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Could Big Data offer the most fertile solution for countering systemic food waste and frightening future scarcity scenarios?
Last month Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and dozens of other companies started sowing the seeds for a crop of powerful applications and information resources enabled by the convergence of sensors, sophisticated imagery and powerful analytics — and inspired by the federal Climate Data Initiative.
Their focus: "food resilience" innovations that help agricultural businesses, farmers and food distributors more quickly understand the potential impacts of floods, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts, downpours and other extreme weather on crop yields, transportation systems, storage and other supply-chain processes.
In late July the White House issued this challenge: "The Obama Administration is renewing the President's call to America's private-sector innovators to leverage open government data and other resources to build tools that will make the U.S. and global food systems more resilient against the impacts of climate change."
Here are 13 businesses heeding that call both implicitly and explicitly — both in research labs and in the field. This list isn't exhaustive but it represents some of the more intriguing efforts to emerge over the summer. They're presented in alphabetical order and include relevant efforts that aren't officially part of the Climate Data Initiative. (Plenty of public sector and NGO contributors exist as well, but we'll leave them to a future article.)
Billed as the "Internet of food," Agralogics uses enterprise collaboration technology to mine public and private data on behalf of crop managers. The software (which carries a subscription price based on acres under management) combs through weather data, satellite images and other operational insights to help schedule harvests, among other things. "Whether you're growing food or eating food, accessing information is not something you can easily do," said the startup's CEO Sumer Johal. "Our mission and focus is to enable anybody who wants to consume information about food: anywhere, anytime in the right context."
In mid-August, the Australian company raised $6 million earmarked for the North American launch of another collaboration and management platform, which connects stakeholders in the crop production process via mobile devices and Web services. Included are crop-production planning tools, geospatial data, agronomist recommendations and forecasting tools. "It's all about farmers and their service providers understanding the core risks and opportunities for their business in the context of that specific location and farm entity," said Agworld CEO Doug Fitch.
Amazon Web Services (AWS)
Through the Amazon Climate Research Grant program, the cloud services company will issue grants (starting this month) that provide free access to up to 50 million people in free supercomputing resources on Amazon EC2. (The application period is closed.) It plans to let researchers report early findings at its big conference in November. AWS is also behind the NASA Earth eXchange program, which publishes satellite imagery and national climate projection models as a free resource.
In mid-July, the big beer brewer launched the SmartBarley benchmarking program (PDF) with the goal of helping its barley farmers improve crop yields through better water efficiency. Indicators being aggregated across more than 1,900 growers include irrigation water productivity, nitrogen use efficiency, yield realization and other soil parameters. The company is also investing in AgriMet weather stations to provide more context around the data.
It's planning an expansion of its work with the Field to Market alliance for sustainable agriculture, including "major initiatives with two of its four leading suppliers" by the end of 2014. Looking 16 months ahead, the beverage company intends to "engage" farmers controlling 250,000 acres; by 2020, the target is up to 1 million acres, which contributes half of its global corn supply.
The influential geospatial technology developer is putting its energy into three areas (PDF): creating live data feeds that bridge public and private data, turning this information into spatial visualizations that can serve as a "collaborative virtual laboratory" and hosting an executive brainstorming session in fall 2014. Among the sorts of data that will be considered: geographies of global crop production, monthly production estimate, monthly global crop assessments, weather updates, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture drought monitor.
HabitatSeven and Quandl
Although they haven't shared many details, the two companies are developing a resource that combines and visualizes federal climate-impact data along with supply chain information, such as commodity prices. The platform is intended to help decision-makers and investors make more informed decisions about climate risks.
The company is expanding its World Community Grid effort to provide up to "100,000 years" of time on virtual supercomputing resources (a $60-million value) for researchers studying how climate change affects food supply and water management.
Research initiatives include a precision farming partnership with the University of California at Davis, home of the World Food Center, using sensors to monitor moisture levels in both the air and soil. The intention is to use the finding for better applications that automate irrigation based on need. "We don't think there are enough accurate measures of how water is actually utilized and we're trying to identify points of waste," said Vin Sharma, director of Big Data analytics strategy.
Intel is also funding the EarthDB project organized by UC Santa Barbara. It is measuring snow pack in the Sierra Nevada in order to improve the accuracy of water availability estimates. The data eventually will be visualized. "Time series analysis on Big Data will be super important as we look for patterns," Sharma said.
Aside from teaming up with the USDA for workshops, the giant software company is hosting an app-athon and uploading federal agricultural datasets to its Azure cloud services, where they can be used more readily for analysis. Between Oct. 20 and Dec. 10, Microsoft is holding innovation challenge workshops in major metropolitan areas to encourage the creation of analytics tools. "This is an opportunity for individuals to use the data sets in innovative ways for the betterment of society," writes Dan Fay, director of Earth, Energy and Environment for Microsoft Research, on the company's blog.
Although its sales so far cover a relatively modest portion of farms in Indiana, Michigan and the Texas Panhandle, the technology is finding advocates among farmers who want a way to automate the shutdown of pivot irrigation pumps that are damaged, jammed or disabled. Its most popular device is WireRat, which uses GPS to send alerts up to 10 recipients if theft or tampering is detected — apparently, the copper wire used in irrigation equipment is attractive to thieves who can resell the metal. The gadgets cost around $1,400 each. "It is more proactive in shoving this information into the farmer's face, a recognizable gain toward conservation. … All it takes is one instance where the pivot is stuck, and the product pays for itself," said CEO Edward DeSalle.
An early-stage startup based in Minnesota, Rowbot's service uses a small robotic vehicle to drive up and down crop rows, applying nitrogen more accurately as they grow taller. The benefit is twofold: runoff reduction helps control oceanic dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, and the precise application of chemicals improves yields. Early this year, the company received seed money from Invested Development (a fund focused on ag-tech startups).
The company's name is an acronym: Sustainable Water & Innovative Irrigation Management. Its pledge under the Climate Data Initiative includes a commitment to develop an application visualizing the use of water for agricultural irrigation. The twist is that it will combine that data with context about climate change trends and evolving municipal water consumption needs. The app is due in early 2015.