Exploring How Open Data May Be Used in Agriculture & Climate Change

Elpidio V. Peria
11 September 2016


Thailand’s E-Government Agency (EGA), a public attached to the Ministry of Information & Communications Technology, recently organized the one-day Asian Open Data Summit 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand last 7 September 2016 where BITS Policy Center, Inc. was asked by our own Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to fill in the slot given to the Philippines so that the Philippines as a country through the perspective of its key sectors, in this case, the experiences and policy know-how of the Center, may give its own views on the topic of open data as it applies to agriculture and climate change.

The keynote speech of the event was delivered by Dr. Uttama Savanayana, Minister of Information and Communication Technology of Thailand and he opened by saying that Thailand’s goal is that by 2020, all sectors will be connected by devices, convergence of all information and communications technologies will happen and the Thai Government is currently working on infrastructure improvement, appropriate regulations and on open source data.

In the improvement of infrastructure framework for Thailand, they are focusing on enhancing accessibility and availability such that any Thai can have access to high-speed broadband framework and this leads to the second track of the Master Plan which is aimed at helping digital economy work for social sectors, particularly in future issues like an ageing society and the support to small and medium enterprises; the third track is on the promotion of e-commerce and the fourth track is the governmental aspect of the work of which the EGA is taking the lead and this is where open source data, smart data analytics are being used so that open source data is leveraged to promote innovation across sectors; the fifth track of the master plan is the promotion of human resources and sixth is the development of the regulatory environment.

But, what is open data, the subject matter of the Summit?

From the discussions and presentations of the various panels in the Summit, it is the data that is provided by the government free of charge through its various information channels and networks especially through the internet; it is voluminous in character that is why it is important that analytics tools be applied on the data to discern the various trends and patterns in the data; it is open to be accessed by anyone subject only to the requirement that the user of the data acknowledge the source which may either be the agency that generated the data in the first place or any other entity that produced the data.

Open data is a subset of the broader Open Government initiative of which the Philippines and Indonesia are two of the countries that started it back in 2011.

The point of making the data open is to make the data available to any third party who may develop products and services out of the data.

One example cited in the presentations is Taiwan’s public utility agency that provided information on all public parking spaces in key urban areas in Taiwan and one developer came up with a smartphone app where users can know at which particular times there are available parking spaces in identified urban areas in Taiwan.

Another example presented is from Japan where a public utility bus service was able to track which passengers congregate in which bus pick up points such that the bus service was able to change its routes at designated times to go immediately to the areas where the passengers are congregating.

In Indonesia, open data was used such that civil society organizations can know the transactions of certain government entities and double check them for veracity, like there was one local government council which purportedly purchased certain supplies for a certain school and an NGO checked and found out that it was merely a ghost purchase, it did not happen in real life and so the officials were reported to the authorities for their corrupt activities.

These examples were from other panels that tackled Open Data and the Digital Economy and another on The Future of Open Government Partnership in Asia Pacific.

Going back to the panel on agriculture and climate change, the moderator Mr. Klaikong Vaidhayakarn, the Director of Social Technology Institute, Change Fusion, an organization devoted to open data issues in Thailand asked the participants to discuss how open data will benefit the farmer in coping with the challenges of climate change.

First to speak was Dr. Beth A. Plale, Professor of Computer Science in the School of Informatics and Computing , Indiana University Bloomington USA. She talked about an emerging research data alliance, a community of practice around open data that is currently working on the various applications of open data. She said that climate change and agriculture is one area that the community has not yet touched but it may be useful later that the group will look into it.

Next to speak is Mr. Trevor Cook, a representative from a big sugar producing company in Thailand, the Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation, Thailand. He showed how the company is using big data to monitor in real-time the changes in the field and make decisions based on those changes. They can see already the impacts of climate change in their production schedules and big data enables them to make adjustments in their operations.

Dr. Peng Chi Ming of Open Data Alliance Taiwan talked about the various open data initiatives started by their government in relation to agriculture but for now most of the big data available is on meteorological data and open data helps a lot in making their climate and weather forecasting models accurate and reliable.

Ping Peria of BITS Policy Center talked about how open data started in Philippine government operations in 2011 when the country joined the Open Government Partnership along with several countries and later Joint Memorandum Circular 2015-01 was issued mandating each government agency to come up with their open data policy and procedures on how they may be accessed.

The agencies that were surveyed for their open data policy were the Department of Agriculture and the Climate Change Commission and they mainly said that they are still working on such policy.

Just the same, there are already information systems dealing with agriculture and climate change that is being provided by these agencies, like the Department of Agriculture’s Adaptation and Mitigation Initiative in Agriculture (AMIA) where various decision-making tools like AMIA maps (hazard maps at the level of provinces that contain information on the various weather parameters and other information needed to make decisions on what to plant on a particular weather on what day), and other expert systems for planting corn and they are also working on other crops all aimed at enabling the farmer cope with the challenges of dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Also mentioned in the presentation is University of the Philippines’ Los Baños’s initiative, the SARAI project or Smarter Approaches to Reinvigorate Agriculture as an Industry in the Philippines where farmer groups and also local government units may avail of technical knowhow that is provided through the platform, which may be web-based and may also be made available through customized arrangements with scientist-groups that are organized by the project. Again, when we asked Dr. Vicky Espaldon, the project conceptualizer and leader, the matter of open data is something that their steering committee is still mulling over.

Why is open data not yet applied in Philippine agriculture and climate change so that interested farmers and their organizations may already avail of it?

The answer is that the government agencies concerned are still working out the principles and modes of operation on how accessibility and other concerns may be provided to the user. It may also be that there are other issues that are being resolved, among which are the other legal frameworks, like intellectual property or contractual arrangements, that apply on the data concerned.

BITS Policy Center mentioned in its presentation a study it made in 2011 of the PRECIS open source weather forecasting and modeling software that the UK Meteorological Office provided to the Philippine weather agency, the PAGASA. A closer check with the open source principles on which the open source software was based showed that it did not fully comply with open source principles and parameters, but when a closer scrutiny of the arrangement between the UK Met office and PAGASA was requested, like a copy of the agreement between the two agencies, such request was denied because of the agreement between the two agencies. Such was an example of the ways how contractual arrangement may restrict the openness of the transaction, which would have allowed for studies that might have yielded lessons on how such arrangements may be further improved, to the benefit of the two agencies.

Among other challenges in open data in agriculture and climate change in the Philippines is the widespread poverty of farmers spread out in various areas over the Philippine archipelago, this was pointed out by an Indonesian electronics engineer that such kind of geophysical constraint really makes open data use difficult; this is in addition to the fact that very few can afford smartphones and get internet access and there is this problem of slow internet speeds which deters any enterprising group to focus on developing applications for these types of open data.

Looking far ahead, with the impending entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change this year or next year, the transparency requirements that Parties to the agreement may have to take up at the national level and implement may require open data principles and mechanisms.

Open data may also be important to engage the public and make them conscious of what they are emitting at the individual or household level. Open data may help the public and those that are not usually monitoring the issue to be more engaged with the processes of compliance with the Philippine commitments to the international agreement as the people will now have real-time sense of how these emissions are happening, it also gives a clearer appreciation of how companies and entities comply with whatever GHG emissions cuts that the Philippines may carry out in pursuit of its nationally determined contribution to the international instrument.

These benefits are in addition to enabling the farmer make adjustments to cropping decisions based on information that open data may provide the farmer.

Open data is a novel policy area in the Philippine setting which will impact on many other developmental issues of concern to the country. Maybe the new agency, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) may want to look into this area closely and develop a work program so that open data becomes the norm in Philippine agriculture as it copes with the challenges of climate change. The issue of climate change is important, any help that can be secured from other areas not usually associated with climate change, like open data, would be welcome.


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