Farmers & floods: how information, communication, collaboration happens in the 21st century
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Farmers & floods: how information, communication, collaboration happens in the 21st century

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I’m sat in the basement of Google Campus – a shared office space for tech startups. It’s 530pm. Since 10am today, I and about 150 people – programmers, data specialists, and teams from the Cabinet Office, the Environment Agency, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, uSwitch, and others – have been working on a ‘hackday’, trying to create useful tech solutions to the problems created by flooding.

In just 7 hours, teams have created services for SMS alerting, 3d flood visualisations, pairing downsteam with upstream areas for better prevention, and many others.

See coverage from the BBC here

One might say that this day comes rather late: The floods have been here for months in some parts of the country, and much of the immediate ‘reaction and readiness’ work has already happened.

And in few areas can the response have been better handled than by the farming community. @NFUSouthWest have been collating needs and offers, and @FLAGSomerset, @rhorsington, @wyefarm, @wheat_daddy, @sunkfarmer and many others have been coralling and coordinating with diligence and tenacity. There was even a tweet chat on Thursday night to share thoughts and experiences, organised by @AgrichatUK. As a result livestock was relocated swiftly, and forage has been flowing in from around the country, quickly filling the available space at Sedgemoor Market.

But, yes, whilst this day of programming and technology is certainly late, there’s more to it than giving geeks a self-gratifying feeling of having ‘done something’. It’s about demonstrating what’s possible, showing how we can make things go more smoothly next time, and working with Government and policy makers to say what information we need to most effectively prevent and respond to emergencies.

For example, one might think that information about river levels and flood alerts might be data that’s available to everyone. Afterall, we (taxpayers) paid for it to be collected, for our benefit, via a government we gave power to; and since data can be shared at negligable cost it seems odd not to share it with anyone who can do useful things with it. But until this week that flood data has only been available under licence – starting at £15,000. Ouch.

In response to the unprecedented flooding the Environment Agency flood data has been opened for public use for… 3 months. Not really a very useful period of time, but long enough to show what could be done, and thus make it compelling for politicians to change the licencing terms to make it open for everyone forever. And not just this publicly funded data, but all of it. And so it is that we find ourselves gathered here at #floodhack.

 

How are farms and food businesses effected by flooding?

The immediate response has been very well handled. But let’s look at a few of the long-term implications:

  • Farmers are effected by loss of grazing land need forage to feed their cattle. Due to a great response, there’s now forage for 3-4 weeks exactly where it’s needed. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. There is more bad weather coming: snow is forecast, which will increase flooding and further degrade land and delay return to normal pastures. Much more forage is needed – possibly up to a year’s supply. Where’s it going to come from? And how’s it going to get to where it’s needed?
  • Planting and seeding windows will be missed, leading to land use changes (new types of crop) and lower crop yields due to less land in productve use. That means contracts may have to be broken, and producers are going to have to find new routes to market for new products and / or smaller volumes. Similarly wholesalers and retailers will need to bring in new suppliers and make better use of the available produce.  
  • Farm revenue & Support for buying British. Right now, lots of people are rallying around and helping each other out, and have been reminded of the importance of local resilience and community. At the same time, farm revenue is increasingly unpredicable. How can it be made more secure and resilient?
  • Adjusting to the new normal.  Climate change isn’t going away. What does a resilient food system look like?
  • Natural disasters don’t just happen in the UK. The food system is already gloablised and a failing wheat crop in Canada effects the price of bread here. And even if we don’t worry about global trade, everyone eats and wants to keep on eating.

How can FoodTrade help farms and food businesses effected by flooding?

FoodTrade was founded with these very changes in mind. From resource shortages and climate change to dietary changes and shifting cultural trends, it’s reasonably obvious that the food system will look radically different by 2030.

We set out to give farmers, food businesses, and their customers the tools and information to work together to create the good, clean, fair, secure, prosperous food system we say we want, but have thus far found it quite hard to create.

Most of the barriers to change normally come from the ‘hassle’ factor. It’s easiest to just keep on doing what we’ve always done, and if we do try to change something we find it’s hard to make it convenient and cost-effective. So our work focuses on making change easy and rewarding.

When there’s a flood (fuel strike, drought, disease outbreak etc) and we all have to change what we do whether we like it or not, FoodTrade becomes even more useful.

  • We’ve spend a lot of time making our service easy to use. It takes just a few minutes to put yourself on the map saying what type of business you are, and what you produce. So you’ll be found by those looking for people like you.
  • It’s easy to find new suppliers and stockists. The powerful search lets you search for food and drink near you, filter by business type, certification, or interests.
  • It’s easy to work together. It’s free and easy to collaborate. Just post an update and it will immediately be seen by local businesses, pushed out in newsletters, and show in up searches.
  • It’s as easy as sending a tweet. Just add “@foodtradeHQ” to the message and it’s the same as posting an update on the site. Everything is mapped and searchable, so you get more exposure whether you’re “looking for grazing for 100 sheep for March and April” or “want to source from local producers
  • Keep more of your hard-earned money. Because you have more opportunities to reach more people, more of the time, you can find routes to market for more produce. We have public sector, private, and commercial buyers looking for produce.
  • We never get in the way. Everyone can contact each other directly, so FoodTrade is never a bottleneck. And never take a cut of your sale.
  • Nothing gets lost – everything is always linked and searchable so you may lose your phone to the flood waters, but you’ll never lose your ability to communicate with customers and partners.

What did we do during #floodhack?

A week ago we added the ability to register with a tweet, so even if you’re not already registered you can just sign up by tweeting “@foodtradeHQ #join your@email.com your_postcode” and the send updates right away.

This weekend we started work on the ability to do the same by SMS, so now that same functionality works just as well in remote flood-stricken areas of the UK, as it does for subsistence farmers in Costa Rica.

There is a revolution afoot in the way food is traded. If you’re in the food trade, make sure you’re signed up to FoodTrade to be a part of it.

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