Over the next year the UK Government Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to make nearly all of its 8,000 data sets about food, farming and the natural environment freely available, creating a wealth of information for the creation of new products and services. However the benefits to the agri-food industry will be limited unless it tackles the challenge of interoperability.
Food production is the ultimate 24/7 industry, where minute adjustments to water, power or agrochemical usage can have a significant impact on profitability.
Julian Scarfe of Innovia Technology, a Cambridge-based breakthrough innovation consultancy, comments: “Sharing data is vital for an effective response to industry challenges, such as the rapid withdrawal of key pesticides and the need for improved prediction and forecasting of supply and demand.
“Although a mass of data is being collected by the agri-food industry – both manually on bits of paper and by sophisticated equipment ranging from combine harvesters to weather stations – there are limited tools available to extract this data and turn it into knowledge, and none of the systems talk to each other.
“The farmer is faced with the situation of being locked into one provider or running multiple software programmes, often on different devices. The result is that the industry is missing the opportunity to gain a ‘big picture’ view, which is limiting its ability to respond to regulatory change and to innovate.
“For an industry such as agri-food, where the growing environment is impacted by highly variable factors and the market for goods is highly volatile, improving access to different data sources is imperative.”
One of the major challenges facing the agri-industry across Europe is the withdrawal of many pesticides that have no substitutes. When a similar problem was faced by the global textile industry, Innovia was asked to help facilitate the development of a solution to the interoperability challenge.
A cross-section of apparel companies had agreed to use self-regulation as an approach to improving the sustainability of the supply chain, particularly with regard to use of dyes. It formed the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) group, which brought together brands from all points of the supply chain, many of whom are arch-rivals on high streets and malls across the world.
ZDHC was tasked with monitoring the use of chemicals and supporting the introduction of best practice. The task was made more difficult by a lack of interoperability between the IT systems, the need for commercial confidentiality and that many of the smaller players were ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses based in rural areas in developing countries.
A number of responses were considered including convergence on a common IT tool, but the differing needs of the players would make consensus for such a tool problematic. Another option was to create a common repository or database, accessible by multiple client IT systems. But this may lock participants into a system run by a single IT provider, with the associated risks.
Scarfe continues: “The loosest and most flexible option was for participants to agree on a common language or schema to describe the data. This allows data collected by different IT systems to be appropriately anonymised and shared with suitable permissions.”
After a series of workshops, ZDHC chose to use a data schema to address its data exchange challenge. The pilots are going well, ZDHC recognises that the wider availability and sharing of data will also support interaction with the wider community.
Graham Storrie of Texology and a board director of ZDHC said: “It is only a matter of time before the apparel supply chain needs to work further upstream and engage with the agritech/farming sector on sustainability issues, for example in the use of pesticides in cotton cultivation. Good data management practices in both industries will help to facilitate that dialogue.”
Scarfe concludes that the same interoperability principles apply: “While an industry-wide body needs to maintain the schema, multiple IT system providers can develop products that use it, promoting a healthy and innovative market for such products.”
The author of this blog is Julian Scarfe of Innovia Technology.
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