Unlocking the potential of farm data

AgReFed will accelerate research collaboration by making agricultural research data more findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.

Federation University Australia researchers will play a leading role in a project that will support major changes to the way agricultural research is conducted across Australia.

The Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) recently conducted an open competitive process across research sectors to invest in platforms development.

Led by Federation’s Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CeRDI), the Agricultural Research Federation (AgReFed) proposal: A Platform for the transformation of agricultural research was one of the successful proposals.

AgReFed is a co-operative of data provider communities with a shared mission to unlock the potential of agricultural data by providing a platform to share and use data and, as a result, increase the application of knowledge, accelerate innovation and improve decision making.

The AgReFed Platform will provide tools and workflows to enable agricultural researchers to make agricultural data in Australia more discoverable and usable.

The Director of CeRDI, Associate Professor Helen Thompson, said AgReFed will accelerate research collaboration by making agricultural research data more findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR).

CeRDI technologists and researchers will collaborate with the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation (QCIF) and Sydney Informatics Hubs (University of Sydney) on the platform development.

“We spent time with the founding participants of AgReFed and potential partners, through a range of interviews to increase our understanding about current agriculture research data practices and to learn what some of the barriers to changing practices would be – whether researchers are in government or university research organisations,” Associate Professor Thompson said.

“One insight is that many agriculture researchers are still desktop-based, they're still using tools like Excel spreadsheets to store data. We also found practices across different organisations may not all be consistent, so there is a lot of data wrangling required and that’s inefficient.”

Associate Professor Thompson said many agriculture researchers require access to complementary climate, soils and other data from their work, creating another set of challenges.

“Bringing this extra information together with their data to help answer their research questions — that’s not necessarily easy for science-trained researchers compared to data science professionals. This demonstrated to us that there are many other inefficiencies in the way that groups or individuals in agriculture research are currently undertaking their work,” Associate Professor Thompson said.

CeRDI is a global leader in data interoperability and its researchers have used their expertise in heading up several major agriculture programs, partnering with other universities, farmer and industry groups, and state and federal agencies.

Agriculture data covers a wide variety of data types generated from production or research relevant to the sector. It can be collected and used by farmers, agronomists, researchers and other bodies in the agricultural sector.

Data from grains and cropping research, soils and smart farms will be used to demonstrate the impact of the AgReFed platform on agricultural research.

The project, which has received more than $900,000 in funding from the ARDC, extends CeRDI’s involvement with AgReFed for the next two-and-a-half years.

Associate Professor Thompson said the background work completed earlier in the year and through the initial establishment phases for AgReFed allowed CeRDI to bring together a consortium of national and international collaborators to work on the platforms and tools that would help researchers.

“The ARDC very much has a focus on adopting or adapting platform tools and technologies that already exist rather than creating something new, so applicants are asked to identify how they will achieve that,” Associate Professor Thompson said.

“For the AgReFed Platform, CeRDI will leverage platforms developed in environmental management and tools developed by international agricultural researchers.

“Through that process, we were able to come up with a collaborative approach to what the platform will evolve to — to support onboarding more AgReFed participants in terms of organisations, more original research data, and also to make it easier for complementary data that many agriculture research teams need to be more efficiently accessed and used.”

Associate Professor Thompson said a key element of the project was supporting researchers who were generating the data to develop their skills and capability to get to a position where everybody could very easily provision their data and link it to other data. This would enable the creation of FAIR data from the start.

“When we look at machine learning and artificial intelligence projects like those that the Grains Research and Development Corporation is investing in and we're involved in with other universities, the data wrangling role can be a full-time job for a number of years just to get the data ready for experiments,” Associate Professor Thompson said.

“So if we want to have more than just experiments, if we want to have real-world application of these modern tools, whether it's modelling, visualisation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the prerequisite is that the data is much more born-digital, Instead of having to do that retrospective data cleaning and wrangling to get it ready to do something else with it. Associate Professor Helen Thompson

“The AgReFed Platform will not only enable the data management required to use these applications it will also build data management skills and capabilities, where agricultural researchers can learn by doing and they can be supported in that learning.”

ARDC Chief Executive Officer, Rosie Hicks, said the ARDC Platforms initiative was driving the adoption of technologies that enabled researchers to pursue and solve problems in ways previously thought impossible.

“In collaboration with Federation University and the many partners involved in the AgReFed platform, we’re catalysing research innovation by unlocking information that exists in the extensive agriculture data and providing world-class research infrastructure.”

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