Open data for agriculture, nutrition and health

At what point does a phrase become a cliché? In the sustainable development and research worlds we are accustomed to different buzzwords emerging every few years, but does the intense use of certain terms and phrases diminish their potency or meaning? Two words in particular appear to be on course to gaining cliché-like status, these are: interdisciplinary and intersectoral. 
 
It seems that in most meetings and conferences these days multiple references are made to these types of collaborations. The degree of optimism that rests on these words, however, and their ubiquity in the literature is certainly not the subject of objection here. On the contrary, it is the frequency of their use which indicates a recognition of both the concept and value of learning and sharing that they represent; that building bridges and not walls is where progress lies. In this sense interdisciplinary and intersectoral are most welcome clichés.
 
If the Sustainable Development Goals reflect anything it is that the myriad challenges of today and tomorrow require collaborations that cut across sectors and disciplines, and defy our preconceptions of how research should and can be conducted. This is for good reason, as Waage & Yap point out - ‘interactions will occur between the different sectors associated with these 17 goals whether we account for them or not. These interactions could be positive or negative, symmetrical or asymmetrical, physical, physiological, social or political’. Hence, breaking down the barriers that have separated diverse thinkers and doers is a critical step towards making better sense of an increasingly complex and interlinking world. For too long these boundaries - both visible and invisible - and the silo mentalities that they propagate have impeded much needed cross-fertilisation of skills, ideas and information.
 
There has certainly been a proliferation in these types of partnerships, with important results, too. Advances being made in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are testament to this. However, can we say with confidence that an ethos of learning and sharing between sectors and disciplines is being taken seriously by the global community? One key indicator of this is the availability, accessibility and unrestricted use of information - that is, the openness of data.
 
Data superhighways - Credit: Marcin Ignac
 
A staggering range and volume of data are created each day (2.5 quintillion bytes, in fact) and although much of the mainstream focus is understandably centred on the collection of personal information and its implications for privacy and liberty, there is less recognition of the accumulation of non-personal, anonymised or non-reidentifiable information. The potential of these data in problem solving - when available - also appears to be underappreciated. In a world that champions policies and interventions based on empirical evidence the idea that such data are not open or widely shared would seem illogical, but unfortunately this is still the case in many instances.
 
Like the open access movement, the case for open data is both positive and normative. Setting aside, for a moment, the significant economic, environmental and social value of making data available, the ethical case alone is difficult to dispute. If SDG 10 - ‘to reduce inequalities within and among countries’ - is to be authentically pursued then unequal opportunity of accessing and using data represents a fundamental limitation for any endeavours that truly aim to strengthen capacity among the global research community.
 

Open Data for the Developing Country Context

How do we ensure that open data policies improve research and policymaking globally, and that low- and middle-income countries are not excluded from the conversation? When looking at indices that capture open data readiness on the Open Data Barometer, countries in Africa and South Asia consistently score the lowest. While partially explained by limited internet penetration, accessibility to open data is hampered by data ownership, and even awareness that such sources exist. Data gathering is a costly and time-consuming part of research, and open data strategies could provide a more equitable field for early career researchers working in resource-constrained contexts by allowing them to use existing data sources. While not specific to low-income settings, heterogeneity between data produced by different initiatives with different funders and agendas impede researchers’ ability to combine and compare data for work on global trends. Receiving a glossy report that has already synthesised and analysed data is useful, but being able to critically engage with and interpret the underlying data for yourself is altogether different. Hence sharing data involves something more trusting and collaborative, scientific and open. Finally, lack of capacity of individuals and organizations to act as intermediaries between data generation and use limit the translation of open data to useful outputs. To counterbalance this, efforts to create relationships between global players (both south to south and south to north) are needed to enable accessibility to and use of open data, and to ensure that opportunities for research are distributed equitably across regions, sectors, and levels.

Agriculture, nutrition and health: Show me the data

With a growing global population and the effects of climate change potentially already impacting on food systems and livelihoods the importance of open data for agriculture, nutrition and human health cannot be understated. Although the broad body of research exploring the pathways between agriculture and nutrition reflects how different disciplines and sectors are increasingly working together, much of this literature highlights the gaps in data and thus our hampered ability to adequately measure and map these critical linkages. This in turn jeopardises well informed and appropriate investments, adjustments and innovations at all scales and for all stakeholders on the agriculture and nutrition nexus - from smallholder farmers planning their next crop to international organisations forming global policy prescriptions. However, as the Open Data Institute points out, open data-driven solutions across these sectors are not always necessarily constrained by the amount of open data - which is increasing - but rather the practicality of its synthesis and utilisation by different actors as well as licensing frameworks governing its use.
 
                                                                                             
Visit to villages outside of Dodoma, Tanzania - C. Schubert (CCAFS)
 
Written records of food commodity intake (red onions), Tanzania - Z. Gersten
 
So, it would seem that identifying agriculture-nutrition pathways is one thing, but being able to explore these analytically, to understand their interplay and to develop methods and tools for modelling potential outcomes is quite another.
 
Here enters GODAN; Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition. This partnership of over 350 government, international and private sector organisations facilitates debate and promotes action around the sharing of open, accessible and usable agriculture and nutrition-related data. This week, representatives from IMMANA will attend, participate in, and contribute to the first GODAN Summit in New York, an event designed to convene global advocates at all levels and sectors to share experiences around this critical issue.
 
Fortunately, GODAN is not alone in the battle for open data in agriculture and nutrition, other initiatives also exist. Among these are the International Dietary Data Expansion (INDDEX) Project which seeks to develop methods and tools to facilitate increased access, availability, and use of dietary data in low-income countries. Supported by INDDEX and the Global Dietary Database (GDD), the FAO/WHO Global Individual Food Consumption data Tool (GIFT) is another initiative, which is designed to harmonize and disseminate data globally on a freely accessible web platform. Finally, the FAO and Global Forum for Agricultural Research (GFAR)-established Coherence in Information for Agricultural Research for Development (CIARD) Routemap to Information Nodes and Gateways (RING), aims to build a global registry for agricultural datasets.

IMMANA’s contribution - a future of learning and sharing

Innovative Metrics and Methods for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions (IMMANA) is a research initiative that aims to accelerate the development of scientific evidence needed to guide global agriculture and food systems to sustainable food security and nutrition via three workstreams. Through a competitive Fellowships programme one-year funding is provided to early career researchers who are using, developing, or adapting new methodological approaches and to bridge disciplinary, regional, and institutional boundaries. This is accompanied by the IMMANA Grants programme which is designed to generate innovative and high quality methods, metrics, and tools to improve agriculture and food systems for nutrition and health in LMICs. Finally, the ANH Academy, a global network of over 500 researchers across the world working at the intersection of agri-food systems and nutrition, brings together global experts on emerging topics to stimulate a dialogue, frameworks and methodologies to advance the agenda of sustainable, healthy, and economic and physically accessible diets for all.
 
In this brave new world of collaboration, significant work has been put into building bridges and roads between sectors and disciplines. However, without traffic or goods (i.e. data!) being transported along these pathways they are in danger of failing to fulfil one of their fundamental functions. So whilst phrases such as intersectoral and interdisciplinary may seem cliché for now, initiatives such as GODAN remind us that there is still much to do to make them a reality. 
 
By Joe Yates, IMMANA Research and Knowledge Uptake Manager; and Zachary Gersten, IMMANA Fellowships Coordinator (Twitter: @zakgersten)
 
 
 
Top image: GEO-X Summit in Geneva - US Mission, Geneva
 

See Suneetha Kadiyala's presentation slides from the GODAN Summit below: