Pushing the boundaries

Pushing the boundaries

We have been speaking to a lot of farmers. Of the many hard things about farming, paperwork and bureaucracy seem to be the cause of the biggest headaches.

Millions of acres of land and hundreds of thousands of people work every day to produce crops, meat and dairy in the UK. However, farmers today are finding themselves in difficulty due to reduced profits. This means that farmers must strive to increase the yield they can gain from their land, in the most efficient way possible. More output and fewer inputs; if only it was this simple.

The key to increasing yield and profitability is helping farmers to develop a better knowledge and understanding of their land, fields, and soil. Only by gathering all the information they can, will they be able to analyse their data and spot areas for improvement.

The basis of gathering information on a farm is simple – farmers must know their fields, and the data that pertains to each one. On every farm, huge amounts of data are collected; from yield maps, seed and chemical applications, drainage; UK farms are truly becoming ‘connected’. However, all this data is useless to our farmers unless it can be plotted visually on a map of their farm.

The key to this understanding in the new age of data analysis is having your farm accurately plotted, measured and having this digitally available. Brilliantly in the UK this information exists for every farmer in the form of the Rural Land Register. The big problem with this is that this information is not publically available in any digital format; farmers can only download their field boundaries in the highly unusable PDF file type; this information can’t be read by mapping software and can’t be displayed in a useable way. The PDFs are for printing onto paper only.

New generations of software, like fieldmargin, are developed to help farmers visualise their data, spot areas of issue, and ultimately help farmers to get the most out of their land. However, without field boundary data, farmers are still forced to manually plot out their fields. This is a major sticking point for farmers due to the effort this requires, and this is magnified in those individuals who are perhaps not confident with using technology.

If the data set already exists, it is madness to ask farmers to plot their fields manually. By doing so, we’re making it more difficult for farmers to help themselves improve their business. Farmers should be out in their fields, not sat in front of a computer.

There appears to be apprehension around releasing Rural Land Register due to the possibility the information the RPA holds may be incorrect. We believe that the best way to ensure the information is correct is to release the data set to the public. When farmers are able to see their land parcels held by the RPA, they will be easily able to spot, and rectify, any mistakes that have been made. As David Cameron said in 2010, this will provide a ‘whole army of effective armchair auditors’ that can quickly fix any mistakes, saving the time and effort of correcting data annually when applying for BPS and other payment schemes.

Another possibility of not releasing the Rural Land Register under the new Defra open data initiative (unveiled by the outgoing Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year, which has achieved great things so far) is that the boundary data is ‘derived’ from Ordnance Survey (OS) data and should therefore fall under an OS licence. We know that thousands of farmers have themselves created this data, using GPS tools, digital maps, satellite images and aerial photography not once referring to OS data. The public availability of field boundaries should not feel a threat to the OS business model and this concern should be discussed if it is a problem or dismissed if it isn’t. The value to the economy would far outweigh any licence fees OS would be due.

To quote a conversation heard at a recent #OpenDefra event, ‘it is more important for data to be out there, than it is for that data to be perfect’. We hope you join us in spreading the word on this and we hope to see this data forming part of the 11,000 datasets Defra has already released under the excellent open data initiative.

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