Water for Food

Data one part of harnessing the data revolution

October 22, 2014

Henry Reges, a meteorologist at Colorado State University demonstrates a rain gauge used by “citizen scientists” who provide daily recordings for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

Henry Reges, a meteorologist at Colorado State University demonstrates a rain gauge used by “citizen scientists” who provide daily recordings for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

By Molly Nance

The Water for Food Global Conference in Seattle has concluded, and we’re heading back to Nebraska with new ideas and fresh perspectives on the ways in which data has the opportunity to improve water and food security.

But the data itself is only one piece of harnessing the data revolution, as experts made clear throughout three days of presentations and panel discussions.

The data must be analyzed and interpreted in ways that provide useful information. Building capacity to analyze data, both in developed and developing countries, is a key component moving forward.

While a remarkable amount and variety of data is available, it must be useful for farmers. We are just in the beginning stages of transforming that data into something farmer’s can use to improve yields, said Martin Pasman, farmer and president of Valmont Industries de Argentina.

First, farmers must trust that the data will benefit them and remain private. To build trust, farmer’s need to be involved in the process of creating the data.

We heard about several examples of this participatory process in action. Paul Hicks, of Catholic Relief Services described Mapeo-Amano, a project in El Salvador that takes satellite or aerial images to farming communities so they can identify water resources and other important landscape markers. The communities and others use the maps to generate ideas and better plan for extreme events.

In a much different setting, a large and growing collaborative network of researchers and farmers in Nebraska work together to conserve irrigation water and energy. Today, about 1,200 farmers participate in the University of Nebraska’s Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network, representing 1.7 million acres.

Technology alone isn’t the solution. The importance of bringing in the human and social dimension of water and food security—from health and gender issues to infrastructure and access to markets—was repeatedly noted by speakers and participants alike.

In particular, we must improve on simplifying and communicating the data to the public and decision-makers, said Bashir Jama, of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Whether discussing water metering in China or mitigating extreme drought in California, policymakers and the public must be educated on the issues to improve policies and their acceptance.

Henry Reges, of Colorado State University, described CoCoRaHS, a unique program that uses volunteers from across the U.S. to provide extensive precipitation data. The popular program not only provides valuable data to numerous government agencies for a wide variety of purposes, but also engages the public in a meaningful way.

Stories provide a particularly effective means of communicating data. Stories make people lower their guard, said Phillip Owens, of Purdue University. It’s more effective to use the data to support the story, than to use the data to tell the story, he said.

Success stories are especially helpful in communicating to the public and policymakers, said Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, and he encouraged participants to visit the institute’s website http://pacinst.org for numerous examples.

If you missed the 2014 Water for Food Global Conference, conference, you can watch it on YouTube.

Photos from the conference are available on Facebook.

Molly Nance is DWFI’s director of communication and public relations.

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