The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently took another step forward on its path to accelerate information technology (IT) modernization and improve how it designs agricultural services and interacts with agricultural producers. This spring, USDA joined technical experts, IT professionals, and application developers for the first hackathon at the 2019 Internet of Things (IoT) World Conference in Santa Clara, California. Working collaboratively, the hackathon teams developed new solutions to challenging issues affecting agriculture.
What are Hackathons?
Hackathons are typically multi-day events where programmers and designers engage in collaborative computer programming. “The goal is not gaining unauthorized access to computer systems, or to necessarily produce a completely polished product,” said Andrew Brown, Soil Scientist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and mentor at the hackathon. “Rather, hackathons focus on innovation, collaboration, and rapid application development.”
The hackathon was a fitting channel to address key challenges the USDA is working to solve. “Hackathons are a great way to spur innovation and have the potential to solve real issues,” said Ted Kaouk, Chief Data Officer (CDO) for USDA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO). “Farmers and ranchers are using data from satellites, weather forecasts, sensors, and other technology for more precise agriculture, which is helping to improve agricultural processes on their operation while increasing profits and providing even better protection to the environment.”
USDA employees supported the hackathon by serving as judges and mentors for the competition.
Inside the Hackathon
Hackathon participants were challenged to use USDA’s soil, geospatial, and water forecasting data to develop IT products that addressed access to water resources and wise water use to support the sustainability, growth, and viability of agriculture. They were required to consider the following in their solutions: limited use of broadband in the rural U.S., cybersecurity, and applying machine learning models to make data-driven decisions.
The hackathon event was preceded by a discovery interlude where participants explored water challenges in agriculture and brainstormed ideas on possible solutions given their shared knowledge of the domain, technology, data, and other areas. A webinar one week prior to the event provided an overview of the hackathon and discussion of the datasets, and messaging application, Slack, was used where USDA mentors could answer questions regarding USDA data, tools, and resources.
The hackathon was a two-day event that included participation from eight teams ranging from two to seven people. During the event, each team gathered around a table to devise a solution while mentors walked around the room to check in, ask questions, and provide guidance.
“Mentors worked one-on-one with hackathon participants to help them conceptualize the challenge and apply the datasets,” said Brown. “Most participants had an approach in mind and a general goal and needed help with conceptual aspects of interpreting the data. Agricultural production systems have fundamental limits and unique considerations that make subject matter expert input very valuable. The mentor cadre’s practical experience in agriculture and environmental problems was critical to helping teams keep their solutions in the realm of possibility.”
By 1:00 p.m. on the second day, all code needed to be completed. In the afternoon, each team had three minutes to “pitch” their solution. Of the eight groups that were formed, three finalists were selected to present their solutions on stage at the “EcoCenter System Stage” located on the Expo Center floor. After the judges reviewed the presentations, Carlos Suarez, NRCS State Conservationist for California, announced “Team Smart Ag” as the winner and presented them with the hackathon trophy.
Team Smart Ag’s Winning Solution
Team Smart Ag developed a low-cost, low-power smart-farming solution that would enable farmers to use devices to monitor a variety of conditions, such as water needs for crops and livestock health. The open-source, conversational artificial intelligence (AI) platform includes a phone application that allows farmers to ask questions, such as “Where do I need to water today?”. Team Smart Ag also created a 3D visualization of a hypothetical farm to provide a first-person view of the land, so farmers can locate runoff and areas that need water.
In addition to winning the hackathon trophy, Team Smart Ag received prizes valued at $15K total, which included an interview with ITPro Today and opportunities to present their winning solution at highly-visible events at the conference.
Hackathons as Part of IT Modernization Model
The hackathon follows the White House’s push toward IT modernization through the new Center of Excellence (CoE) model. The model has five focus areas: cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery analytics, and contact centers. USDA, which has been designated a CoE, is using this new model to support the improved use of IT resources throughout the department. The CoE is planning to support additional competitions this year.