Digitalizing agriculture: can Big Data accelerate and enhance the impact of international agricultural research?
The digital revolution has changed the ways of working, accessing information, and connecting with each other. Over the past three decades, the world saw a tremendous increase in the amount of data that can be recorded, shared, and stored.
How can this revolution be used to create a more efficient global food system, in a world facing climate variability and environmental degradation? Can an increase in the quantity and quality of open big data accelerate and enhance the impact of international agricultural research?
As a response to those questions, CGIAR invests in the curation and maintenance of its data and knowledge products through a five-year (2017-2021) CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture (the Platform).
In its 2016 Proposal, CGIAR defined big data as “harmonized, interoperable, and contextually integrated datasets and publications from multiple disciplines relevant for CGIAR’s research and development goals.” The Platform’s main goal is to increase the “impact” of agricultural development by embracing big data approaches to solve development problems faster, better and at a greater scale than before.
Has the Platform delivered on its objectives?
CGIAR Advisory Services shared secretariat (CAS Secretariat), in line with its mandate and 2021 workplan, commissioned an independent evaluation team of subject matter experts (SMEs) in geospatial data analytics, bioinformatics, development and disaster resilience, and monitoring and evaluation to evaluate the work of the Platform between 2017 and mid-2021. The evaluation started in July 2021. It applies both qualitative and quantitative methods, including an online survey-approach and methods described in the inception report.
There was an excellent collaboration between the evaluation team and the Platform team; the Platform team provided valuable feedback on the survey design in a timely manner and used its channels to administer the online survey to the target audiences.
While the evaluation is still ongoing, some preliminary survey results are already available to share, to pique your interest! As many as 106 respondents were recorded, 58% internal to CGIAR or its research programs (CRPs), and 42% external. Most participants in the survey were employed within a CGIAR Center and/or were members to one or more communities of practice (CoPs).
The survey results show that more than 60% of respondents found the Platform relevant; as its products, analytical tools and activities added value to their work and addressed the users’ needs.
The survey also included questions about the relevance and effectiveness of the GARDIAN Portal, a CGIAR data harvester that enables the discovery of publications and datasets from across the thirty-odd institutional publications and data repositories from CGIAR Centers and beyond. More than 50% of respondents found that the Platform, through the GARDIAN Portal, allowed for easier accessibility and findability of metadata and data, while the feedback about interoperability and reusability of data was less positive. 27% of respondents considered that the Platform did not contribute to an increased data interoperability, and some respondents actively expressed their wish for improvement in this aspect (open questions on the future of One CGIAR). The majority of respondents acknowledged the Platform’s ability to (i) foster digital innovation (71%) (ii) accelerate progress toward methods for agricultural research (62%) and (iii) facilitate the discoverability of agricultural publications (56%).
Most respondents who participated in one or more Platform Annual Conventions to generate innovations and democratize big data opportunities were satisfied with their experience (81% of 31 respondents). They found it was a great opportunity to gain new knowledge and start new collaborations.
Finally, most respondents affirmed that the Platform’s Inspire Challenge Competition contributed to digital innovation in agricultural research for development (AR4D). The Inspire Challenge is CGIAR’s signature digital innovation process. It leverages the global footprint and deep food security subject matter expertise of CGIAR with expert industry partners to link digital technologies to impact in developing economies. 59% of the respondents agreed with its importance for AR4D.
In line with the objectives of the Big Data Platform evaluation, one of the core questions of the survey asked: How will the digitalization of agriculture continue in light of the transition to One CGIAR? At large, survey respondents hoped that One CGIAR will be an opportunity to continue improving data accessibility, data sharing, and data reusability, as well as exchanging knowledge, organizing workshops, and building new collaborations.
 Those aspects were asked through three different questions.