Can open data take some of the guesswork out of farming? Definitely

Fri, 2016-02-05 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

At first glance, open data and sustainable agriculture may seem like a strange combination. But it makes perfectly good sense if you look at how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Council Lead Partner Microsoft put the two together.

Competitors in the USDA-Microsoft Innovation Challenge were given 100 years of USDA's crop and climate records via Microsoft's Azure cloud computing platform and asked to create ways to help ensure an abundant and resilient food supply. The Innovation Challenge was created as a way to support the President's Climate Data Initiative, a program intended to encourage the use of climate data to strengthen the country's food production.

"In yet another example of how public and private resources can be leveraged together to address significant global concerns, the winners of the USDA-Microsoft Innovation Challenge have used open government data to create an impressive array of  innovative tools to help food producers and our communities prepare for the impacts of climate change and ensure our nation's ability to provide plentiful, affordable food," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The competition received 33 submissions from throughout the world with more than 340 people participating. Here are the top winning entries:

  • An app that gives farmers the ability to determine the types of crops grown within a short distance of their farms, which would allow them to make better-informed decisions about the crops they choose to grow
  • A dashboard interface that displays production, economic, livestock and commodity data from USDA and other sources from national to local levels as well as information about farmers markets
  • A tool that determines the resources needed for crop output and allows cities to get in touch with farmers in their location
  • A mobile phone app that gives farmers the ability to compare their costs -- such as for seed, fertilizer and fuel -- and see with average costs in the region, as well as ways to operate more efficiently if their costs are higher than the average.

"Combining the advantages of cloud computing resources with the government's desire to provide open access to public data is likely to transform scientific research and business innovation. Microsoft's partnership with the USDA evidences how public-private partnership can stimulate new applications, explore novel scenarios and, in this case, work towards a more resilient and sustainable food production," explained Dr. Daron G. Green, deputy managing director of Microsoft Research.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.