Data Management Programs: In a Crowded Precision Ag Market, How Do You Choose?
I am a firm believer that data, especially map-based data, must be experienced. Seeing your data as a map in addition to a report or spreadsheet will always be of value as a step on the data literacy path. Before we can get excited about what the future holds in terms of the benefits of big data analysis, AI, or machine learning, front-end users need to experience their own data. Delving into your own data will either confirm you are on the right management path that you have planned, or it will provide the information you need to prosper in an ever-changing business environment. Most importantly, it should inspire curiosity as we continually improve, develop, and grow as this industry’s drivers.
To do that data needs a place to live. So where do you set up house? When asked I always say: “The best software (app or web portal) is one you will actually use.”
In a few short years the ag marketplace has changed from a landscape with only a few programs available to manage farm information to a very crowded and sometimes confusing field of apps, software, and data services. In Ontario, Canada farmers are fortunate in that there is an abundance of highly experienced consultants and crop input suppliers who have been involved in precision ag and the data generated since the inception of these technologies. This experienced infrastructure is true across many areas in North America. Now growers and industry users are looking at the newest data management offerings to build on that history.
The stalwarts that have developed over the last 15-20 years started as more traditional desktop software packages (Ag Leader’s SMS, John Deere’s Apex, SST Summit, Trimble’s formerly known as Farm Works component) and have gradually moved more and more to the cloud. They are all now leveraging Internet connectivity from field or tractor cab to office and back as with Ag Leader’s Agfiniti, Deere’s Operation Center-JD Link, the SST suite, and Trimble Connected Farm.
A number of “Big Company-Big Data” cloud-based industry offerings are joining the public consciousness. Including, but not limited to Climate Corp.’s FieldView, DuPont/Pioneer Encirca Services, BASF’s Compass, and Bayer’s upcoming xarvio. There are also a hundred others out there, many popping up from dubious Silicon Valley startups and others from highly recognized ag industry companies. All of the offerings are touting increasing interconnectedness throughout the industry.
As you investigate or sample these industry options consider the following guidelines:
1. Understand what you want or need to do that these new products might offer:
The first question you need to ask is “what do I want to be able to do?” Having a strong sense of purpose or a healthy dose of curiosity is the best way to determine whether any of these programs is right for you and your business. The best approach is to investigate both online and with your local rep for these companies. They know their product and talking to them will gauge the depth of their product knowledge and their ability to work with you if you choose their product. I also recommend you actually sit with someone who uses the product for a true user perspective of the benefits and limitations.
Only you can determine whether you need to be able to “view” or if you need more tools to be able to “do”. If the product you choose is a viewer and you decide you want to get more involved with the doing such as switching from having a service deliver your prescriptions to creating your own Rx scenarios, is there an upgrade path or do you have to add on a complimentary product?
2. Understand what the product really is:
- Software or “app” that allows you to create your own data and view/manipulate your own data traditionally loaded on a desktop or laptop. If you stop paying for updates, the software is still there with your data even if not the newest version with current capabilities.
- Software as a Service (SaaS) web-based or cloud app, acquired by a subscription. You license the use of the website/app/software for as long as you are a subscriber. You have to take your data out if you intend to discontinue use, and once you do, your contact with data is gone.
- Data as a Service (DaaS) web-based or cloud app as above but usually data is also provided such as background maps or periodic feed of data such as weather or imagery. Usually data provided is only accessible while subscription is in place and is not transferable, only usable within the app.
- Is it standalone or is it part of a software ecosystem? I have a list of 27 really good scouting programs. Some are designed to work within a family of products, some are data collectors that can send into any number of third-party products. Some are a total dead end. Just reading the advertising for these apps will not always help you understand the nuances.
Some companies want to deal direct to grower and then the grower can elect to share over to an advisor or local supplier or consultant. Some systems are designed to be adopted by an advisor, then linking to their grower network. There are pros and cons to each of these designs depending on who you are in that sharing relationship.
If you are someone’s trusted advisor, you must be prepared to work with multiple industry brands and grower preferences, so choosing a flexible offering is paramount. If you are a grower, talk to your trusted local advisor about what they are using to manage your data and what products will enhance that relationship. Then ask yourself, what products will give me the best flexibility in a fast-changing business environment? Be sure you can be the first beneficiary of your own data.
3. Understand what you are really paying:
In every Internet connected app there is a component of tracking of the exchanged information. Each software or provider has different levels of interest in the exchanged data, sometimes for monitoring the proper delivery of the product, sometimes for marketing, sometimes to extract aggregated information. No software/app is ever free. If you did not pay money, then the company is using the freebie as a pre-sale incentive, to collect information that has value to them or you are in effect paying them by giving them your information.
Payment levels are often tied to how many tools you get to use. Lowest cost programs are “view only” and more cost is involved where more tools or data services are part of the package. This allows you to only buy what you need and to grow into more levels of service by opting in when you choose to do so.
When companies have a physical product line being supported by a software/data service then there is an obvious link between product use and the company’s development of the product and their interest in your data. There may be a graduated cost, also linked to your patronage.
Be comfortable with the arrangement by finding out what the user agreement states. Educate yourself. Read and ask before you click the “I Agree” button. That button does not have an “undo”.
4. How do you decide?
There are three streams of thought on software shopping;
- You can make sure the dealer shows you ALL the ins and outs of a brand.
- You can test drive it until the trial period runs out.
- You can take a quick try; then a leap of faith.
All of these methods work in a car buying analogy and if we were all honest we would admit that we waffle less buying a vehicle than we do buying software.
Trusting your dealer can work. Many a good buy is had on the back of a trusted advisor who knows you and your operation and can make a good recommendation. This works if they are experienced users of the software, not so great if they just sell it. For some, just buying the brand associated with their equipment is taken for granted, sometimes for good and sometimes at the user’s peril. For those who wish to test drive software that runs in demo mode for a while often miss the benefits of this wide-open trial because they don’t yet have data or the skills to put the software pedal to the metal. Blind jumpers can either suffer buyer’s remorse or they land on their feet. So if this all sounds like a crap shoot, how can you make a good decision? Planning beyond the purchase phase is critical.
5. How will you be supported?
Whether it is online training, YouTube videos, support documents, or local classes and local experts; how well is this product supported? Every new thing has instructions. Do they make sense? Even the easy button has a learning curve to get the most out of it.
Regardless of the reason you chose (or are choosing) a software, you can make it work for you if you work at it. Yes, I just used the word ‘work’ twice in the same sentence. It is. Work.
No software is going to pluck the thoughts out of your head, know exactly what information is most important to you or benefit your operation the most. You are as much a part of this system as the data and the software itself. What brand of software is less of an issue than having an idea about what you want to accomplish, a plan for learning the basic tasks for running the software and the diligence to pick up the mouse or tablet on a regular basis. Of course the software has to have the abilities and features to go where you want to go! But whether you are intending to view or learning to do, my most successful clients have done the following:
- They have a plan
- They book one-on-one training to get set up
- They practice often as they can
- They book periodic training as their skills increase
- They continually ask questions and engage in an ongoing support dialogue
6. Technology is going to change; what if you want to move your data to another service?
All companies are striving to ‘be all things’ and to keep your continued business, but reality says you might want to change brands or service providers some day. You might sell or pass on your business and you want to ensure transfer of data. Can you get your data out? How easy is that? What formats can come out? What other programs read that format? Will that work with the next product? Can I get my original data out? Can I get the things out that I have made in the program? What are the exit limitations?
If you are unsure about the exit, then I recommend you keep a copy of all incoming or original data for yourself. This is not always possible if you have data being automatically uploaded via any kind of data modem or interceptor. But if you have an in-cab monitor you can still always insert a USB/memory device and hit “Export Data” or equivalent button at the end of the season. Storing those files in a cloud data storage such as DropBox, Sync, Google Drive, or iCloud ensures that you could change directions without penalty or initiate other sharing relationships. Someday all software will link to all other software. Technically it can now, but not all of the bridges have been built yet.
I encourage you to try some of these new data products on for size, but be wary of claims that they are all you will ever need. Often the best products are those that compliment or can work as part of a suite of capability. They are all going to change by adding features and uses as technology changes. So, don’t think that waiting until they are complete is a good way to procrastinate. It is always more interesting to be in the game than on the sidelines.