University of New England Smart Farm

Pokemon lesson for farming

By Anna Campbell

One of my sons was downloading a game and asked me, ''Should I be worried when they ask me to tick the box to access my data?''.

I explained to him why they wanted his data and what they might do with it and that he had to weigh up the value of that data to him, compared with the value of that game for him.

At that, he shrugged his shoulders and said, ''I want to play the game, so I don't mind if they have my data.'' Simple as that, value proposition sorted.

That was a good example to me about his generation's philosophical approach to data privacy: they will hand information over if there is something in it for them.

And before we throw stones about our youth, it's not so different from those of us who handed over personal information to get Fly Buys cards, knowingly giving supermarkets and other retailers information about our buying habits so we could get some poxy reward every now and then.

Data has become like a currency for companies and the Pokemon GO game is a great example of a product which was valued on the data it generated, rather than sales it created - $US11billion ($NZ15million) was added to the value of Nintendo immediately following its release, yet consumers bought nothing.

A few weeks ago, I visited the University of New England's ''SMART Farm'' in Armidale, Australia. The initiative has been set up by Prof David Lamb, who is an incredibly dynamic and personable physicist.

As you walk into the centre, looking out on the farm, it's like walking into a flight control tower. You're surrounded by screens demonstrating the potential of agricultural data for decision-making.

By tracking animals' movements, we will understand which animals might need health treatments, as animals with high parasite burdens are irritable and move more.

Just one example of a multitude of potential applications which included insights into pasture management, soil fertility, animal performance, animal reproductive status, water status - you name it.

The biggest element that hit home for me, while standing in the ''flight tower'', was the concept of ''crowd-sourcing'' data, exactly as Pokemon GO and Fly Buys have done, for agricultural decision-making. The key for agri-technologists is to develop a product that farmers actually value enough to sign up for and use regularly.

Therein lies our challenge. Our National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme, otherwise known as NAIT, has shown us that unless there is real value for farmers and the application is simple, then farmers will be resentful, and understandably so.

No-one wants compliance for compliance's sake or an overly complex system. I'm thinking NAIT and Pokemon GO are a long way apart.

''Big data'' is a buzz term used widely. What does it mean when applied to agriculture?

As I see it, any one farmer can generate and analyse their own data on any given day of year. When that data becomes aggregated and analysed in comparison with other farmers' data it is more powerful, as a farmer can understand how they compare, essentially benchmarking themselves. This has been done in various shapes or forms for decades.

When the data is used to feed back to the farmer and help with decision-making, with the farmer having had to do very little to generate or enter that data, then we will have hit the big data gold mine... or the agricultural equivalent of Pokemon GO.

Pretty exciting times, for us all, the agri-technologists and the farmers. I need to remind myself to think like my 13-year-old son. It's not about the bells and whistles, it's about developing something that is actually of value to farmers - so simple.

Now let's go out and do it - ideas welcomed!