USDA & Microsoft Call upon Private Sector to Combat Climate Change’s Impact on Farming

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In July 2015, the UDSA and Microsoft launched the Innovation Challenge, a contest that will allow private sector, tech-savvy minds to get their hands on an incredible amount of the USDA’s data, which was only recently made available through the White House Climate Data Initiative. The goal of the challenge is to explore how climate change will impact the U.S. food system.

“In climate change, there are two general themes, or approaches. One is adaptation to the climatic variability. The other is mitigation strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to manage the carbon and other emissions,” USDA deputy undersecretary Dr. Ann Bartuska told AgFunderNews. Bartuska is one of the key members that organized the challenge. “As we’ve envisioned it, the Innovation Challenge is mostly about the first theme. It started by looking at the entire vulnerability of the entire food production system through climate change.”

Harvesting endless amounts of data is a major step towards unraveling the complex intricacies of climate change and our current food system, but the real trick is figuring out a way to manipulate the data to provide farmers with reliable decision-making abilities and increased insight into their operations.

Due to satellite imagery, remote sensors, surveys and economic reports, we have more data than ever before. This data allows us to analyze, model and predict an extremely diverse set of variables and characteristics associated with our food production.

“It’s only been since this last year that we have tried to move more of these data sets into a transparent data source and the White House has really been driving this,” says Bartuska. “They are really excited about the open data idea and are pushing a number of agencies to make their data available to the public — data that the public pays for through their taxes.”

According to the Innovation Challenge website, Microsoft has taken data from a number of USDA sources — including NASS Quickstats API, ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, NASS CropScape API, NASS VegScape API — and provided the data in a format that is more accessible to developers. “Microsoft did not change the data or its structure. Rather, it made the data more accessible by putting it in a form that the development community is more used to,” says Bartuska.

Entrants are invited to use this data to develop and publish new applications and tools that can analyze the many sources of data that the USDA collects about the nation’s food supply. Submissions can include data from one database, a number of database, public sources, or a combination. The projects or tools that entrants develop can be targeted at farmers, scientists, food producers, insurance companies, or consumers.

A number of prizes will be awarded, including cash prizes for the top three entrants and an honorable mention. Additional awards will also be provided for the best open source application, best visualization in time or space, and best student-made app among others. Submissions, which are due by November 20, 2015, must include a demo video and be available for test. Winners will be announced in December 2015.

Bartuska sees the challenge as not only providing an opportunity to create innovative tools for farmers, but to also tap the private sector’s creativity. “This will be an interesting test of how useable all these data sets are outside the original programs that they were designed for,” explains Bartuska. “I think the challenges may be in the data structure and whether or not they are accessible to people who want to use them. Our scientists have used them, but now we are going to see how useable they are for the public.”

While the challenge is geared to helping farmers combat climate change, it may also help the USDA shape some of its own agtech policies. “We are in the backdoors of the USDA data portals and we have tons more data available. This may inform other data sets that we would like to bring out into the open public,” says Bartuska. “It may also show us that we are missing some important data sets that we didn’t realize someone would really need.”

“The Microsoft Azure platform allows entrants to grab different data sets from other public access locations and integrate them with the USDA data sets that we’ve made available and do something new and creative with them,” says Bartuska. “Ultimately, we don’t know what the entries will look like and that’s one of the most exciting aspects of this challenge.”

For more information on the challenge and how to enter visit http://usdaapps.devpost.com.


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