Purdue University researchers are leading an effort to develop a nationwide, unified system for storing and making available to the public the abundance of research data that could help the agricultural industry and policymakers not only now but also many years in the future.
Sylvie Brouder, a professor of agronomy, and five other Purdue agricultural and library sciences faculty and staff members organized a meeting in Potomac, Md., Oct. 10-11 to identify concrete steps for developing an online system for open-access agricultural data.
The Smarter Agriculture workshop was held in the Washington, D.C., suburb in part to involve federal agencies. The Obama administration has mandated that the direct results of federally funded scientific research be made available to the public digitally. That would promote greater and easier access to data that could be used to help drive innovative breakthroughs in areas including health, energy, the environment, national security and agriculture.
The workshop attracted scientists, librarians, modelers, educators, publishers, leaders of professional societies and partners from the private sector. Program managers of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which provided a grant that funded the conference, were unable to attend because of the government shutdown. Participants focused on identifying the key challenges and opportunities from their perspectives.
"The workshop format was designed to brainstorm, identify and foster beneficial linkages toward the broad goal of developing a functional data infrastructure for agriculture," Brouder said. "We want to make research data useful to the agricultural community and policymakers. This infrastructure is critically necessary."
Open access to agricultural data also could be used in education to help graduate students better interpret and present data, Brouder said.
Brouder likened the need for greater access to agricultural research data to how the medical profession has used findings from numerous studies conducted over many years to help people determine whether and when they should be screened for breast cancer and prostate cancer. She said data from her research on crop nitrogen responses could be repurposed to enable modelers to project how nitrogen applications would affect the environment of an entire watershed without conducting a full series of their own field experiments.
"The theory is that my data is more useful in aggregate with your data rather than as stand-alone," Brouder said. "Traditionally, data in agricultural research have no purpose beyond the current research. But it really does have value beyond that one experiment."
She also said the agriculture industry today would know much more about carbon loss from soil if data from experiments decades ago had been preserved.
"If we had kept certain benchmark pieces of data, we would have had that historical data context in which to conduct our experiments today," she said.
There are many issues to resolve, such as determining ownership of the information and where it would be stored - with so much data to preserve, multiple sites most likely would be needed - and developing a "common language" for data. Brouder noted that even a seemingly simple term as "yield" would need precise definition so the data could be analyzed correctly. Farmers, she explained, typically refer to corn yield with the grain having 15.5 percent moisture content, while modelers predicting global yields perform their calculations presuming grain contains no moisture.
"If we are going to move to open-access data in a meaningful way, we need to label the data in a meaningful, standardized way," she said.
A statement on the challenges and opportunities from the perspectives of workshop participants is being composed. It will help with the development of data infrastructure for the Purdue College of Agriculture's plant sciences initiative, announced in September, as well as ongoing initiatives nationwide.
More information from the workshop is available on the Smarter Agriculture website at https://ag.purdue.edu/arp/Pages/smarteragriculture.aspx.