Soybeans and data privacy

Digital SoybeansNext time you drive past a soybean farm, look closely. You may be staring at the center of a data privacy controversy. One that carries an important PR lesson for all of us.

Farmland owners who don’t wish to farm often lease their land to people who do want to farm. It’s an arena into which, inevitably, the gig economy found its way. As early as 2012, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture came up with an “Airbnb for farmland” app. It matched would-be farmland lessors with would-be farmland lessees. They jokingly referred to the app as “eFarmony.”

Today’s best-known eFarmony-type app is Tillable. It leases farmland from owners and sublets it to farmers. “Tillable was created to help landowners receive fair rent and get the insights they need about their farm’s performance,” the app’s home page says, 

while also helping great farmers build their reputations and expand operations. We’re using the power of data and technology to make renting farmland easier, more profitable and more efficient than ever before.

Late last year, Tillable announced a pending partnership that would link the app with the Climate Corporation’s Climate FieldView app, which “does the listening so you can get the most out of every acre.”

We’re your data partner to seamlessly collect, store, and visualize critical field data, monitor and measure the impact of your agronomic decisions on crop performance, and manage your field variability by building customized fertility and seeding plans for your fields to optimize yield and maximize profit. 

PR Newswire reported:

Approximately 40 percent of U.S. farmland is rented or leased, according to USDA estimates. Despite the sizeable $32 billion farmland rental market in the U.S., Tillable is the first and only digital platform to optimize returns for landowners. The platform also helps farmers access land to expand operations. Now, FieldView farmer customers using Tillable can more easily share farm operation details, such as planting and yield data, that they’re already collecting through the FieldView platform.

But all that initially great PR about Tillable’s data and technology wizardly turned on a dime into a PR nightmare.

It began when Tillable started signing up landowners en masse. The practice ended some longstanding relationships between landowners and renters. That alone displeased renter-farmers, but a deeper concern soon unfolded. Farmers who had been using FieldView to maximize yield and profits wondered if Tillable had used their data to woo away landlords with promises of greater returns. Last week NPR News reported:

Farmers on Twitter started sharing suspicions about the Tillable-Climate Corporation partnership. They accused the two companies of trafficking in farmer data. [Tillable CEO] Corbett Kull denies this. The accusations “were absolutely false,” he says. “We had never accessed the data from Climate [Corporation].” Yet the storm on social media forced the two companies to announce that they were cancelling their partnership.

There’s a postscript to the story that everyone in the business of compiling and mining data should take to heart:

Parker Smith [who led the protest] says that he never worried about his farm data before, and who might be able to see it. Now, he and a lot of other farmers probably will.

Indeed, public suspicion of data mining will only grow. Sophisticated data manipulation is a two-edged sword. On one edge is the ability to improve the customer experience, reduce fraud, match needs with solutions, and increase efficiencies. As reports, “Companies participating in the gig economy can easily scale their operations to meet demand and easily navigate economic tides. This approach works for customers, workers and businesses.” But it adds a word of caution pertaining to the sword’s other edge: “What makes the machinery of the gig economy churn is also the industry’s biggest risks: sharing and storage of sensitive data.” 

Ride share innovator Uber learned this the hard way in 2016 when hackers … stole the personal data of 57 million drivers and ridersThe New York Times reported. The firm was so embarrassed by the intrusion that it waited for more than a year to publicize the event, a decision that drew immense backlash from both customers and the contract employees that trusted Uber to keep their data safe.

As the Uber and Tillable anecdotes bear out, besides the risk of harm from misuse of data is the PR-risk side of things. Customers worry about use of their data, from suspicions of being spied upon to worries about being unfairly manipulated—think Cambridge Analytica.

It goes without saying that financial institutions must have in place rigorous protections against the misuse and appropriation of data. But it’s also important to manage customer perceptions.It may be true that Tillable did not access and abuse data from FieldView, but from a PR standpoint, that’s irrelevant if users reject Tillable’s innocence claims. It’s also important always to have at the ready a plan for handling data breaches. Including perceived ones.

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