Data Biz, Government

USDA Open Data, Climate Change and Food Supply

0 Comments22 August 2014

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Dr.Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA

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 This blog post originally appeared on the GovLab’s blog at TheGovLab.org

In March the White House launched the Climate Data Initiative, which it described as “an ambitious new effort bringing together extensive open government data” with other resources “to develop data-driven planning and resilience tools for local communities.” With increasing climate risk from drought, floods, and extreme weather events, the initiative is designed to harness one of the government’s most important resources – open data – to help communities around the country predict the risks they face, prepare for them, and adapt. Crop, weather, soil, and other kinds of USDA data can help both large and small farms if it’s readily available to them and they know how to use it.

On August 1, the GovLab, where I serve as senior advisor, held an Open Data Roundtable with the USDA to focus on a specific climate risk – the risk to the food supply. The event came at the end of a week of events organized by the White House to help build “food resilience.”  Like the Roundtable we hosted with the White House and the Department of Commerce in June, this event was designed to promote a dialogue between government agencies that supply data and the companies and organizations that use it. The ultimate goal of all our Roundtables is to make open government data more relevant, accessible, and actionable. The Open Data Roundtable series is a project of the Open Data 500 study, which I direct at the GovLab.

The event combined presentations from several government officials with breakout sessions that brought the public and private sectors together for an action-oriented discussion. We heard presentations from Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area and the Department’s Chief Scientist; Dr. Ann Bartuska, Deputy Under Secretary for REE; Cheryl Cook, Chief Information Officer of the USDA; and Erie Meyer, Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Companies including Amazon, Climate Corporation, Esri, and IBM have made commitments to food resilience.

Several companies came to the Roundtable having already made commitments to support food resilience through the Climate Data Initiative. In the days before our event, the White House announced that Amazon Web Services, the Climate Corporation, Esri, and IBM, among other companies, have committed to launch research programs, offer free online and mobile services and computing capacity, and help release new data relating to food resilience. At the same time, smaller companies are developing new tools and services to help keep the food supply robust and reliable. For example, FarmLogs helps farmers make more informed decisions about crop management, nutrient management, and soil and water conservation with USDA data.

These companies and about a dozen others that attended the Roundtable bring diverse perspectives to the agricultural, economic, and social challenges of feeding the U.S. and the world despite increasing climate challenges. They are all either current or prospective members of the Open Data 500, our ongoing study, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to research companies that use open government data as a key business resource.

Dr. Catherine Woteki: Collaboration and innovation are essential to a vibrant bioeconomy

Dr. Woteki has stressed the importance of open data to the USDA’s work, and the importance of this Roundtable and further dialogue in applying the data. “Agriculture provides fertile ground for the implementation of open data initiatives,” she said.  “Farmers around the world face a huge challenge to produce more safe and health-promoting food for more people, and to provide the other services expected from agriculture – clean water, renewable energy, and a vibrant bioeconomy. The only way to achieve this is through a solid research base and the type of collaborative work and innovation sharing that the GovLab Roundtables make possible.”

In a blog post last week, Joyce Hunter, Deputy CIO of the USDA and the lead organizer of this roundtable, summarized several of the recommendations that came out of the day’s discussions. Many relate to improving how the USDA develops, manages, and distributes data: fostering more dialogue between data providers and data users; improving data standards; and making it easier to request, find, and use data from USDA. Other ideas include building an app that provides a “real time” data alert system, which could be used during weather crises that affect food production, and ideas for leveraging existing datasets, such as drought monitoring, to help farmers. As part of our process for all the Open Data Roundtables, the GovLab will publish a report on these recommendations and potential next steps in the fall.

Some ideas: Improvements in data management, easier search, uses of drought data, and a real-time alert app

At the GovLab, we hope that our series of Open Data Roundtables will make a significant difference in how government data is accessed and used. The U.S. government has developed many new programs to release more data for public use. The Roundtable series will build on that work to give agencies structured feedback from data users that can help make their data more valuable. The White House recognized the value of our Open Data Roundtables in the U.S. Open Data Action Plan, released on May 9, 2014, which described the Roundtables as helping to “support innovators and improve open data based on feedback.” The Plan notes that “Specific, actionable feedback from these sessions [the Roundtables] and others has the potential to improve descriptions, formats, and accessibility of government data.”

We are now working with several other federal agencies  to plan additional Open Data Roundtables, with the financial help of Series Sponsors Amazon Web Services and PricewaterhouseCoopers. We’re also preparing a public report on the Department of Commerce Roundtable as we follow up on our work with the USDA as well.  We invite you to send us your ideas, comments, and offers to participate at opendata500@thegovlab.org.

-   Joel Gurin, Senior Advisor at the GovLab and Project Director, Open Data 500

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