Harvesting data responsibly – a new short course

May 6th, 2021

A collaboration between two of CSIRO’s Future Science Platforms has led to the first Australian short course on responsible innovation in agri-technology

by Melina Gillespie

A collaboration between two of CSIRO’s Future Science Platforms has led to the first Australian short course on responsible innovation in agri-technology.


Young female farmer spraying her crops using a drone

Credit: iStock.com/baranozdemir

Digital agriculture, or ‘digital farming’, is rapidly emerging in Australian agriculture. It aims to bring productivity gains and efficiencies to our agricultural sector. But as the agriculture industry in Australia embraces concepts and applications of digital agriculture, there are growing concerns about data ownership, data access, transparency and equity.

Digital Ag embraced – a case study

Aware of the rapid adoption of these potentially disruptive technologies within the sector, CSIRO researchers conducted a study in 2016 that involved stakeholders in Victoria’s Wimmera Mallee region grain industry. The study looked at the perception of the benefits and risks of digitalisation of the agriculture industry among a range of stakeholders, including growers, grain handlers and advisory services, as well as representatives of government, research, agri-business and industry.

Owners of a medium-sized mixed-grain cropping farm in this region have actively adopted technologically advanced data gathering apps and agricultural equipment to help prepare, plant, water, grow, harvest and send to market the crops they produce. As they go about their daily activities, apps or sensors installed on tractors, harrows and harvesters are collecting data. While this data is being used to help them make decisions based on weather and soil management, it is also being uploaded to cloud-based systems owned by manufacturers and data curators.

The data includes temperature and rain patterns, paddock soil characteristics, seeding, fertilising, and yields. It helps improve on-farm input precision, reduce cost, increase yield and potentially improve farm profit. At the same time, manufacturers and data curators are using the grower’s data to inform industry stakeholders up and down the value chain as they develop products and services for agricultural use.

Responsible use of data

The potential of big data in agriculture shows that farmers and farm businesses now play a critical role, not only as data consumers but as co-creators and curators of the data. Data that is increasingly being taken up by suppliers, manufacturers, traders and marketers, among others. This has raised questions about who benefits most (and least) from these new data-sharing arrangements.

Third-party access to and use of the data is an issue where upstream and downstream businesses benefit disproportionately compared with the grower. There is also concern about regulatory protection, with growers seeking assurances that policy will ensure growers’ privacy and data are secure, and their ownership rights upheld.

Farmers, cooperatives and industry associations see the potential for big data to transform Australian agriculture through improved on-farm decision-making, enhanced prediction and analysis, and significant gains in productivity. But they seek a voice in the conversations that drive the design and development of these applications to ensure their co-created data will be managed and curated responsibly, and that the applications that capture their data will be governed responsibly.

This requires that all stakeholders involved in generating, capturing, collecting and using agricultural data need to be equipped to manage the risks and benefits.

Striking a balance

CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform is set to launch the first Australian short course on responsible innovation and agri-technology at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology (CEAT), Australian National University. The course is being delivered online to agri-technology researchers, developers, agricultural producers and policymakers to explore principles of responsible innovation in the context of agricultural technological innovation.

Drawing on innovative science developed by CSIRO’s Digiscape Future Science Platform, the course will examine how agri-technology can be developed and implemented responsibly so that it is inclusive of individual, institutional and societal values and needs. The course also responds to recommendations from the 2016 CSIRO study in the Wimmera Mallee region grain industry, which found that ‘whoever benefits most from agri-tech’ tends to shape people’s expectations and concerns about the technologies.

The short course has been designed to support a transformative approach to agri-technology that will deliver the right business ecosystem, accelerate innovation for wealth and jobs creation, encourage business investment, and incorporate those crucial elements of socially responsible innovation. The course builds the capability and understanding of all stakeholders engaged in agricultural innovation, allowing them to be informed about the data they contribute and use, not just as a consumer, but as a co-creator and curator of the data.

CEAT’s collaboration with CSIRO to pilot the Responsible Innovation course challenged us to reflect on our assumptions about innovation, how we work and embed RI into our mission.”

Denise Higgins, Centre for Entrepeneurial Agri-Technology

Learn more about the Short Course on Responsible Innovation in Agri-Technology on our project page.