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Using 21st Century Technology to Solve Age-Old Problems

Posted by Dr. Catherine Woteki USDA Chief Scientist in Research and Science
Apr 15, 2013

For years, we believed that food was the most powerful commodity to combating food insecurity in the developing world. But with a more intricate challenge than ever before, particularly in the developing world, data and information about food insecurity and agricultural research are proving to be almost as valuable in this fight.

Later this month, here in Washington, the G-8 and World Bank will host agricultural leaders from around the world at the G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture. The two-day event will bring the G-8 together with private and public research entities, as well as with businesses and NGOs who share the same goal: shoring up global food security.

The G-8 committed to this conference and to strengthening the virtual community by sharing data relevant to agriculture because it believes that creating this data “ecosystem” can leverage public research investment from many countries, drive innovation and fuel economic growth.

By leveraging modern data gathering and analysis techniques, we can better understand the intricate nature of food insecurity and other complex challenges – and target our efforts to respond more closely than ever before.

Just as important as the technological advancements themselves, we have also come to recognize that data in isolation are not as powerful as data shared. That is a key lesson scientists across the globe have learned over the years as they increased collaboration to solve ever more challenging problems. Today, more and more people outside the scientific community are beginning to leverage agricultural data to help developing nations.

Never before has the world been able to collect so much data on such a wide range of topics, from weather conditions to crop growth to nutrition. But what truly magnifies the effects of data collection is making that data freely available to the public in useable formats, without restriction or charge for its use by others. This concept is known as “open data.”

Too often in the past, governments that have access to greater data – including the U.S. and U.K. – did not make much data publicly available for outside entities. This has started to change. In fact, government efforts to increase open data have made possible a great deal of important technology – from the Global Positioning System technology used in mobile devices, to real-time weather services.

We are just beginning to understand the incredible potential for open data to help combat food insecurity in the developing world.

For example, in Kenya, a new mobile tool, M-Farm, is helping farmers to receive accurate, real-time crop price information daily from 5 major markets in Kenya: Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Kitale.  It’s easy to see data used in ways that create jobs and supports businesses. Farmers can then make informed decisions on what to plant, when to plant it, when to sell and where to market their crops.

This is just one of the many examples of the power of data when they are multiplied by connection and analysis.  Together, we recognize that there is much more to be done, particularly with regard to assistance in the developing world.

Worldwide movements begin at their own pace and build on a shared recognition of interest. We believe our countries and others have the power within their hands to solve the most crucial challenge facing us today: feeding the world. In Washington, later this month, we will turn good intentions into realities, discovering what 21st century technology can bring to the table.

For more information on the conference, please visit the conference website or email

Category/Topic: Research and Science