It’s like a scene from an old-timey western movie. A grizzled cowboy squints into the horizon and says “I don’t like the look of those clouds. Storm is a’ brewin.”
I’ve witnessed similar body language as I cross the country talking to farmers about mobile technology and the new world of data management, but it’s the virtual Cloud that farmers narrow their eyes at. Skepticism, distrust and even contempt are common reactions to the notion of storing production, financial or personal data on the Cloud.
So what is this Cloud everyone is talking about?
It’s a huge topic, but at the heart of it, Cloud computing is primarily about moving away from storing data and software on that desktop computer in the office and using data storage tools and software that is stored and accessed via the Internet.
The most common response from farmers is concern about allowing their data to be stored somewhere other than on their own hardware. It’s a control and privacy thing. Who will see my data? Is it vulnerable to hackers and data thieves? Where is it, exactly?
I had a lengthy discussion with a senior farmer about storing pictures of his grandkids on DropBox or iCloud, Apple’s proprietary Cloud service. I explained that instead of having hard copies in a drawer and JPegs on the computer in his house, the images would be stored on dozens and dozens of servers on the Internet. His computer could crash and his house could burn down, but he could access those pictures from any connected computer or mobile device from anywhere in the world. The uber-redundancy of Cloud storage makes it unlikely that he would ever lose those pictures. He listened patiently then asked, “but where are the pictures”?
It can be hard to get your head around. The way we use banks is a decent analogy. You can stuff your money into a mattress and you’ll always know where it is and be able to get your mitts on it. You have full control but also full exposure to risk from fire, flood and theft. Most of us recognize that this is not an acceptable approach. The banks are in the business of storing money and even though bank branches get robbed from time to time, we have confidence that our money is safe even though we may not know exactly where our cold hard cash is actually stored. It is safe and it’s available.
Same goes for data. I for one am more than happy to hand off the chore and responsibility of storing data, backing it up, transferring it to new hardware, and worrying about it. For years I had to keep a fossilized 286 PC in the office just so I could grab yield monitor data from obsolete sram memory cards. Data collection and transfer will be an ever-more mobile and wireless experience. No more transferring to and from thumb drives. Data will move wirelessly from our smartphones, tablets, combines, sprayers, barns, greenhouses to Cloud based resources.
The next step in understanding Cloud storage is that it’s up to you which Cloud service you use and who has access to it.
You can use a generic file storage service like DropBox and password protection makes it unavailable to anyone but you (please tell me you are using a password manager utility!). You can also share these files with other specific individuals or even make it available to the public. It’s up to you.
There is a gold rush mentality in agri-business regarding crop production data. There are companies that are providing data management services to farmers and part of the deal is that they get to add your data to their collective data base. Often the company promises not to share your data and that it will not be possible for anyone to link specific data back to you. It’s the aggregated data that they are chasing.
It’s a little like early days with yield monitors. Farmers collected reams of data with the expectation that after a number of years, a management epiphany would leap from the aggregated data. It wasn’t that easy. But if a company is able to gather a big enough ball of data that can show collectively how we’re farming, emerging trends in production practices, and most importantly, the products we buy or need, that data base becomes extremely valuable, at least in theory.
If you are working with a company that manages your farm data, ask the question and find out if your data is shared or not. Understand the business model for farm data aggregation. Data is valuable.
Crop production data is one thing. Financial data is another. Farmers that I talk to are most concerned about others accessing or hacking into their financial data if it is stored electronically on the Cloud. Most tax returns are filed electronically these days so in some ways the horse is out of the barn. We are starting to see accounting software that utilizes mobile devices to allow income/expense data to be collected on the fly rather than being entered manually back at the desktop computer in the office. This data will be sent to Cloud based resources and directed to the desktop software. Convenient, but we’ll need to understand where the data is going and how it is directed.
The bottom line is, Cloud based data management and software tools offer freedom and enhanced security and backup compared to the desktop computer. Our job shifts from storing and backing up the data ourselves to understanding and selecting the most appropriate Cloud tools. We’ll talk more about these tools in future articles. If you have a specific question about the Cloud, let us know. We’re on it.
Peter Gredig is a corn, soybean and wheat producer who farms near St.Thomas, Ontario. He is also a partner in AgNition Inc., a Guelph based mobile development company focused on building agriculture apps and mobile solutions. Peter.Gredig@agnition.ca