Give a Little, Gain a Lot: Data-Sharing Lessons From Covid-19

Farmers are going to receive a growing number of requests to share data from governments and companies, who are increasingly relying on data analysis for policymaking and strategy. Consequently, it is critical farmers and companies think deeply about how to find a pathway of mutual value that will benefit all parties involved. Covid-19 has taught us some important lessons about data sharing and how we can achieve this pathway of mutual value.

Covid-19: A Robust Use Case for Data Sharing

I recently decided to download Australia’s contact tracing app, COVIDSafe, and in doing-so, I handed the Australian government access to the details of my in-person interactions for the purpose of contact tracing. Pressing ‘let COVIDSafe access bluetooth’ and ‘let COVIDSafe access my location’ felt uneasy to say the least. This was a big step for me; I consider myself someone who takes many steps to protect my digital privacy.

From my own experience, together with the 6.6m fellow Australians who have downloaded the app as of mid-July, we can learn two things.

Firstly, Covid-19 has provided a robust use case to demonstrate the potential of new value propositions from data sharing. Advancements in data collection and analytics have delivered insights to governments and companies that were previously unachievable.

Secondly, we have a strong aversion to sharing personal data. Despite the large benefit of downloading the app (i.e. limiting the spread of a highly infectious and deadly virus), only about 40% of smartphone users in Australia have downloaded the app in the two months since its launch. Uptake of apps in other jurisdictions are at similar or lower levels, or have been abandoned altogether.

Further limiting uptake, the COVIDSafe app has been plagued with technical weaknesses. Some users feel they are taking the privacy risk with a reduced chance of receiving value. Both of these factors have contributed to the app falling short of the public’s expectations to date.

Closer to home within agriculture, these lessons present challenges for both companies and farmers. In our recent paper, the Digital Pathway to Power, we outlined our expectation that the future will see existing companies transition to a business model reliant upon absorbing and analyzing high volumes of farmers’ data. Companies are likely to present a weaker value proposition than the example above (i.e. not life and death) with the aim of achieving an uptake much greater than 40%.

Value Can Be Extracted at Multiple Levels

The development of analytical tools has enabled new value propositions to be applied at multiple levels.

From the Societal, Industry, or Company Level…

Advancements in data collection and analysis techniques will enable companies to base operational and strategic decisions on data.

For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Google has collected data about the amount of time users spend at home, at work, and out shopping in order to support government policy decisions (see Figure 1). Similar techniques can help companies gather insights on product performance on-farm (e.g. performance of seed varieties or fertilizers) and logistical efficiency.

Figure 1

…To Specific Personal Circumstances

The COVIDSafe app is one example of data from multiple sources being applied to specific personal circumstances. (i.e. The app on my phone communicates with the app on the smartphones of others, enabling me to be traced if someone I have come in contact with has Covid-19 or vice versa.)

This type of analytics also has great potential on the farm. Companies can support the farmer’s decision-making process by analyzing data from clients across a wide range of geographies rather than farmers making decisions based on their own set of experiences.

For example, if a farmer has a pest invasion that they have not personally encountered before, companies can make recommendations based on data from a wide array of farmers who have successfully combatted the same pest invasion. Platforms may also be able to warn nearby farmers of that invasion.

Three Steps Toward a Pathway of Mutual Value

1. Companies Must Present and Then Deliver Value to Farmers

The mutual value proposition must be clear and outweigh any actual or perceived risk that farmers feel they might take to be involved. This may be in the form of benchmarking, increasing revenue, reducing costs, or reducing operating risk.(The process of comparing personal data to collated, peer-performance data; it identifies areas for improvement. US-based Farmers Business Network (FBN) is one of the best examples of this globally.

Technical issues act as a barrier to reaching potential value, lowering likely uptake.

2. Companies Must Minimize Privacy Risk

Privacy is, and should remain, the leading concern of farmers. Companies should approach any proposition accordingly. There should not be any ambiguity about how the data is being used and how it is being stored. Companies who have an existing strong relationship with clients are best positioned.

3. Farmers Must Assess Each Opportunity on Its Merits

For farmers, the opportunity costs of not engaging in new technologies are rising. In some cases, the value now outweighs the risk. Farmers must assess every opportunity on its merit. This includes value (this will change per farm) and clear assessment of risk.

In the next ten years, we are likely to see some significant changes to the relationship between farmers and farm input companies. This will hold great opportunities for farmers and companies to generate mutual upside. With that in mind, our approach must adjust to ensure we are positioned to extract this value.

As for my own story, despite the issues the COVIDSafe app has experienced, it will continue to stay at home on my phone.

Sometimes we need to give a little to gain a lot.