USDA, Microsoft cultivate food resilience tools

USDA, Microsoft cultivate food resilience tools

At Microsoft’s technology fair in Washington, D.C., the company showcased innovations that can do everything from teach kids math and reading with Minecraft to help people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder using wearable light therapy technology.

Among the demonstrations was a government project that might lack the sci-fi sizzle, but has serious real-world value:  the Department of Agriculture's initiative to turn farming data into a tool for predicting and preparing for climate change impacts.

To do this, Microsoft Research -- the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant's in-house computer science research organization -- took USDA data on production of corn, wheat, sorghum and other crops from every state, going as far back as 1850, and loaded it into the Azure cloud.

“What we really wanted to do was to try to bring together all of the disparate information that the USDA is offering up online through multiple portals and interfaces,” said Lucas Joppa, an environmental scientist at Microsoft Research. “We wanted to bring all that into one place within the cloud and allow people to seamlessly connect to analytics services.”

With application programming interfaces and Microsoft’s own business-intelligence tools, users can get information on any crop, from any state, harvested or planted for one year or multiple years.  That data can be seen in line graphs or charts and can be downloaded in multiple formats.

Two additional visual datasets also are available as part of the program. The CropScape API provides direct access to a raster images that help estimate what crop is on the ground in any given part of the country at the end of the growing season. The VegScape API, meanwhile, accesses a raster image dataset that tracks crop conditions on daily, weekly and biweekly timescales.

The United States has massive amounts of data on agricultural production practices, Joppa said, but making sense of it can be hard if you’re a busy farmer. “But with just a few clicks farmers will be able to see crop trends for the past 100 years,” he said.

“We really want to make it easy for the farmers ... and just put the data at their doorstep so they can make more optimal decisions for what they’re doing.”

The program is still in development, but is expected to be ready in the fall. According to Joppa, it took less than three months to develop.

“One of the nice things about this is the U.S. government is very good at collecting data and what we’re very good at is making that data available,” Joppa said. “Our cloud infrastructure is ready to ingest the data and build out these sorts of solutions. Most people who would do this sort of development would be amazed at how short it took us.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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