Digital Strategy & Innovation

What if Facebook & Co. transferred data also on how much we eat and the food we produce?

by Filippo Renga and Chiara Corbo, Smart AgriFood Observatory

We’ve already broadly spoken about how important data is in the AgriFood sector through our research and work groups (“Cultivate data. Harvest value. Digital transformation in AgriFood”), as well as a prior key note on the blog (We must not allow anyone to steal the big data we eat! “Non facciamoci rubare i big data che mangiamo!”).

The recent Facebook scandal brings the topic further into the spotlight. It’s undeniable that big players have a strong “appetite” for information on consumer eating habits. Together with Facebook, basing its business model on this data, is certainly Instagram, another company in Mark Zuckerberg’s galaxy of properties: a platform with about half a billion users where Food is a major trend, and which reveals much about users’ tastes. But there are other major players on the web chasing after this data. Such as Google, which not coincidentally, ran an important project with Italian Chambers of Commerce; TripAdvisor, that closely monitors that last mile through reviews and restaurant bookings, following both diners and restaurant owners; Alibaba, whose openly stated goal is guiding the Chinese in Italian food purchases “step by step” across Europe as regards payments as well as travel information, but is also collaborating with dairy factories; Apple, with its wallet and mobile payments is leading us towards transactional services just as it has done in the past with information through apps; and many others.

But there are also more traditional players, as in the agriculture and service providing worlds, that have taken decisive action. John Deere, for example, purchased (for 305 Million dollars), Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley startup operating in Agriculture 4.0 supported by machine learning; IBM acquired The Weather Company, with the clear goal of supporting the agriculture supply chain and seasonal food producers. Agro chemistry industry giants are now moving confidently in the digital innovation ecosystem, adding data processing platforms and services to their portfolio. Syngenta, for example, recently acquired FarmShots, that developed high resolution satellite image acquisition systems and a platform that enables data to be accessed at any time, in addition to adapting the format to most software used in agriculture. Bayer made an agreement with Planetary Resources, a startup that operates in remote satellite detection and marketing of collected data. Moreover, technologic integration starting from Big Data management has been one of the drivers of the integration agreement between Chemical industry leaders Monsanto and Bayer, an operation that worried the European Commission and NGOs due to the huge amount of data that the group will have available.

With this knowledge we pose ourselves some questions and come up with some quick conclusions, by no means conclusive, but that will substantially drive our future Research work as well as the work of many companies.

1 – “What is the goal of these players?” Obviously we’re talking about valorizing such data in their operating accounts. Almost too simple.

2 – “How can they valorize the data?” There are many options. Just some examples analyzed by our research: steering consumers through simple advertising or promos, but also more sophisticated mechanisms such as loyalty or brand engagement systems; selling information about their supply chain to companies in order to manage it at best; etc.

3 – “What are the implications of all this for the European ecosystem?”. Threats and opportunities, as usually happens in the event of strong innovation. Threats, because companies far from our ecosystem and justifiably disinclined to invest, mainly to invoice, in our Country, can leverage this data by harnessing us like pack animals (as happens, for example, with online advertising). Opportunity, because this data belongs to us, consumers and companies of the agricultural and agrifood supply chains: we can therefore leverage it to generate value for our ecosystem of business organizations and consumers. All we have to do is acquire appropriate competences: business, legal, etc.

The menu of the future is rich with data? It certainly is. If the courses are not well known, the risk is getting indigestion or wasting resources in wrong purchases, mistaking an appetizer for a dessert, for example.

Let’s invest in knowledge and competence!!

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