Science Report 026

Who Owns Data? 02

Making Farming Smarter One Dataset at a Time

Japanese farmers are traditionally prolific, producing more crops per acre than many of their counterparts from around the world, despite the average size of their lands being much smaller in global comparison. What makes this possible is their experiential farming knowledge and technology that have been passed down through generations. In recent years, Japan’s younger farmers, who are environmentally conscious “digital natives,” have increasingly been trying to combine this time-honored knowhow with science and data – a trend that has shined a light on the importance of open science. Prof. Sakae Shibusawa of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, the champion of “science-driven farming” in Japan, and Prof. Takeshi Osawa of Tokyo Metropolitan University, an ardent proponent of open data, recently sat down to discuss what the future holds for Japanese farming and open science. Science Report was there to hear their thoughts.

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Sakae Shibusawa

Ask an Expert: Prof. Sakae Shibusawa (Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology)

Dr. Shibusawa, a member of the Science Council of Japan, is a specially appointed professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. His research focuses include the development of soil sensors and other uses of information communication technology (ICT) to promote social applications of circular agriculture. He also actively works to support intelligence-based farming communities. He has served on the Cabinet’s committee that strategizes IT uses for societal benefits. He has a PhD in agriculture from Kyoto University and served as professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology’s Agriculture Department and Graduate School of Agriculture before returning to the university in his current position.

Takeshi Osawa

Ask an Expert: Prof. Takeshi Osawa (Tokyo Metropolitan University)

Dr. Osawa specializes in the study of biodiversity information science. He creates databases of environmental science data, such as geographical distribution of living organisms, and works on research projects that build on the information available from the databases. He serves on the Japan steering committee of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which promotes the collection and sharing of biodiversity data from around the world. Dr. Osawa received his PhD in science from Kobe University. He served as a researcher at the National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences’s Natural Resources Inventory Center, and as a principal investigator at one of the research centers at the Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, before being appointed to his current university position.

Science-driven agriculture as key to farmers’ financial success

Prof. Shibusawa became Japan’s forerunner in “precision agriculture” 25 years ago, when the novel farming concept began garnering researchers’ attention in Japan and elsewhere. Precision agriculture seeks to add value to farmers’ knowledge gained through experience by providing them with scientific evidence.

“When they have data to back up their experience, farmers can explain with confidence why something grew better than some others.  And that, in turn, can inspire them to innovate solutions. They may make necessary adjustments to address the lack of uniformity in the quality of crops. Or, they may decide to leave the way it is, and that would be a solution in itself,” Prof. Shibusawa said.

He pointed out that 80 percent of farms in Japan and around the world are family-owned and that the surrounding environment and community support are important factors in their successes.

“Scientific data can play a critical role in the decision-making of communities,” Prof. Shibusawa said.

Smart farming – which essentially means precision agriculture – started to become a popular concept during the first decade of the 21st Century, as the advancement of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and other information-communication technology (ICT) prompted collaborations among farmers and scientists. In 2016, smart farming became a part of Japan’s “fifth science and technology basic plan,” or “Society 5.0.” Smart farming aims not only to increase profitability but also to reduce costs while mitigating farms’ environmental footprints.

“An effective farming management strategy is key to achieving these goals simultaneously,” Prof. Shibusawa said. He noted that agricultural students are often interested in learning business management.

In open science, every bit of data counts

“Some researchers take such out-of-the-box approaches in their research that you will say, ‘Never thought of that!’” It is most fun to find that kind of research work. I myself strive to be inventive like that and encourage my students to think freely and tap into their originality.” (Prof. Osawa, right)

Sharing data or access to it is the foundation of open science activities. Prof. Osawa has always believed that enabling the public to use statistical information compiled by public agencies is just as important as making academic research data and papers accessible to everyone. To that end, while working as a researcher at the National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences (NIAES) in 2016, he converted domestic land use statistics (previously available to the public only in spreadsheet form) into Japan-standardized regional mesh map data. Mesh maps refer to digital maps with multiple datasets, such as topography and population data, layered on them.

“Painstaking observational work, such as counting and recording the number of leaves or insects, is an important part of studying natural history. But you, as an individual researcher or lab, can do only so much if you are working alone. This is where the governmental survey network comes in. The network, which encompasses the entire country, is a tremendous resource,” Prof. Osawa said. “Besides, the work is paid for by taxpayers’ money. So, I hope all the data will be made available to the public.”

Creating new value out of existing data is the crux of open science.

“The person counting insects may not necessarily be thinking about this, but every count represents factual data. As long as it is a number that can be retrieved later to demonstrate a theory, there is a meaning to it.” Prof. Osawa said.

He noted that some data, including personal data, needs to be released more carefully than others.

“Having said that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make data only partially available, such as sharing it only with a group of experts, for example. When opening sensitive information, you should make clear to the public how the data was obtained and so forth, and let people use the data at their own risk,” Prof. Osawa said. “Public agencies should take the ‘open by default’ approach in sharing their data by providing it in a machine-readable format.”

Prof. Osawa is not alone in his thoughts. Many of his colleagues around the globe share his sentiments regarding how open data should be handled.

Prof. Osawa has also been using open data for his own research, including a project to create maps to understand how the physical demarcation of farmland affects the distribution of endangered plants, as well as a project to quantitatively demonstrate how global warming and land development are causing speckled rice stink bugs, the rice pest, to spread across Japan’s Tohoku (northeast) region.

“As a scientist, I have the natural desire to discover what can be described as universal phenomena and the overarching rules and principles to explain them,” he said. “To do that, having access to sweeping data is just as important as making detailed observations.”

Open data creates new possibilities for farming

“There used to be a literary genre called ‘farmers’ stories. In today’s digital world, I can easily imagine fictional stories and new forms of entertainment based on farming data. Farming is all about nature, and so farming data is really interesting and has profound meaning. If people ask for the government to release pest-related data to use it for novel-writing, for example, that would help promote access to public data. When data is used for literature that way, it would also make farming more relatable to everyone.” (Prof. Shibusawa)

Farmland may have fences, but one needs to remember agricultural lots are a part of a larger natural environment, Prof. Shibusawa said. When considering how water resources, wind and other elements work together, it only makes sense to look at a few hundred to a few thousand hectares as one unit, he said. For example, farms are able to grow truly organic food only if the whole community commits itself to not using pesticide, according to Prof. Shibusawa. He pointed out that communitywide decision-making based on data-sharing among all farmers within the same region is becoming more important than ever, as domestic farms try to boost their agricultural performance to compete against imported foods amid the globalization of the market.

“I suppose farmers have never really compared notes on each other’s knowhow or technology to see what’s happening regionally, and whether it’s a communitywide phenomenon. I suspect such a ‘culture of sharing’ has traditionally been lacking among them,” Prof. Shibusawa said. “So-called digital natives, who grew up accessing free information on the internet, on the other hand, seem to feel natural about sharing and collecting data widely. Agricultural data can be used for many different purposes, including those that are far removed from growing crops. So, it’s actually more appropriate to call it just ‘data’ without the adjective, ‘agricultural.’”

Prof. Shibusawa envisions data open science to grow in Japan as a vehicle to carry forward conversations among all the stakeholders.

“Decision-making in Japanese communities tends to start with a roundtable type of discussion involving all the players. They have the same information and make decisions together. Setting a “ba,” or a space for the group to share always comes first, and they define the space and allocate responsibilities after discussions have advanced. So, to promote open science and open data, I think we ought to first create a community, “ba,” for it first as well. Once people begin coming together around it, and if it becomes a go-to place for sharing information, it will then become clear to us how to take it from there,” Prof. Shibusawa said. “Eventually, multiple communities like this will burgeon across Japan. When these communities begin communicating with each other, that will give some structure to open science activities.”

Prof. Osawa said that open science is a new way of bringing people together.

“People meet others whom they would have never gotten to know if it wasn’t for open data and open science, and such connections among people drive society forward,” Prof. Osawa said. “I always tell everyone that the day I call myself an open science expert, I become irrelevant .”

Profs. Osawa (left) and Shibusawa on the campus of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology

Interviewer: Rue Ikeya
Photographs: Yuji Iijima unless noted otherwise
Released on: Oct. 12, 2020 (The Japanese version released on Oct. 10, 2019)

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