I was reading an article today in the NY Times about data driven farming. Being myself an entrepreneur who has made a livelihood in IT and data driven information systems I was of course interested in this article.
And I was then disappointed in this article.
First, data has been important to farmers since the first person plowed the first field somewhere in Mesopotamia 8,000 years ago. There is nothing new here. Farmers love data. The ancients built many astronomical monitoring systems for monitoring and data collection, no doubt for the importance of understanding seasonal changes for agriculture. After all, for millennium, if you could not predict the seasonal effects on your crops and production you increased your chances of dieing of starvation. So there was as important need to collect and manage such data (to the point of making it a religious issue in some cultures). The main difference today being that if you use an analog tool the NSA has no clue you are checking the local weather pattern.
Second, aside from its bias toward large scale agribusiness farms (20,000 acres is a large scale agribusiness by any definition even if it is “family owned”) the NY Times article was clearly also over oriented towards one type of data: digital.
This is of course an example of the “data generation” belief and impression that all data is digital. This is simply a flawed premise.
Data and information, in its truest form and definition, is much more simple. That is data and information can come from any number of sources, and be stored in any number of media.
Digital data, in a very simplistic definition, is simply data that is more easily accessible and scalable for a wider audience. Which is not always desirable.
What I mean by scalable is as follows:
If I record in a ledger book, using a pencil, that 2.5 cm (1 inch) of rain fell on my vineyard yesterday that is both data and information. But such data as recorded is analog. It is written in pencil, on paper, and only accessible by me. To be scalable the data needs to be assessable by others. The data only becomes scalable if someone looks at my ledger (if I allow them). Digital data is ideally scalable to a wider range of people as it can be easily accessed and available to a wide range of different people.
The design (and maybe the problem) of digital data today is to allow so called “free” services to collect and mange personal data. But this is not really a “free” service, especially in farming since as the NY Times article correctly states: “Your neighbor is also your competitor.” And what business wants your competitor to maybe have access to your data….. (and despite “promises” by corporations or services that store your digital data, your digital data is always under threat to be hacked, accessed, or made public).
Nor does that mean that digital information is inherently better than analog information. The real value of digital data to a business is the real time accessibility and summaries of the data relevant to that business. But digital information is actually more valued to those that store and aggregate such data than it ever is to any one business.
Thus the issue is again one of scale. Having 20,000 acres one may of course need data summarized and having data in a digital form is of great value for managers and decision makers for that business.
But for smaller businesses, having skills at reading a screen is not really relevant if you are also skilled at reading an analog instrument. And despite the “doom and gloom” statements at the NY Times article, which was really about large agribusiness concentrating mostly (it appears) on pig food, small farmers have nothing to fear from embracing technology where appropriate or continuing to use the “old school methods” if those work for them.
For example take this “will it rain” measurements from both an analog barometer and a web based weather widget I made earlier this year. The analog barometer shows a decline in pressure (note the black dial is less than the previous gold settings) which indicates rain is coming
And the weather widget, collecting and summarizing data from many monitoring stations, also shows it will rain.
What a surprise. Both tools give the same type of information. After all, they should.
Conclusion: Data is data. The NY Times just discovered that fact.