. Meanwhile, mobile networks continue to expand, and organisations are trying to specifically target female farmers in rural areas with the hope of making digital services more accessible and inclusive. Things are looking up, but striving for constant improvement is necessary.

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