Digging data to secure our food supply

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By Anahita Poonegar


In 1970, Norman Borlaug got the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in increasing the global food supply. By introducing high-yielding varieties of wheat, disease-resistant crops, and modern agricultural techniques in Mexico, India and Pakistan, in what was called the Green Revolution, Borlaug became “The Man who saved a billion lives”.

Decades later, we are in the throes of another food crisis, caused by unsustainable agricultural practices and a rapidly growing population, partially a result of the Green Revolution. By 2050, our demand for food will double as the human population approaches 9 billion people. To further complicate matters, we are constrained by intractable problems like global climate change, air and water pollution, falling water tables and melting ice caps, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. Just as we did in the 70s and in similar crunches, we are hopexsful that that a technological fix will save our world. The Internet of Things (IoT), and its associated heaps of “Big Data”, can drive the Green Revolution of our day by transforming agriculture to improve food and water security. Satellite imaging and GPS-type technologies have been around for a long time, collecting global data on atmospheric patterns, precipitation, ocean currents, etc. In an IoT age, drones and sensors monitor and collect detailed data during the entire food value chain – from production to distribution and everything in between. Overlaying and analysing data from the different sets provides the knowledge needed to create new opportunities to increase food production without compromising limited water resources.

Does Big Data have big benefits?

Today, wireless sensors embedded in the ground, in irrigation systems, tractors, buoys, etc., can send detailed information on things like soil condition, plant growth, and ocean currents. In an interesting post on the Water and Food Security conference, Christopher Neale outlines 8 Ways Big Data Helps Improve Water and Food Security by analyzing imaging, sensor and other data on developing better forecasting and risk-management tools for farmers and governments to better manage water resources.

Governments are already leading the charge. The Indian government’s recently launched KISAN project which uses geo-informatics with high-resolution data from UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) imaging to assess real-time data on hailstorms to measure crop loss in affected areas, run effective crop insurance schemes, and disburse compensation to farmers. The Dutch government uses satellite data to warn against rodent infestations; Colombian farmers and American policymakers forecast water requirements against reserves for usage optimization.

Data beyond Agriculture

Agriculture is just the beginning of the food security equation. Once food is produced, there is a whole food value chain from harvesting to packaging to distribution to consumption, and unfortunately in too many cases, disposal. Here too, computing costs have dropped to the point where technology can track data through the post-production value chain.

Ensuring Broad Reach of Data

These are only a few ways in which Big Data can help improve food security. To make this a reality, actors need access to the broadest amount of relevant data possible. Despite an accelerating trend in data volume, vast repositories of data are not readily accessible. Finding, formatting, aggregating and processing diverse types of information remain a significant challenge, in particular if the required data is distributed across multiple agencies. Services should be provided to the user on demand, regardless of geographic or organizational separation of provider and consumer, and without regard to the physical system on which the data, software, or computing reside.

To be effective, data sets need to be indexed and distributed. Only once the world’s earth and environmental data is indexed, can the scientific and private sectors benefit from the cumulative value of multi domain data and make sustainable decisions in earth observation, agriculture and marine ecosystems, energy production and consumption, logistics and transportation, manufacturing and communications in the food ecosystem. Intertrust partner Planet OS is building a search engine to index large-scale earth observation data drawn from increasing amounts of smart instrumentation deployed in the atmosphere, oceans, seas, on land, and in space. This new platform will bring vast amounts of new information to the fingertips of the world’s governments, private enterprises, researchers, students, and anyone else searching for data.

Open and Managed Data

Open data advocates promote opening up data and encourage organizations around the world to turn this data into open services to offer useful, evidence-based advice to farmers and others. Any data and content that can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose is defined as open data. An open data platform includes a scalable cloud infrastructure, powerful programmable interfaces, interactive tools that streamline user experiences, automated data flows and an advanced database that complements core data acquisition systems. The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (Godan) initiative backed by the G8 countries, and 120 governments and organizations has adopted open data, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Defra) which has already released 8,000 data sets.

Governments can enable the private sector to develop and operate open data platforms, while keeping their role as data stewards. Multiple vendors can be empowered and incentivized to ensure open access to computing infrastructure and data to third parties independently from the government curated data. Marinexplore.org, a project driven by PlanetOS is an example of a global partner network of 33 institutions both government and private, offering fast access to a rich directory of well­organized environmental data from 43,000+ data streams.

Yet, it is clear that government-supplied open data can only provide a subset of the data needed for truly effective food security big data applications. The private sector is an important data source as well. As this article discusses, already in the US farmers are raising privacy, security and competitive issues around the sharing of their data. From data on a farm’s operation, a neighbor or competitor can surmise where the crops are distributed, their yield, costs, and profits. MARS produces data using open data approach (all good). But it can be enhanced using trusted sharing of more private sources from farmers.

At Intertrust, we suggest managed data, as 1 solution to increasing the amount of useful data available to big data sets. Managed data is an umbrella term for technology that respects the the rights of all the rights holders of the data; these include the rights to remain anonymous, to negotiate the terms under which private data are used, and to withdraw information from a data set. For reasons of expediency these issues are often ignored or traded away. Technical solutions exist that allow the parties that rely on big data collected from individuals to solicit their consent and enforce that it is used as intended. Intertrust is developing this technology in its  Genecloud subsidiary, which does just this for very sensitive genetic data.

Data Privacy and Governance are Fundamental

Big Data technologies used in food security will fundamentally change society and usher in innovations. In the rush to adopt these technologies, however, we must be cognizant of their effects on individual privacy, including the farmers and workers in the food ecosystem. Technologies for managing data while protecting privacy and other data rights already exist, and need not interfere with the analysis and sharing of big data. Indeed, the presence of rights guarantees should actually increase data sharing by mitigating many of the most serious risks.

Unprecedented access to data is transforming the food ecosystem. individual and collective privacy concerns, opening up completely new venues for businesses. International agreements in cross­cutting concerns like individual privacy and use of data for profit will ensure prosperity in a global competitive landscape. We need to open up data so farmers can be more efficient and get the biggest yields possible and use the least amount of agrochemicals because we’ve got to have this new data-driven revolution in agriculture without any detriment to the environment.

We need to make as much data as possible accessible so the food ecosystem can be made as efficient as possible while keeping the environmental impact as low as possible. Responsible organizations must have complete sets of data available to make truly useful services. Ensuring that data is handled with appropriate concern for privacy and other rights of the data holders will be an important factor in making this happen.

Company Description


California-based Intertrust Technologies is a private company focused on technologies for managing rights and preserving privacy in the analysis of big data. The company is engaged in a number of technical initiatives in various application areas – including privacy-based information management systems for human genomics and personalized medicine, home automation monitoring data, automotive data, and others —in which analytics from multiple parties are essential for improving quality of life, but also where compromising sensitive data can cause great harm.

Our activities have stimulated reflection on new frontiers in the legal, social, and economic aspects of personal and sensitive data, where we explore ways to define the behaviour and obligations of a new Trusted Intermediary or Personal Data Fiduciary concept. We examine how to provide consumers with greater abilities to manage their personal data, to efficiently extract value from it, and to rebalance the power between consumers and commercial entities.

Research in this project builds on work in trusted distributed computing, cryptography, policy management, information flow control, bioinformatics, and many other disciplines. We have extensive experience in establishing standards for content protection, and have contributed to and co-founded several international standards bodies. Finally, we also make strategic investments in “big data” companies that provide data governance and trusted intermediary services.


Planet OS is a data discovery engine for sensor and machine data. Our mission is to index the real world ­ data on oceans, land, air and space coming from sensors and robotic devices. Offshore oil & gas companies and governments are able to implement Planet OS to index, discover and make sense of their growing sensor data using a hybrid cloud and on­premise approach. Planet OS contextualizes, visualizes, analyzes and fuses datasets, making the data universally accessible with external APIs.

Planet OS as a company has amassed unique experience in developing and operating Marinexplore.org, a global data initiative since July 2012. The company’s experience in successfully operating the initiative with more than 7,500 participants.

Join us at the Future of Food Symposium

From 21 – 22 October 2015, Intertrust and PlanetOS will participate in The future of food – the future of biodiversity? Leading voices from farmers’ groups, food suppliers, major retailers, conservationists, scientists, NGOs and policy-makers will come together to debate sustainable solutions to the growing challenge of balancing food security and environmental protection.


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