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UK Environment Secretary opens the data floodgates

Published 01 July 2015

Defra's plan to publicly release 8,000 datasets over the next 12 is expected to drive innovation across the agricultural sector, but ensuring a sustainable, consistent supply of open data will be vital for further benefits, says Open Data Institute policy lead Ellen Broad


Last week environment secretary Liz Truss launched a new era for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra): #opendefra. Over the next 12 months, Defra will be making 8,000 datasets available as open data, to support new businesses, invite community-driven innovation and make UK food and farming more competitive than ever.

The Environment Secretary is intent on tapping into the economic potential in open food, agriculture and environment data, the fruits of which are already being harvested. The Climate Corporation, which began as a start up using open weather data to provide weather insurance to farmers, was acquired by Monsanto for US$1.1bn £702m) in 2013. Satellite imagery, such as NASA's Landsat - which has been capturing satellite imagery since the 1970s - was valued in 2013 as being worth as much as $8.8bn £5.62bn) per year.

UK innovation with Defra data

In the UK, a strong community has already begun to emerge around open food, environment and agriculture data, for a range of uses. The 2014 Open Data Award Winner Shoothill uses raw environmental data to deliver insights for businesses, government and civil society organisations. Gauge Map - an invaluable interactive map for asset management - provides updates on river level, flow and groundwater data across England and Wales. Another 2014 Open Data Award winner, Plantwise, helps farmers lose less of what they grow to crop pests and diseases. And one of this year's Open Data Award finalists, the Oxford Centre for Social Inclusion (OCSI) has used open data to help rural organisations and public sector bodies better understand and map rural exclusion.

The Environment Agency has been investing in open data for over a year. Recently, it announced that LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data will be release as open data in September 2015. LIDAR data covers nearly three quarters of England, mainly floodplains, coastal zones and urban areas. LIDAR data has significant value for creating flood models, assessing coastal change and analysing how land is used.

Among the Open Data Institute (ODI) startups, a number work with food and environment data. FoodTrade helps small restaurants and caterers create menus with up-to-date allergen information, to ease compliance with Food Standards Agency (FSA) regulations. While still less than a year old, FoodTrade has attracted press in the Financial Times, Wired and the Huffington Post and secured support from companies including Telefonica and British Growers. Another ODI start up Enian uses a range of data, including open environmental data, to automate impact and risk calculations for clients across a range of sectors. Resurgence uses open data to help cities mitigate urban risks and build resilience, with a particular focus on climate-related risks like water-stress and flooding.

FoodTrade was also the winner of the ODI/Nesta's Food Open Data Challenge, one in a series of seven challenge prizes that support teams to develop products or services using open data for public good. The Food Challenge, explored over six months, asked participants how open data could be used to help people eat more healthily, eat more sustainably and/or have a more secure food chain.

Beyond the publication of 8,000 open data sets to ensuring sustainability

Defra's open data plans should see innovation with food, environmental and agriculture data accelerate further. Key to this will be ensuring that beyond the publication of 8,000 datasets as open data in the next 12 months, that Defra's efforts are sustainable. A 2015 ODI report 'Open Data Means Business' looked at 270 companies with a combined turnover of £92bn using, producing or investing in open data as part of their business. Of these companies, several reported issues around open data being published as a 'one off' that prevented them from relying on the data to build a sustainable business model.

Part of mitigating this risk is coupling the release of open data with a longer term open data strategy, and Defra has already begun this journey. Together with the ODI, Defra has been working on developing an Open Data Maturity Model to help organisations assess how effectively they publish and consume open data. The Maturity Model formed the basis for an online assessment tool, Open Data Pathway, for organisations to map their open data progress and compare it with other organisations. In a blog accompanying the Environment Secretary's #opendefra announcement, Defra's data lead Alex Coley announced the setup of an accelerator project to continue to build on the open data work.

How can the business and open data community help?

As Defra works out how best to meet the Environment Secretary's open data challenge, talking to businesses, startups, public sector bodies and experts who are using or could be using their data will help understand potential benefits and prioritise data for use. The Environment Agency has one potential model to expand on.

The Environment Agency, who is the process of transitioning from a charged-for data model to a fully open one, set up an Advisory Group on Open Data (EADAG) to help them communicate with open data users. EADAG, comprising open data experts, businesses, researchers, community organisations and local government representatives, has helped EA to prioritise data for release and grow the community around their often high value data.

Defra has an exciting and challenging 12 months ahead. They'll need the support of the wider food, agriculture and environment community who could make use of and build on their data. It would be fantastic to know what other organisations are doing with agriculture data, for example, and where they could see potential open data use cases for Defra's data. The ODI is keen to surface some of these stories over the course of Defra's journey.

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