How data could change life down on the farm

The data will help with farm management decision making.

The biggest collaborative soil research effort in Australia’s history could save the agricultural industry billions of dollars each year by giving farmers unprecedented access to information to help improve the performance of their land.

The Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils (Soil CRC) is a 10-year, $167-million research initiative that will give farmers and the Australian agricultural industry access to information that could improve their yields and make their businesses sustainable.

One of the first projects is mapping soil data from across Australia and New Zealand, drawing on information from governments, grower groups, agronomists, researchers and farmers. The ambitious research project will federate the soil data into one location making it accessible to researchers who can bring new insights to Australian agriculture and farm management.

Federation University Australia’s Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CeRDI) is leading the Soil CRC’s Visualising Australasia's Soils project, joining other universities, farmer groups, state agencies and industry partners. CeRDI, a global leader in data interoperability, will use its expertise in heading up a key component in the project – solving the challenges of making all soil data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR).

The information will eventually be visible with other landscape data like rainfall, terrain or groundwater to provide a clearer understanding of the cause and effect relationships across a farming landscape.

Project leader Associate Professor Peter Dahlhaus said more data was being collected than ever and this meant there were large amounts of on-farm information that were difficult to access.

“This project is so important because at the moment, if you want to collect soil data you have to go to a million different places to get it. It could be anywhere from a government website to a shoebox in your cupboard where all your old soil tests are,” Associate Professor Dahlhaus said.

“A lot of it is collected through satellite imagery, sensors on tractors and soil moisture probes in paddocks, so the big challenge is getting all of this data together. That's something that we do quite well.”

Apart from the sheer volume of data, there are bigger key challenges to the researchers. Chief among these is the value proposition to farmers.

“If you're a farmer why would you want to expose your data for other people to use? What's in it for you? Or if you're a consultant or a farmer group, why would you do that? There has to be a clear benefit that is obvious and rewarding,” Associate Professor Dahlhaus said.

“The second challenge is the social architecture. Some farmers might be happy for their farming group to see their data but they don't really want the banks or insurers to see it. For us that becomes an interesting issue of working through access control rules. There are ways ahead that we can see but it is a case of providing the benefit of the data while maintaining the data owner’s trust. Maybe people are happy to show their data if it's anonymised or if it’s last season’s data because that’s in the past.”

The third challenge, Associate Professor Dahlhaus said, is the technical architecture. The Soil CRC research project will link the data in a portal, but won’t own or manage it.

“We don't take data or go to people and say ‘give us your data’ – we don't want to manage anyone's data because that's a mug's game. You’re managing your own data because you understand it – you're either passionate about it or you may have a statutory responsibility to do it.” Associate Professor Peter Dahlhaus

“So we want to maintain and respect the custodianship of the data and the management of those data. If we can connect to that data on a website, the information will come on the fly – even if you've changed something a minute ago, it will be reflected.

“But it’s your data, so you set the rules by which it can be accessed – by whom, when and how it is shown. It has to respect all of those access control rules that you set and it also has to be linked with all the other data so it can be used to model, graph, filter or be put into another app and be used in decision-support systems by farmers who might be interested at looking at trends, or predicting yields and so on.”

Associate Professor Dahlhaus said participants will be able to view soils data to help them make decisions about farm management. A farmer, for example, could view soil data taken from a paddock through time and compare it to the optimum value for that soil in a particular farming system. Or they could animate the display for a particular soil parameter through time for the entire farm.

CeRDI Director Associate Professor Helen Thompson said the research centre’s specialists were able to co-develop solutions with industry partners and organisations with a level of “real-world engagement” that was rare at research centres.

“What national science organisations like CSIRO or others like about working with Federation is we actually connect it to the real world,” Associate Professor Thompson said.

“Because we've been working in this data space for a long time, we’re trusted by farming systems groups right through to governments and other universities. There's a lack of trust in sharing data with say the commercial sector or with the finance sector or with government, whereas Federation doesn't really come across that.

“We also have a cohort of PhD students who are embedded within CeRDI as well, so we have a world class technology capability in terms of the skills to interoperably federate data and that's unusual in any research organisation.”

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