EU auditors: “Commission should go big on big data on agricultural policy”

EU auditors: “Commission should go big on big data on agricultural policy”
Credit: Unsplash/Marcin Jozwiak

The European Commission has not capitalised on the potential use of big data for analysing and designing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), according to a new audit report published on Tuesday by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

The auditors recognised that the Commission excels in using (Excel) spreadsheets. It should also excel in big data techniques. Globally, organisations are making increasing use of big data. In the Commission, the potential use of advanced data analytics to collect and process large amounts of data from the EU member states on their use of EU funding to CAP and its impact on agricultural policy remains largely untapped.

The CAP accounts for more than a third of the EU’s budget – €408 billion between 2014 and 2020 – and helps the Commission support member states’ activities with objectives, often inter-related, ranging from securing food production and strengthening environmental protection to maintaining farmers’ livelihoods and developing rural areas.

“Data is the bread and butter of sound policy-making, and big data is also becoming the gold standard in agriculture,” said Joëlle Elvinger, the Luxembourger ECA member responsible for the report, at a press briefing. “The European Commission should enhance its data analytics and do more to tap the potential of big data for analysing the CAP based on broad evidence.”

“We are in the year 2022 and massive amounts of data are our reality,” she added. “Knowledge is power. But without data, there can be no knowledge. Making policy decisions based on evidence requires various data from different sources. All this data also needs to be analysed. This is where data analytics and big data come into the picture.”

While ‘big data' has become a buzz word, ECA simply defined it as data sets of increasing volumes, velocity and variety (the three V's), with underlying relationships, interactions and trends that can be analysed.

The audit team looked in particular at how the Commission’s directorate-general for agriculture (DG AGRI) used available data for policy analysis in recent years. It checked whether the data is sufficient. And finally, it also examined what the Commission is doing to address data gaps, including the use of big data.

Despite initiatives to make better use of existing data, the Commission is still lagging behind and important barriers still remain. In some areas, such as in rural developement and the use of fertilisers and pesticides, data is not being collected or is not accessible. DG AGRI collects mostly administrative data such as market prices, payments, and farm accountancy data, according to ECA.

There are also restrictions or legal obstacles on combining data sources or identifying single farms or beneficiaries. Normally, statistics can only be used for the original purpose for it was collected by the member states and is not shared with the Commission.

The Commission has limited access to the member states’ Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS). This makes it difficult to gain a detailed overview of the concentration and distribution of EU funds to agricultural businesses, a political sensitive issue.

DG AGRI staff is toiling with manually entering data from around 115 reports into an Excel table to analyse the information from the member states. In the audit, the team developed a robotic solution in one day that performed automated data extraction and compilation to prove that it was possible to work in a more efficient way.

A formal cost-benefit analysis of the Commission’s data collection work was outside the scope of the audit but the auditors could conclude that there is a significant scope for the Commission to incorporate cost-effective advanced analytics and tools into its IT systems for automated information processing, as well as making better use of data for policy analysis.

The two key recommendations to the Commission will feed into the CAP during the current budget period (2021 – 2027) and next period. Firstly, ECA recommend that the Commission establish a framework for using disaggregated data from member states (by 2024). Secondly, the Commission should address the data gaps identified in evaluations and impact asessments  (by 2025).

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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