From describing reality to predicting it: interview with Fernanda Peset
Historically, our species has sought to understand the world in which it lives. Data Science is one of the tools we develop to understand reality, extracting information and discovering patterns that allow us to make strategic decisions. This interdisciplinary field has become an amalgam of knowledge necessary to exploit the avalanche of data in which we are immersed. We talked about it with Fernanda Peset, Professor at the Universitat Politècnica de València and coordinator of the DATAUSE project on data and agriculture.
—How do you go from accessing a set of data to making an informed decision?
This question is a classic in knowledge organisation systems. The scaling from data to wisdom is modelled on what Jennifer Rowley coined back in 2007 as the DIKW hierarchy: at the base of the pyramid is data, followed by information and knowledge. At the top of the pyramid is wisdom. In other words, context is added to the individual data, enriching it until a decision can be made that makes sense in the context in which the phenomenon occurs.
To make sense of data is to place them in an environment where they are not only able to describe the situation, but also to facilitate decision making using advanced mathematical functions that jump from the description of reality to the prediction of future situations.
—What are the advantages of applying data to food production?
Food is an important issue for all societies, and, like any productive process, it is generating data whose analysis can be the basis for improvement in the sector. And I’m not just referring to production, but to the entire supply chain: from raw material procurement to distribution to the consumer.
It may sound obvious and straightforward, but in order for data to be productive, certain skills are needed, which is known as business intelligence. The crux lies in the fact that, just as distribution is often concentrated in companies powerful enough to analyse data and develop strategies, production in most countries is individually managed in the form of family farms that are not aware of the value of data. Yet…
—FAO is working on several initiatives to bring open data to small producers. Do you consider it important for them to be able to access the data? Why?
FAO’s work is truly commendable. It has innovative projects and completely free platforms that could be of interest to producers, such as the Family Farming Knowledge Platform. But people working in the field still need training, as well as protection, as it is a sector with particularly vulnerable groups that may be on the edge of subsistence. What is undoubtedly true is that the management of information and data makes it possible to improve the internal management of production, as well as to learn about external resources that can make a difference when it comes to production (for example, product prices in local markets).
—How can applying data to our food systems help us achieve more sustainable models?
According to FAO, public policies that recognise the diversity and complexity of the challenges faced by family farmers are key to ending hunger and achieving efficient and inclusive agricultural and food systems. These policies must be based on evidence that shows the reality of food systems. It has been shown that a large part of the users of open data is the administration itself, which uses it to generate these policies.
—Having access to data does not mean knowing how to put it in context or apply it properly. What obstacles does family farming face when it comes to forming part of this paradigm shift?
In my opinion there are two factors that make it difficult for family farming to make data productive. On the one hand, some people are not very professional. These are family farms with little or no capacity for action without external assistance. Secondly, the intrinsic difficulty of exploiting one’s own and other people’s data. Even if they are available, tools that facilitate analysis and interpretation must be available to really provide intelligence to the business.
In this sense, training is fundamental and I cannot fail to mention the AIMS-OEKC initiative, which coordinates relevant training for primary producers, such as Farm Data Management, Sharing and Services for Agriculture Development.
—Any useful tool that facilitates the application of data?
Since the usefulness of the data depends on the context, we must stick to the reality of each country. The Spanish data portal, for example, lists the applications that have reused its datasets. To name a few, the app Cropti Zoom, free for Android mobiles, combines open data with its application to comprehensively manage a farm and create an agricultural notebook compatible with Spanish legislation.
—In addition to production, data are useful in other instances of our food systems…
They have undoubtedly made a difference, as has been the case with distribution logistics. Part of our DATAUSE project investigates the application of blockchain to manage food stocks and surpluses for humanitarian purposes. Applying this structure to the logistics chain could contribute to the success of target 2.c of SDG 2:Zero Hunger, which promotes the adoption of measures to ensure the proper functioning of the market and facilitate access to information to limit the volatility of food prices.
If surplus producers are incentivised to include the data in a secure instrument, the management of these surpluses could be carried out in a fairer way for producers and surplus-receiving countries.
—Is there still a long way to go?
Absolutely. From making data available that is actually useful to improving its usability. Beyond opening data, ethical algorithms must also be created.
Advanced analytics can interrogate combined data from various sources whose response is capable of predicting future situations. In short, moving from inert data to productive data involves devising meaningful questions. This is a scenario with great potential and contains as high a dose of creativity as art can have. Technology, social sciences and humanities come together to improve society on a path that is yet to be followed.