84. Babel Fish of Agriculture

Data interoperability in agriculture

“Software is Feeding the World” is a weekly newsletter about technology trends for Food/AgTech leaders.

I was planning to not write this week’s newsletter due to the Thanksgiving break here in the US. I got excited after reading Megan Shahan’s report on interoperability (h/t to Sachi Desai). This week’s edition is a shorter version than normal.

Analysis: Babel fish of agriculture?

Image source: Behance.net

Babel fish (from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): The Babel fish is a small, bright yellow fish, which can be placed in someone's ear in order for them to be able to hear any language translated into their first language.

💡Key takeaway: Any transaction requires “interoperability”. The agriculture industry is catching up on interoperability through standards like ISOBUS, initiatives like ADAPT, and tools provided by companies like Leaf Ag. At its core, interoperability is a non-zero sum game, and it is about growing the size of the pie for the ecosystem, through trust and collaboration. 

Last week, I wrote about the Ag Tools & Apps theory in the context of Bayer and Microsoft. I had posed a few open questions at the end, and one of them was,

Will it support interoperability through standardized APIs?

What does interoperability mean?

Megan Shahan (consultant at Mixing Bowl etc.) wrote a report titled “Data interoperability in agriculture” and defined interoperability as,

Interoperability is the ability to exchange and make use of data between devices and systems.

Interoperable data unlocks actionable insights by connecting disparate sets of data and illuminating real world interactions and trends. Farmers can leverage interoperable data to optimize resource utilization and improve business, production, and sustainability decisions.

Interoperability can improve the customer experience with better onboarding (similar to Login with FB or Login with Google), consistent decision making (same data shared with the same meaning), multi-party collaboration (between different entities), and reducing system latencies.

Elements of interoperability

Megan Shahan describes 3 elements of interoperability. It is important to break it down into its components, so that the industry and organizations can identify gaps.

Technical: Infrastructure and protocols: the physical infrastructure is in place to transport bits of data.

This refers to the existence of APIs, and protocols to exchange data between two systems.

Syntactic (or structural): Common data structure: the ability to communicate and exchange data between two or more systems through a standardized structure and format; shared syntax.

For example, if one system sends yield information, can the other system receive it correctly?

Semantic: Common data definition: the ability to exchange data between systems and for the data to be understood by each system; shared meaning.

For example, if one system interprets “moisture” data in a certain way, does the other system interpret the “moisture” data in the exact same way?

In the case of the Babel fish, it caused many wars and fights, as it solved technical interoperability very well, did an okay job on the syntactic interoperability, and did a poor job on the semantic interoperability!!

The agriculture industry suffers from challenges (to a varying degree) on all three types of interoperability. The models developed by equipment manufacturers is a big challenge, as it creates proprietary data formats for devices, and for the resulting data coming from or consumed by them. It poses challenges for technical, syntactic, and semantic interoperability. 

Megan Shahan writes,

Interoperability can fundamentally be thought of as an issue of trust, collaboration, and data sharing.

Interoperability is portrayed as a technical and social challenge, which it is, but it is about value creation, and collaboration. It is about growing the size of the pie. There are still some organizations within agriculture, which treat it as a zero-sum game. They feel that by supporting interoperability, they are giving up some of their competitive advantage, and in almost all cases, it is not true.

Transformation of the food, and agriculture systems will require commitment from the industry partners to support, and invest in common initiatives. Climate change, though sometimes nebulous to wrap our heads around, is a common problem for everyone, and hopefully we will see increased collaboration due to climate change efforts.

Some prominent sectors of the agriculture industry (especially those who deal with precision data) have been working on common data models for structural and semantic interoperability.

It is very difficult to rally a large enough quorum of the industry to get behind some common standards.

Image source: XKCD

AgGateway and ADAPT

AgGateway and the ADAPT framework has had success in creating a coalition of the willing of many OEMs, ag input manufacturers, ag retailers etc. among others.

AgGateway and ADAPT provides a common set of tools, data definitions, and open source code to help organizations adopt a common set of standards for precision data. The fact that the software and model is open sourced is important. It makes it easy for other organizations to learn from, and contribute to it.

The ADAPT standard was built as a complementary approach to ISO 11783 standards.

ISO 11783-1:2017 as a whole specifies a serial data network for control and communications on forestry or agricultural tractors and mounted, semi-mounted, towed or self-propelled implements. Its purpose is to standardize the method and format of transfer of data between sensors, actuators, control elements, and information storage and display units, whether mounted on, or part of, the tractor or implement.

(If you want to get a copy of the ISO 11783 standard, you have to pay CHF 118. How ironic!!)

It is important to emphasize this aspect of ADAPT, as it has taken an existing set of ISO guidelines, and then adapted, and expanded them to precision agriculture and beyond.

The ADAPT framework consists of an Agricultural Application Data Model, a common API (Application Programming Interface), and a combination of open source and proprietary data conversion plug-ins.

AgGateway has expanded (or plan to) their work beyond field operations, by looking at lab data standardization, traceability, product catalogs, reference data, inputs etc., though it has room for improvement on technical challenges like supporting .NET (an outdated Microsoft framework, with challenges to find the right skill sets), and non-precision data (for example, remote sensing data).

Roads to interoperability

In her article, Megan Shahan talks about four roads for interoperability,

  1. Point-to-point integrations (Most common today, but has limited value, as most farmers share data with outside providers)

Image source: Purdue Ag

  1. Linking systems of systems (ADAPT will fall in this category, though ADAPT is voluntary to a large degree)

  2. Formal standardization (for example, ISOBUS): I am not holding my breath for this to happen 

  3. Walled garden integrations. (Deere Ops center is an example of a walled garden integration with more than 250 partner integrations. Deere market position allows them to pursue this strategy.)

Conclusion

If we look at the experience from the medical industry (HLN7 standards) or the logistics industry (remember EDI 214s and EDI 856s?), the interoperability road is long, and the only way to continue on it is to continue to show incremental value of collaboration.

Writing Pod

My podcast on writing with Shane Thomas (Upstream Ag Insights) was published earlier this week. You can listen to my earlier podcasts on writing with Arnab Ray, Janette Barnard, and Sarah Mock at the same link.

So, what do you think?

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About me

My name is Rhishi Pethe. I lead the product management team at Project Mineral (focused on sustainable agriculture). The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.

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