Big data: The devil is in the details

Collecting big data on your greenhouse? Know the fine print.
December 10, 2018
Written by Dr. Jason Behrmann
Your greenhouse contains a wealth of a prized commodity that recently skyrocketed in importance—and you can’t even hold it in your hands. It’s big data, and growers should take notice.

Big data is essentially ‘a lot of information’ in a digital format that technology companies use to develop cutting-edge innovations. From records of your packaging materials and electricity bills, to tracking the steps your workers take during a harvest cycle, we can use this information to gain detailed insights into greenhouse farming practices. Knowing the ins-and-outs of your greenhouse enables us to develop high-tech services that keep your farm efficient and profitable. It would be foolhardy to turn one’s back to opportunities made possible by big data, especially since overlooking progress could leave your business in the dust of more tech-savvy competitors.

That said, is it always in your best interest to share your greenhouse data? Sometimes. Greater sharing of data is necessary to spur faster innovation and provide broader benefits to growers. This is why leading organizations and initiatives, such as the Open Ag Data Alliance and the Open AgTech Consortium, strive to promote mass sharing and use of agricultural data along with stringent privacy, property and security safeguards. If the latter part of that sentence raises your eyebrows, you are not alone.

With sensational headlines of hacking, cyberattacks and data security breaches around the world, farming representatives and regulators like Agriculture Canada are highlighting the importance of protection against cybercriminals. Concerns about privacy, security and data ownership are becoming mainstream amongst the greenhouse farming community. Working at an agriculture technology company, we are all-too-familiar with these concerns. We collect data from greenhouses to develop artificial intelligence (AI) services on a routine basis. With each new greenhouse customer, we often hear the same questions about what technology companies do with their data, where it goes and what benefits the data ought to provide and to whom. These repeated questions demonstrate that greenhouse farmers as a group could use further guidance on this topic, and we will do our best to provide it here. To begin, let’s clarify different uses and categories of data ownership within greenhouse farming. Armed with this information, you can better determine which data sharing initiatives best support your needs and personal values.

For the common good
The adage “a rising tide raises all boats” rings true for collaborative data projects in agriculture. Alone, any given farmer may have little data available for technology development. But by pooling data from growers around the globe, we can amass vast amounts of information then used to make a positive impact on farming. Projects spearheaded by not-for-profits and charities are particularly noble, especially since most of the products from these initiatives are made free to the world.

Being of particular importance to greenhouse farmers, one example pertains to crop pest and disease diagnosis by AI and machine vision. With support from companies and philanthropic organizations, the global farming community built a vast databank of images of diseased and infested crops. By analysing the spots and wilts on plants, sophisticated software learned the characteristic fingerprints for a slew of crop diseases. You can now download a free app for a smartphone. With it, anyone can take a picture of a spotted leaf in your greenhouse and get an instant diagnosis of a growing list of parasites.

Offering everyone the ability to diagnose crop diseases and pests at the push of a button is a monumental feat. Farmers in more isolated areas with fewer resources can draw from this expertise. On our home turf, this technology enables any greenhouse worker to identify and sound the alarm right away when pests appear; this includes identifying unknown crop parasites recently introduced to a farming region. Imagine if we had this technology at the onset of the thrips epidemic. Through early detection, we might have been able to stop its spread throughout Canada. With this technology, the greenhouse industry would gain better means to quash the next new crop disease or pest that inevitably will arrive at our shores.

Pooling images of sickly crops is but one example of a growing number of collaborative data-sharing projects in greenhouse farming. Should you join the bandwagon and share your data? The benefits to your greenhouse may be indirect but could contribute to strengthening agriculture as a whole. That seems like a worthwhile endeavour.

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Just for you
Not all data is pooled. When building custom-made technology, data from your greenhouse alone is often necessary, but data from neighbouring greenhouses may very well be useless. Each greenhouse has unique attributes given differences in geography, growing equipment, chosen crop varieties and more. For instance, when devising high-tech means to optimize your heating, lighting, irrigation and whatnot, data from your greenhouse is most pertinent. For the most part, the same is true for building unique AI software to automate common tasks in your greenhouse. Your data used to train that smart software will produce a tool that will understand tasks in your greenhouse alone.

This category of greenhouse data sharing has notable particularities. First, the data is either collected onsite by using cameras and sensors you typically purchase or is available in your private records (for example, records of past harvest yields). You make the investment in acquiring the data and pay for the final technological product born from this information. It thus makes sense that you should remain the owner of that unadulterated—or “raw”—data and be the primary benefactor from sharing it with technology companies. Being specific to your greenhouse, you should voice your values on privacy standards, data ownership and whether any part of that data is used for other purposes.

If any of these issues are unclear, ask the technology company for a plain-language explanation. Though you may remain the owner of your raw data, know that technology companies often need to invest time and resources to transform data into something useable by anonymizing it, compressing it and so on. Given their investment, expect technology companies to have some claim to ownership over the transformed data. Be sure to ask what happens to your data should you no longer be a customer; can you request that the company delete it? You should have that option, and indeed, this standard was set in the European Union and may soon become the norm in Canada.

Data as payment
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Yet we take for granted many free online platforms and software tools from private companies. How do these companies make money? By selling you, or more specifically, your data.

From farmer dating apps to posting the bounty of your greenhouse on social media, every profile entry, click, swipe and photo uploaded to these free services become valuable sources of data—and the property of that service provider. For the most part, mass data collection and its sale by these service providers remain unseen. Why is this so?

Tracking your activities enables service providers to know how best to design customized and practical digital tools we adore. On the flip side, it is common to sell information about you and your greenhouse to unknown others. Most of the time this makes it easy for companies to target you and your greenhouse with relevant advertisements; by merging data from many greenhouses, companies also obtain valuable information on market trends, regional cultivation practices and the demographics of greenhouse professionals.

Having your data sold in exchange for free services might be a fair trade; however, this category of data use and collection is fraught with concerns. Recent sensational cases where social media data enabled the targeting of thousands of people with political propaganda is but one example of the risks we face. To date, the malicious use of big data in agriculture and related cybersecurity risks remain uncommon for the most part. An arguably more pertinent concern today is that bad press may mislead the greenhouse community into painting all data acquisition and sharing with a broad—negative—brush.

The last thing we want is for greenhouse growers to delay technological adoption due to ascribing risks with one form of data sharing to another. This is a real concern. Conversations with our customers indicate that growers have few resources to explain all the nuances of big data in greenhouse farming. Without question, tech companies have a duty to explain the benefits and risks to the greenhouse community. We are eager to have this conversation, so never hesitate to reach out.

Further reading
  • Read a detailed review of the use of big data in agriculture technology.
  • Do you plan to use your data to make your greenhouse more competitive? Here and here are government subsidies to offset the costs.
  • An example of a major agriculture corporation partnering with a non-profit to advance innovations in farming via data sharing.

Jason Behrmann, PhD, is the senior marketing communications manager at Motorleaf. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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