Good, accurate research and data are critical for meaningful operation and evaluation of food system projects. However, researchers and practitioners are often hampered by inconsistencies in the way data is collected, gaps in the type of data that's collected, and problems discovering and accessing existing data. Northeast groups and individuals seeking to understand and improve our food system need information to advance their work and effective ways to clarify goals and assess progress. But even as we are overloaded with information, these gaps and inconsistencies can be limiting. It can be challenging to find and use disparate information resources effectively.
For example, tracking amounts of food procured across our region is complicated by inconsistent data collection: some sources measure by pounds, others by expenditure. Due to information gaps, identifying agriculturally capable land that is not in active use or tracing the geographic source of foods purchased in our region is nearly impossible.
The Northeast Food Knowledge Ecosystem (NEFKE) brings together researchers, practitioners and other food system advocates to address these issues. NESAWG’s initial partners in NEFKE are Farm to Institution New England (FINE) Cornell University Mann Library, John Merck Fund and College of the Atlantic. Together, we seek to cultivate an innovative and adaptive “knowledge ecosystem” – a network of networks that strengthens connections among existing efforts and resources with collaborative agreements, standards and platforms. As convener of this ambitious and open-ended project, NESAWG is employing cutting-edge web-based strategies that support information discovery, access and use. Our hope is to provide immediate benefits and a base from which further NEFKE efforts can grow. Because so much of this early work is exploratory and experimental, we will narrow our focus to farm-to-institution efforts in New England in our first phase, working closely with FINE.
In Year One, we will:
- Support FINE’s pursuit of appropriate metrics and indicators to measure progress and impacts with research, a summer workshop, a fall forum and ongoing work with FINE’s Metrics Advisory Committee.
- Explore mapping tools that could be useful for FINE by identifying stakeholders, geographic locations, relationships and roles.
- Provide input and guidance into FINE’s new website; synchronize it with NEFKE as possible.
In tandem with the farm-to-institution focus, we will work to build our understanding of knowledge ecosystem approaches and begin to establish ours. In Year One, we will:
- Gain a better understanding of existing regional databases (e.g., NESAWG, FINE), and what might be needed for integration into the NEFKE.
- Lay the groundwork for a regional online registry (using a platform such as VIVOweb.org) of people, organizations, activities and resources across the Northeast, and the connections that exist among them.
- Support our initial work with a project wiki, while exploring other collaborative web platforms (e.g., LocalFoodSystems.org) for possible future application.
- Research the first round of key data sources (e.g., Ag Census, ERS) and knowledge ecosystem models and tools (e.g., Insight, Netway, eXtension.org)
- Hold a training on using and understanding data, and any tools developed in Year One.
As a result of this project, food system stakeholders will be more able to access, use and share information. We will improve collaboration, and build groups’ capacity to measure progress. Support from the John Merck Fund will be leveraged toward additional funding to expand applicability to other components of regional food systems.