This edition of the #DataValues Digest was originally published May 25 here.

Nearly 300 million people around the world are facing crisis levels of hunger. The number of people vulnerable to acute food insecurity has doubled since 2019, according to the World Food Programme, while rising prices are threatening “a crisis like no other” in the Horn of Africa. Data and digital technology hold enormous potential to target long-term responses to growing rates of food insecurity, but entrenched inequalities often exclude those who could benefit the most from accessing digital tools.

The rise of digital feudalism (outlined in the figure below), in which a few powerful actors control access to data and technology, raises important concerns around power imbalances as well as resulting data asymmetries and their impact on society.

Figure 1: Digital Feudalism class structure: Generally speaking, privately-owned digital service providers have morphed into digital landowners, where the trade-off is user data (of little value on its own but invaluable once collected at scale and aggregated) in exchange for access to technologies and services.

Digital feudalism affects many domains, though perhaps none as open to exploitation as agriculture. Agroindustrial multinational corporations dominate the industry even though smallholders account for over 80 percent of the world’s estimated 500 million farms. Smallholders provide the majority of the food consumed across the developing world and contribute significantly to food security and poverty reduction. Beyond the availability of data, these mostly rural farming communities often face additional challenges in accessing the benefits of data, such as digital illiteracy, limited connectivity, and poverty, leaving them even more vulnerable in a sector in which they are already largely marginalized.

As in other sectors, the adoption of digital technology in farming saw the start of a major transformation toward better services and products, innovations, enhanced decision making, and increased profitability and productivity. But smallholder farmers have not benefited equally from this increased use of data capture technologies.

Issues surrounding the rise of big data “land owners” are not only technical but also ethical in nature when we consider the power imbalance and potential for feudalistic exploitation this creates as well as the possible impacts on society. Earth observation (EO) data, for example, is enormously beneficial to farmers, helping them optimize planning and allowing for better prediction and understanding of weather patterns, blights of pests, and plant diseases—among other things. And, it’s provided freely and openly through organizations such as NASA (USA), ESA (EU), CSA (Canada) and CNES (France). End users are nevertheless mostly dependent on intermediaries (such as government extension services) that subsidize private, big data platforms to make effective use of these datasets. The wider adoption of digital technology in farming opens opportunities for big data platforms to link open EO data with on-the-ground data, obtaining accurate insights into crop production that are simply not available to smallholder farmers.

Addressing these issues starts with advancing dialogue on developing ethical principles and solutions to questions including how regulators and governments should address these concerns in mainstream policy and how digital literacy education can help to mitigate these risks. Understanding public perspectives is key to this, as recognized in the UK’s Geospatial Strategy where the Geospatial Commission is using a series of public consultations to address issues such as privacy, data misuse, and inequity. 

Initiatives like the Locus Charter provide a good basis for developing data ethics that can be mainstreamed into national curriculums or training to transform people from tech users to empowered digital citizens. The Locus Charter provides a wider, shared understanding of risks and solutions relating to uses of location data, improving standards of practice and helping protect individuals and the public interest. Such training would improve understanding of the risks of digital feudalism while encouraging discourse on this increasingly important topic.

Science and data, especially where it is publicly subsidized or funded, should not be monopolized for the benefit of shareholders of a handful of big data platforms. However, while open licenses are an important first step to enabling greater access to data and knowledge, ethical frameworks in governance at all levels (from global to national and local) are essential to protect democracy, prevent corruption, protect human rights, and empower smallholder farmers to contribute to food security around the world.

This content was published on May 26, 2022 and updated on May 26, 2022.