How USDA crowdsourced agricultural data

Shutterstock. Copyright: auremar

Farmers want useful data, and the Agriculture Department has plenty, but unlocking the utility of that information isn't easy. So a contest born of a USDA-Microsoft partnership offered competitors access to a century of public crop and climate data, collected from surveys, satellite imagery and more and hosted on Microsoft's Azure cloud platform.

USDA announced the winners of its USDA-Microsoft Innovation Challenge on Jan. 27. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed to FCW that the project was vital since, with an ever-growing American population to feed, U.S. farmers need all the data-driven help they can get.

"We are anxious to see an increased utilization [of agricultural data]," Vilsack said.

The grand prize and award for best visualization went to "FarmPlenty Local Crop Trends," a dashboard that gives farmers a close look at crop prices and the most prevalent produce in the areas around their farms.

Developer George Lee took home the $25,000 prize.

"Green Pastures," a dashboard presenting fertility, rainfall, market and other data, earned second prize, while "What's Local?," a tool aimed at showing urban Americans the agriculture produced near their cities, came in third.

All told, the program saw, "33 pretty good submissions," Vilsack said, and paid out $63,000 in prize money. The contest's winners came from around the globe: Lee is based in San Francisco, while others hailed from Brooklyn; Nashville; Mumbai, India; and Lincoln, Neb.

That diversity speaks to the global nature of the food challenge, Vilsack said.

USDA has long promoted world-spanning initiatives to link data and farmers, the secretary noted, from the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition project to the U.N.'s Climate-Smart Agriculture push.

"Publicly funded [data] should be available to anyone and everyone who wants to use it," he said.

Contests like the USDA-Microsoft joint help put governments' data into the hands of farmers who need them. The hope is that farmers turn around and make data-driven decisions to create a resilient, sustainable food supply.

Vilsack wouldn't commit to future work with the contest winners, but said their projects are just a sign of good things to come.

President Obama's 2017 budget request will include $700 million for agricultural research, Vilsack said.

That money will help fuel the creative unlocking of agricultural data which, as the USDA-Microsoft winners' projects have done, should help existing farmers and give the next generation of farmers a solid foundation as well.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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