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Q & A: Aaron Ault, Open Agriculture Data Alliance

Aaron Ault believes that getting a handle on your data means creating an open-source platform for analysis tools.

Like many farmers, you are probably sitting on a pile of data. You know there’s value, yet there haven’t been any clear answers on what you should use it for. 

“You’re saving data because you think there’s promise in it,” says Aaron Ault, an Indiana farmer and Purdue University senior research engineer. “You have this idea that data is important. You can use it to evaluate all of your management decisions, but you really haven’t been able to capitalize on that yet.”

Data is also a hassle. “It’s a lot of work with very little reward,” he notes. “You spend a great deal of time pulling USB sticks and cards out of monitors and transferring information around. This is not farming.”

As the project leader for the Open Agriculture Data Alliance (OADA), Ault hopes to change all that. 

SF: What is the biggest challenge for farmers when it comes to data?

AA: Farmers don’t want to think about data. They want to think about the answers data can provide. For example, when I sprayed fungicide this year, I wanted to know how many bushels per acre more I could get because of that fungicide. Should I have sprayed it or not? 

The biggest hassle is that if farmers want to make use of data, they have to be data scientists. They have to know how to work with databases. They have to know how to write software. They’re left with this pile of data that they don’t know how to analyze. OADA is going to push the envelope so they don’t have to be data scientists.

SF: What is the OADA?

AA: OADA is an open-source project designed to make data easier within agriculture. We’re trying to improve interoperability, privacy, security, and really get data working for farmers in ways that haven’t been possible in the past with individual proprietary approaches.  

OADA is all about trying to make data analysis simple, cheap, and fast so farmers can customize it for their individual farms. We are going to give farmers the ability to try different analysis tools. They can then choose the ones that make sense for their farm. Hopefully, once OADA becomes mature, farmers will have more options to analyze their data in ways that make sense.

SF: What is it going to take for OADA adoption?

AA: OADA is supposed to make it easier to get data where it needs to go, but we really need people building tools that use data effectively, which has been missing from ag for a while. There are tools out there that farmers can use, but those tools don’t necessarily help evaluate management decisions easily. 

With that said, we don’t necessarily need 100% adoption across the entire industry for OADA to be useful. What really makes it work is in any single case where data was a hassle before, if it can make it better, that’s where we’re headed. We’re not trying to get the entire industry to adopt the exact same thing. It would be great, but if we define that as success, I think we’re going to be starting behind the eight ball. We’re trying to make individual pieces as easy as possible and hope they become more useful in the market.

SF: What are you hearing about data security and privacy?

AA: I am hearing two completely different story lines. One is the farmers who are extremely concerned about whether their data is going to be used without their permission for things that they don’t want it used for.  

There are also a lot of farmers who want data to work for them and need those tools to be built. What’s interesting is that they’re worried that all of the concern about privacy is limiting innovation in this space.

Clearly, there is no one monolithic rule about what proper privacy is because farmers all have different ideas about how their data should and shouldn’t be used. Some are fine selling it to commodity groups to bid on corn and soybean markets; some aren’t. Others want to continue keeping the paper notebooks, which is fine.

Rather than try to prescribe the proper privacy for every single thing that’s out there, OADA is going to make it so the market should have better knowledge about when farmers share data and what it’s being used for. Beyond that, it should be up to farmers to decide what services they want to engage.

SF: Are there any new developments about OADA?

AA: We started this project in March 2014, so this is very, very new. As of last fall, we had six companies engaged in several different proof-of-concept demonstrations where actual data was exchanged over the OADA infrastructure that we’re defining. That information should be publicized by the end of the year.

As we head into 2015, we’re going to ramp up development across several different commercial partners.

SF: How do you hope to see data evolve in the future?

AA: The best possible end point of data, in my opinion, is where farmers don’t talk about data at all. They’re talking about it now because there aren’t clear answers for exactly what it should be used for. Once those tools get developed, then people will stop talking about data as an end in itself.

SF: What is the biggest challenge you have had to face and how did you overcome it?

AA: Time management is always a challenge for me. That’s because I have too many things going on, and I have trouble saying no when people ask me to do things.

The way I solve that is caffeine – drinking lots and lots of caffeine. 

SF: Who has had the most influence on you in your life?

AA: My dad has influenced me the most. I’ve worked with him almost every day, with a brief hiatus for college, since I was old enough to walk. He’s taught me my work ethic. He’s taught me so many things that I never could have learned at school.

SF Bio

Name: Aaron Ault is a fourth-generation farmer. He grows 3,100 acres of corn and soybeans and raises 3,000 head of beef cattle in Rochester, Indiana. He is also a senior research engineer with the Purdue University Open Ag Technology Group. He is the project leader for the Open Agriculture Data Alliance.

Education: Purdue University, graduate degree in electrical and computer engineering.

Background: “Being a farmer and an engineer has been an interesting experience. For me, it has been a struggle,” says Ault. “Farming is engineering on a daily basis with incomplete knowledge. Generally, you have no idea what the right answer is, but you have to make something work. When I see a problem on the farm, the engineering part of me wants to solve it 100% and come up with an extremely complicated solution. It has been very useful to have people on both sides who can give me advice. For example, my dad will say, ‘What if we just do this and this, and forget the rest. It will still work 95% of the time, and we can have it done in five minutes.’ The idea of simplicity – forget the theory for a little while – and just get it done has served me well.” 

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