Setting new standards in agriculture

By on 5 December, 2017

Sensor systems can measure the nitrogen intake of crops which can in turn be used to use fertiliser more efficiently.

This article was originally published in the October/November 2017 issue of Position magazine, by Simon Chester of Open Geospatial Consortium.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations predicts the world population will increase to some 9.7 billion people by 2050. In order to support such a population, the FAO estimates that overall food production will need to increase by 50% from the production levels of 2012. The need for increased production also comes at a time when the changing climate is posing a host of new challenges.

Geospatial technologies have an important role to play in the future of agriculture, as they can provide the information and methods needed to increase the level of food production while ensuring sustainable use of Earth’s natural resources. Already, the farm business, farm supply chain, and public agricultural policies are increasingly relying on quantitative data about crops, soils, water, weather, markets, energy, and biotechnology, across scales reaching far beyond the paddock fence.

Farmers and others involved in the agri-industry, including processors, distributors, retailers, and governments, are using this data to make better decisions. Food safety now requires sharing information about agriculture globally, both with the food industry and with citizens. Relevant, timely data not only informs the business operation, it informs (new) business models, and is essential for ethical, environmental, legislative, and numerous other reasons. Geospatial data is now central to farming.

UAVs can aid in the detection of nitrogen content and fertilizer need in a field through spectral analysis of blue, green, red and near infrared bands.

There is plenty of existing and potential spatial data that could greatly benefit the agri-industry: including weather patterns and history; soil types and condition; water availability; pest infestations; biodiversity; logistics and transport; food consumption patterns; and more. Indeed, many large and small firms are already providing a wide range of agricultural data collection, analysis, and exploitation products and services.

Understandably, this data is created by many different providers working with a wide variety of technologies, which has resulted in it being stored in a variety of formats and encodings. However, for this data to be useful, it needs to be shareable – easily discovered, ingested, integrated, and fully compatible with an analyst’s spatial system of choice.

Currently, the relatively recently ‘spatialised’ agri-industry reflects the IT industry of a few decades ago: independent players are staking out their claims in this ‘wild west’ by creating independent solutions that don’t play well with each other. This means that data relevant to a farm business may be – at best – difficult to integrate into the systems upon which they make their decisions, and – at worst – impossible to. In order to function properly, an efficient and transparent data marketplace requires standards for accurate and straightforward interchange of data between diverse vendor platforms. Thankfully, this is an achievable task.

Standards benefit all

The benefits of using standards in geospatial applications have been well established (and also thoroughly discussed in the OGC Whitepaper The Importance of Going ‘Open’ available for free at: http://portal.opengeospatial.org/files/6211), as their use solves some important geospatial needs:

  1. The need for organizations to have access to each other’s spatial information without copying and converting whole data sets.
  2. The need to have the pieces of a solution work together seamlessly and with minimal fuss.
  3. The need to gain access the global, open, communication network that is the Internet.

To quote the whitepaper: “The general solution to these needs: geoprocessing systems and components that interoperate across open interfaces in the context of global (or in some cases local) distributed computing platforms (usually the Web.)”

Farmers in particular are time poor, so data collection, integration, use, and sharing needs to be simple and easy. One example for how open standards help make farmers lives easier in this regard, comes from New Zealand: the OVERSEER® is an agricultural management tool that assists farmers and their advisers in examining nutrient use and movements within a farm, in order to optimise production and environmental outcomes.

An important input to the OVERSEER model is information about a farm’s soil and its drainage qualities. Until a year ago, farmers had to use an online service provided by Landcare Research, S-map Online, to obtain the soils information they needed to enter into OVERSEER. This was time consuming and prone to transcription errors, so Landcare Research staff worked with OVERSEER to provide an OGC web feature service (WFS), that allows the OVERSEER application to directly and securely request soils information from Landcare.

There are countless potential applications of OGC standards that could similarly benefit the agriculture community. So, to aid in addressing the need for better system and data interoperability within agriculture, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) chartered a specific Agriculture Domain Working Group (Ag DWG) with the explicit mission to: identify geospatial interoperability issues and challenges within the agriculture domain, then examine ways in which those challenges can be met through application of existing OGC standards, or through development of new geospatial interoperability standards under the auspices of OGC.

Agriculture touches many aspects of the work that OGC is already doing to promote interoperability of geospatial data and geographic analysis. As such, many of the data interoperability issues faced by the agriculture community can be addressed by existing standards. Not only the host of existing standards that support and enhance geospatial data software, models, and analytics, but also those that govern data collection: the growing ubiquity and importance of agricultural sensors – on tractors and other equipment, as part of in situ observation meshes, or collecting aerial and satellite imagery on planes or UAVs – aligns agriculture with the work that OGC is doing to address the promise and challenges of UAVs and the Internet of Things.

Farms are increasingly using sensors, such as this Cosmic Ray Sensor used for soil moisture measurements, to gain a better operating picture.

But there is still work to be done. OGC’s Ag DWG serves as a forum for geo-informatics users from across the globe to discuss the geospatial data issues affecting agriculture. Using the information gained in this forum, the Ag DWG refines and presents interoperability-related issues to OGC’s Technical Committee, who advance new standards, or align existing standards efforts, with said issues.

Importantly, the Ag DWG also serves as a liaison to other industry, government, independent, research, and standards organizations active within the agricultural community, which helps ensure that as many voices as possible are being heard – which is critical when creating useful standards – and that any work on new standards isn’t being double-handled.

One such example of this industry outreach is OGC’s next LocationPowers Summit, sub-titled Data, Interoperability and Ag Tech, happening alongside OGC’s Technical Committee meeting to be held this December in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

The LocationPowers Summit will, through presentations and discussions, identify data use and data sharing issues in agricultural technologies and highlight where geospatial contributions and collaborations on international geospatial data standards could aid in solving the issues.

Topics to be covered at the Summit include: precision agriculture and farm information systems; supply chains and traceability; big agricultural data; bringing together agricultural and scientific data; and interoperating with government. The speakers will be drawn from international organisations such as AgGateway, and the New Zealand and Australian agricultural industry, research organisations, and government.

The summit is open to OGC members and non-members alike, and has two goals. First it will be an opportunity for producers, technical innovators, scientists, regional and central government and businesses to learn about the importance and power of location and location-related data for agriculture. Second, the presentations, conversations, and idea sharing will aid in the standards development process, informing the future direction and work of the OGC Ag DWG so that, through collaboration with relevant global partners, it continues to develop relevant and useful standards – to the benefit of not just the farmers, but the global population that relies on their produce.

For more information on the Agriculture DWG, join its public mailing list at lists.opengeospatial.org/mailman/listinfo/agriculture.dwg or visit www.opengeospatial.org. Further information, including registration, for the free Data, Interoperability and Ag Tech LocationPowers Summit is available at: www.locationpowers.net.

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