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Syngenta Crop Challenge Aims to Bring Science of Data Analytics to Agriculture with Award

November 2, 2015

Agtech continues to reign supreme in tech competitions across the country. Now, multinational agribusiness titan Syngenta is teaming up with the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS) to create a new joint award: The Syngenta Crop Challenge.

Offering a cash prize of $5,000 and a highlight at the 2016 INFORMS Annual Meeting, the challenge tasks entrants with helping farmers make seed variety decisions that reduce risks in a reliable way while also increasing yields.

Applicants will be asked to solve one question: “Which soybean seed variety, or a mix of up to five varieties with corresponding proportions, should the farmer choose to plant next year?”

To tackle this question, entrants are provided with a Training Dataset that includes research and knowledge about soybean varieties currently available to farmers. Based on over 34,000 yield data points from research trials covering over 180 seed varieties and evaluated in more than 350 site scenarios between 2008 and 2014, applicants will have plenty of raw data to help them develop their proposals.

So what does advanced analytics have to offer agriculture?

“Agricultural problems tend to be messier than their technical counterparts, and our industry is wedded to older, traditional methods of operating,” says Joe Byrum, head of Syngenta’s soybean seeds product development, in an interview with AgFunderNews.

“As we launch the Crop Challenge with INFORMS, there is an opportunity for this community to get involved in two dimensions of innovation to address this problem.” First, applying the science of data analytics to agriculture. The second step involves realizing the broader impact of data analytics’ potential for social innovation, which can help communities understand how data can help tackle everyday problems.

Byrum sees big opportunities for the inaugural year of the challenge as most R&D in the aggregation of agriculture data has focused on sensing and networking over computation, optimization, and analytics, says Byrum.

“Therein lies the opportunity. Operations research and data analytics are among the most flexible tools for increasing the efficiency of food production through the optimization of the agricultural ecosystem, well beyond precision agriculture.”

Four data sets are also available to applicants:

  • Optional Training Dataset – Containing daily weather information for corresponding trials by site and year.
  • Evaluation Dataset – Representing the long term knowledge the farmer has about his or her farm consisting of a single site location
  • Optional Evaluation Dataset – Containing daily weather data for the evaluation farm between January 1 2000, and December 31 2014, with a spatial resolution of 1km.
  • Exogenous Dataset – Providing additional geo-referenced data sources for the training and evaluation data.

A number of academic standards also provide the framework for how applicants must package their submissions, including a description of the criteria, used to identify varieties, a clear description of methods used, quantitative results supporting the selection(s), and appropriate citations.

Specific case details will be announced at the 2015 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia between November 1-4, 2015.

Entries must be submitted by January 15, 2016. Finalists will be announced February 26 2016, and invited to make a final presentation in person or via teleconference at the INFORMS Practice Conference in Orlando, Florida on April 12, 2016.

Entries will be based on three specific criteria:

  1. The rigor and validity of the process used to determine which variety or varieties are selected for planting. It is vital, therefore, that the researcher documents the methodology in sufficient detail for evaluation.
  2. The quality of the proposed solution will be assessed by the alignment with historically observed variety responses at the Evaluation Farm which are not part of the data distributed to researchers.
  3. Additional criteria that will be considered are:
    1. Simplicity of the solution
    2. Evaluation of factors included in the decision process
    3. Clarity in the explanation

Representing a professional association of analytics and operations research professionals, INFORMS promotes the integration of analytical techniques and sheds light on the many advancements in the growing field of analytics. Byrum recently won the 2015 INFORMS Franz Edelman award, which recognizes the contributions of operations research in analytics for non-profits and for-profit companies alike.

As Syngenta gears up to launch its first challenge, Byrum reflects on agtech’s increasing role in tech competitions.

“The most fertile ground for operations research and advanced analytical analysis today is agriculture,” he says. “While advanced mathematical techniques have proved invaluable across diverse industries, operations research has yet to move in and dominate the field of agriculture, where it can play a leading role in saving billions of lives.”

According to Byrum, encouraging complex, yet highly valuable, methods of problem-solving in the ag industry is what the Syngenta Crop Challenge is all about.

To sign up for The Syngenta Crop Challenge, click here.

Syngenta, which operates in 90 countries, has been in the news a lot recently after Monsanto made a $46 billion bid to take over the Swedish agribusiness. Syngenta rejected the proposal, causing discontent among many of its shareholders. Earlier this week, Syngenta CEO Mike Mack stepped down as the shareholders called for a full strategic review.

Have news or tips? Email [email protected]

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