Open AIR: Sharing agricultural data openly can help feed the world

Project ‘A Data Commons for Food Security’

Agricultural data like weather patterns, market prices, and agricultural inputs are vital to farmer organizations and food production. But while farmers generate a lot of the information, they rarely have legal rights to use it. Now, a joint African-Canadian project is proposing a solution: ‘A Data Commons for Food Security’, designing a licensing model to allow farmers to benefit from the data sets to which they contribute. Currently, companies and governments who collect agricultural data have broad freedom to claim ownership of the data and choose whether to offer ‘open access’ to it. Even when farmers have access to the data, they have no control over it.

The proposed license would benefit key people involved in agricultural data by addressing farmers’ needs for privacy, control, and benefit sharing when gathering data. This would, in turn, encourage more farmers to participate. Small and medium-sized companies that collect data would benefit from a licensing model that better protects farmers, because that protection encourages trust and openness.

The South African enterprise Abalobi, for example, achieved traction with fisherfolk because they have built rights of control, access, and privacy into their design. Their experience shows that all parties benefit from data protection.

Based on the successful Creative Commons and Fair Trade movements, the project ‘A Data Commons for Food Security’ proposes an organization to develop the licensing process to create a common data resource. The organization would work through engagement with both farmers and data collectors, and would also act as a social certification, allowing companies to show they follow best data collection practices.

Open AIR agricultural field research. Photo and copyright: Open AIR.

The implications of a ‘data commons’ could extend beyond agriculture, as this model could become a standard for data collection in general, and ultimately re-balance the relationship between those who provide data and those who collect it.

Open AIR Network

The newly proposed model has been developed by researchers from the Open African Innovation Research Network (Open AIR), a multi-disciplinary network of researchers from fifteen African countries, Canada, and elsewhere, working to recognize Africa’s role in the global knowledge economy. It builds on earlier research regarding ‘Ownership of Open Data’, performed in collaboration with the initiative Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN).


Funding for this research was provided by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund through the Global Institute for Food Security and P2IRC the Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre, and by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC/CRSH), and the Canadian International Development Research Council (IDRC/CRDI).


Research information
Jeremiah Baarbé, member New and Emerging Researchers Group (NERG) Open AIR, e-mail

Media inquiries
Canada: Victoria Schorr, Program Manager, Open AIR, Ottawa, e-mail
South Africa: Nan Warner, Program Manager, Open AIR, Cape Town, e-mail

IASC involvement

Several Open AIR participants are members of the IASC. The project was presented at the XVI Biennial IASC-Conference ‘Practicing the commons: Self-Governance, cooperation and institutional change’, held at Utrecht University in the Netherlands (July 10-14, 2017).

Download conference paper (pdf)

Authored by: Jeremiah Baarbé, member New and Emerging Researchers Group (NERG) Open AIR / Juris Doctor (JD) Candidate, University of Ottawa