Back in the mid-1980s, I wrote about how GPS would be used to revolutionize our lives. One of my books published back then was called Advances in Agriculture, in which I highlighted how GPS would transform agriculture in the 1990s and beyond.
Today those predictions have come true. Thanks to smart tractors from John Deere, as well as harvesters and planters, farmers can use GPS to do much more than plant a straight row of corn. They can also collect data via GPS to determine exactly where in the field they’re getting the best and worst yields, foot by foot, right along as they harvest. Therefore, when they plant seeds in the spring, farmers can plug that data into their planters and know exactly where to plant more seeds to get a bigger return, and where to plant fewer seeds because the ground is not as fertile. This enables the farmers to maximize their yields.
All this is great news. And because the data comes from the farmers’ equipment and is downloaded onto a memory stick that stays with the farmer, it becomes the farmers’ intellectual property. It’s their data.
However, recently Monsanto, which is one of the biggest companies in agriculture that provides the seeds for genetically-modified crops, has approached the farmers and made an interesting offer: They want all the farmers’ data to go directly from the harvesters and planters to the Monsanto cloud so Monsanto can collect the data on the specifics of each field—what grows well and where. In return, Monsanto will provide the farmers with information on the best ways to work their field as well as the best tools for getting the highest yield and the most profitability.
On the surface, that’s a great incentive for the farmers. It makes a lot of sense. But … who owns the data now? Before going any further, I want to be clear in saying that this example is not about whether Monsanto is doing something good or bad; rather, it is about looking at predictable problems and working together to find solutions before problems begin.
Now here are some big picture questions that would be good for both farmers and Monsanto to discuss and resolve: If Monsanto can get the majority of farmers to agree to let them collect all harvesting and planting data, wouldn’t Monsanto be able to predict the property values of farms better than anyone else? Wouldn’t they be able to predict, faster than anyone else, yields and pricing? Wouldn’t they have more success in the commodities market, because they would have access to real-time yield information before anyone else? And that opens up another big question: Does data ownership need to be regulated, because in this case it would give Monsanto an unfair advantage in the market? Perhaps regulators need to take a look, analyze this, and solve problems before they happen.
As you can see with this example, it is more important now than any other time in history to look at the future impact of new initiatives and offers, as well as the predictable problems that would result, so we can solve those predictable problems before moving forward.
Of course, this Monsanto scenario is just one example. There are many others—some of which can impact your life. For example, there have been several news reports about how Google Now on your smartphone can listen to your television set while you’re watching TV. That could allow Google advertisers to identify what you’re watching so they can give you more targeted advertising based on your real-time viewing habits.
Similarly, another recent news article stated that when you’re playing a video game on a new Xbox, the video camera is on all the time and has the capability to watch you play, watch your emotions, and watch how you react. If a video record of this was created, who owns that video data? Or even bigger, who owns your playtime?
Additionally, many of the new cars today have a type of “black box” in them, along with the dozens of computers that are onboard. That means the black box can know exactly where you are, how fast you’re driving, and many other details of your driving habits. Who owns that data? The insurance company? The auto manufacturer? The driver?
As you can see, there’s a lot of data being collected, and it’s not just by the NSA. It’s by an increasing list of companies that are starting to realize they can monitor everything we do and provide personalized services in real-time.
Now is the time to think about it. Who should own your data? This is a vital topic with many predictable problems we need to start solving today, before they wreck havoc on us tomorrow.