Go to almost any farm meeting or pick up any farm magazine, and you are likely to hear or read something about big data. As technology has allowed farmers to collect more data about their fields and farming, the issue of who owns that data and who controls it has become a major point of concern. Farm groups are insisting that farmers must be able to own their data and get paid in some form when their data is used. Major equipment manufacturers are supporting the development of industry standards for the collection and use of farm data. But judging from the way the consumer marketplace is handling big data, farmers will soon care less about who sees their data and more about how much they are getting paid.
I have found it a bit ironic that farmers who are worried about the control of their data have iPhones in their pockets. In order to activate your iPhone, you have to agree to a 700 page highly technical and legally binding agreement. Most of us click accept and never give it a second thought. This agreement allows your personal data to be collected, tracked, and sold to a long list of companies. While a substantial chunk of the populace finds all this tracking creepy and invasive, there’s a demographic that collectively shrugs at the notion of being mined for data.
A San Diego company is now offering companies an unprecedented window into the private digital domains of tens of thousands of people who have agreed to let much of what they do on a smartphone, tablet, or PC be tracked for a $100 a month. Luth’s “ZQ Intelligence” service collects and analyzes data from preselected participants’ phones and computers via a virtual private network connection. Data is routed through the company’s servers where it is collected and analyzed for trends. The company doesn’t view the contents of messages, but what it does gather includes is where smartphone users are at any given moment, what websites they are visiting, what queries they are feeding into Google, and how often they check Twitter. The program’s participants are also asked to answer questions about their behavior. Companies who have purchased this data include Subway, Microsoft, Walmart, Nickelodeon, and Netflix.
As many as 20,000 PC users and 6,000 smartphone users are, at any given time, subjecting themselves to such scrutiny in exchange for $100 a month. Meanwhile, many more of us are giving up our information and not getting paid for it. Direct TV has agreed to provide information to both the Republican and Democratic parties so they can target political ads during this upcoming election. There are big bucks and highly sophisticated technology at work here, and all this will soon move into the rapidly developing sector of agricultural data.
While current ag data programs guarantee your data is safe and you are in control of it, this may be an empty promise. Hackers have proven they can break into secure databases, and government agencies have shown they are not above releasing data to outside groups or other government agencies. But if the consumer side is any indication, farmers may soon be willing to share their data given the right incentive. In a survey in April of 1,100 smartphone users by PunchTab, an advertising company, 27 percent of respondents said they would allow themselves to be tracked by retailers on mobile devices as long as they got something in return—such as coupons or sales alerts.
Many farmers are today sharing their data because of the benefits they get back. Yet, once that data is shared, it is almost impossible to control who has it and what they do with it. While big data can provide a lot of benefits to farmers and to agriculture in general, keep in mind that government regulators and activist groups can also use big data to target and regulate agriculture.
By Gary Truitt