Innovation Challenge Developers Turn USDA Data into Ag-Inspired Apps

In true agriculture form, a handful of developers have harvested newly available ag production data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to produce online applications that help aggies be more successful in the face of climate change.

On Wednesday, the USDA and Microsoft announced the winners of the Innovation Challenge, a Devpost hackathon that challenged developers to create applications that transform new publicly-available data into user-friendly applications for agriculture and the American food system.

USDA provided Innovation Challenge contestants with more than a century of crop and climate data from its Open Data Catalog via Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform.

The challenge, sponsored by Microsoft and agtech promotional partners Hortau and BranchFood, was created in support of the President's Climate Data Initiative.  That initiative aims to leverage climate and USDA data in ways that will help secure the U.S. food system and help farmers to produce more with fewer resources (water, land, energy) in an attempt to feed more than 9.6 billion people by 2050.

“In order to do that, farmers have to be smart, have to be more efficient and more effective regardless of what size operation they have,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a phone interview earlier this week. 

“The USDA, over the course of many decades, has accumulated an incredible amount of information and data that has been in essence locked away - available to those in universities that were researchers, to use the information,” Vilsack added. “But there’s a democratization of information taking place and we are happy to be involved in that. ... While we ourselves at the USDA are making better use of that data with tools and applications that we’re developing, we felt that it was appropriate and necessary to engage the private sector as well.”

The Innovation Challenge is one of many ways the USDA is urging the private sector to push innovation in agriculture. In all, $63,000 in cash and prizes were awarded in the recent hackathon, which drew 346 registrants and 33 finished submissions from around the world.

Here are the winners: 

  • Grand Prize, Open Source Application Award, and Best Visualization in Time or Space Award: Farm Plenty, submitted by George Lee of San Francisco, allows farmers to analyze USDA data about crops grown within 5 kilometers to make informed decisions about their own crop choices. 

  • Second Prize and Open Source Application Award: Green Pastures, submitted by Khyati Majmudar of Mumbai, India, is a comprehensive dashboard interface that allows farmers to visualize production, economic, livestock and commodity data from NASS, ERS, ARMS, and other sources at a local or national scale. 

  • Third Prize: What’s Local, submitted by Benjamin Wellington of Landscape Metrics LLC in Brooklyn, analyzes the resources required to produce agricultural outputs by using data from the Census of Agriculture in a way that allows urban population centers to connect with local farmers.  

  • Honorable Mention, Open Source Application Award, and Best Student-Made Award: Farm Profit Calculator, submitted by Fernando Napier and Matt Pedersen of Lincoln, Neb., is a mobile application that compares their input costs (fertilizer, seed, fuel, etc.) to regional averages, and finds financial efficiencies where their costs are above norm.

  • Honorable Mention:  Croptrends, submitted by Chaiyawut Lertvichaivoravit and Ta Chiraphadhanakul of Thousand Eyes in San Francisco, can be used for viewing spatial and temporal trends in crop production and yield by county for the entire U.S.

  • Popular Choice Award: VAIS, submitted by Ken Moini of Thallo Tech in Nashville, Tenn., uses NASS data to provide a unique approach to visualizing crowd-sourced pricing data for the U.S. market.
  • Large Organization Recognition Award: Farmed, submitted by Bryan Tower of Applied Technical Systems in Silverdale, Wash., allows farmers to view crop conditions in their area by using VegScape data from NASS combined with local weather data.