US Agricultural Data Transparency Certification Update

The prevalence of “Internet of Things” (IoT) technologies in agriculture over recent years has inevitably led to an increase of farm data collection, with ag-tech companies vying to service customers, and by extension harvest the accompanying data. Development of increasingly advanced sensor technologies, as well as an increase in Internet bandwidth speeds, has helped support this growth. Despite the value of aggregated farm data becoming increasingly apparent, agricultural data use and collection remains largely unregulated.

Questions are increasingly being raised over who controls, owns and benefits from the value of data; as well as accompanying ethical and legal questions related to privacy, accuracy and accessibility. In turn, this has led to concerns around the rise of digital monopolies caused by acquisitions and consolidation, and the power imbalance and data asymmetry that this might create. Not to mention the resulting impact on global society, food security and the livelihoods of small scale farmers.

Understanding the importance of better regulation in agricultural data, especially in developing economies where smallholder farmers make up around 80% of the agricultural sector, GODAN developed the Agricultural Data Codes of Conduct Toolkit. Its purpose is to provide a guide to data management best practice at all levels of the agricultural data value chain. The Toolkit provides a template on which to build a general, scalable set of guidelines for anyone dealing with data in the agricultural sector. 

Farmers and agri-businesses are more than willing to share data and openly engage in the process if the potential benefits and risks are made clearly settled and formalised through  contractual agreements. To build trust in ag data sharing, farmers need to be empowered with tools and knowledge. Codes of conduct can help build trust. Although voluntary and not legally binding, codes of conduct help build awareness around data use and sharing and the importance of transparency in agricultural data flows, while changing the way agribusinesses view data, and make data producers – primarily farmers – more aware of their rights.

As a world leader in science and technology, the United States are somewhat ahead of the curve. In 2014, the US American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), became increasingly aware of rising concern among its members around the growing quantity of agricultural technology and data platforms. This resulted in many pertinent questions being raised: “What would happen to ag data once provided to these platforms? Would the tech providers use this data for their own purposes? Could the farmer ever get this data back?”

Acting on the growing concern the AFBF, in consultation with commodity groups, farm organisations, and ag tech providers developed the Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data (or “Principles for Farm Data”). 

In an effort to ensure agricultural data collected by the burgeoning agtech industry was not misused, a total of thirteen core principles were set out around consent and disclosure. These voluntary Principles for Farm Data provided ag-data platforms and tech providers (ATPs) with guidelines for development of both products and contracts in the agtech space.

In 2016, backed by a consortium of farm industry groups, the Principles were developed further resulting in the creation of the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator. The tool is designed to help farmers understand how their data will be collected and used by ATPs supplying precision agriculture products. In return for the “Ag Data Transparent” seal of approval, ATPs are required to voluntarily submit contracts to a simple evaluation. Answers are then independently reviewed (by Janzen Agricultural Law LLC) and posted publicly on the Ag Data Transparent Web site.

The adoption of the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator has heralded a gradual change of mindset. On one hand, ag tech providers are now more sensitive to the need to be (and the benefits of being) more responsible in their data management practices; while on the other, farmers are becoming increasingly aware of their individual rights around data privacy, consent and ownership. This shift in mentality highlighted the need to further strengthen these informal codes of conduct. 

Five years on and the Ag Data Transparent accreditation and evaluation process has been updated to reflect the growing awareness of the need for data rights that protect the individual. Tech providers seeking accreditation now need to answer eleven new and updated questions about how they collect, use, share, and safeguard farmers' data. The updates contain precisions such as the types of data, or the nature of the data user. The issue of user data ownership and consent, including whether a user can opt out, is also explored; and the practice of companies selling data to third parties is also taken into consideration. 

Below are the updated questions:

  1. Who is the tech provider? What products, platform, or services within the tech company are certifying as Ag Data Transparent? Who are the primary users of the product, platform, or services? 
  2. What categories of data does the data platform collect? 
  3. Do the tech company’s agreements with the user address ownership of user data? 
  4. Does the tech company allow the user to opt out of inclusion in anonymized and aggregated datasets that are accessible by other users? 
  5. Does the tech company require outside contractors that have access to user data to follow the tech company’s data policies? 
  6. Does the tech company obtain a user’s consent before sharing user data with third parties?
  7. By signing up, does the user give the tech company the right to sell aggregated data to third parties without obtaining further consent?
  8. Does the tech company maintain an original copy of user data that can be retrieved or deleted upon a user’s request? 
  9. Will the tech company notify the user if a breach of data security causes disclosure of the user’s data to an outside party?
  10. Will the tech company notify the user when data agreements are changed and summarize how the agreements were changed?
  11. Do the tech company’s data agreements address what happens to user data if the tech provider is sold to another company?

Of course, for a code to be effective it  should achieve broad adoption, making a measurable impact on the behaviour of its members, and should align with existing legislation - particularly privacy and consumer laws. Independent data certification schemes have the power to develop transparency and trust around data uses, while raising awareness of the challenges that lack of formal legislation pose. 

Highlighting the benefits of such accreditation to participants: Increased sales and profits for companies, and increased trust for the farmers; is key.