Will Open-Source Finally Unlock Ag Technology’s Potential?

Will Open-Source Finally Unlock Ag Technology’s Potential?

Aaron Ault

Aaron Ault: “From the farmer’s perspective, data has been the future for 25 years. Without an open-source platform, the ag-data market is negligible.”

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To Aaron Ault’s eyes, ag technology right now is something like a walled garden — not unlike the Microsoft of yesteryear, which attempted to gain dominion over the emerging online world by pushing exclusive use of its Windows OS and for-pay Internet Explorer browser.

“Microsoft was wrong for a long time,” says Ault, who is Senior Research Engineer for the Open Ag Technology and Systems (OATS) Group at Purdue University. “They wanted to own the internet. Now they’re a huge open-source shop” — joining what Ault calls the “business model of success” found today at Android, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

Agricultural technology needs a similar open-source awakening, Ault says. The current state of ag data, he says frankly, “stinks.” Most farmers don’t share their data, and often justify their stance by noting there’s not much data out there anyway so what does it matter. And because the little data that is out there isn’t used much, a perception lingers that it doesn’t have to be particularly good data.

“From the farmer’s perspective, data has been the future for 25 years,” Ault says. “Without an open-source platform, the ag-data market is negligible, and we’ll never do better than a ‘Microsoft internet.’”

Ag technology clearly is due for a major intervention.

Purdue’s New Open Source Center

Purdue will do its part beginning January 2018 when it formally opens the Open Ag Technology and Systems Center (OATS), bolstered by a three-year grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture with additional funds provided by Purdue and partners ADM, AgGateway, WinField United, and Centricity.

The OATS Center, which has grown out of the founding OATS Group and a handful of initial projects, has a straightforward vision: to be the preeminent university source for innovation and education in agricultural information technologies. Specifically on its radar are the areas of sensing, control, logistics, analytics, and data management. This is all consistent with Purdue’s mission to be the “go-to for data science,” and for Indiana to become the “Silicon Valley for agriculture,” says Dr. Dennis Buckmaster, Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue.

The center will look to rally a wide community of farmers, professors, students, scientists, engineers, and industry partners. OATS supporters include something of a who’s-who of agriculture: The Climate Corporation and Monsanto, CNH Industrial, FarmLogs, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Spensa Technologies, Wilson Produce, and Valley Irrigation, among others. Amazon Web Services and Yelp also have been supporters.

Ault says the center has three essential goals: to enable (strategy, conversation, collaboration, a “vaccine” for “not invented here”); to provide (marketing, education, administration, research); and to build (projects, talent, community, demand).

A key task is to market the inherent value of data sharing and open-source development to growers and the wider ag community as it looks to gain a “huge win at the grassroots level,” says Ault, who is a farmer as well as an engineer.

This will not be without its challenges, acknowledges Dr. Jim Krogmeier, a member of the founding OATS Group and Professor and Associate Head of Computer and Electrical Engineering at Purdue. Prominent among these are that the full value of data is achieved only when it’s fused from multiple sources. Also, data and algorithms from public research is not easily shared; ag professionals on the whole lack sufficient software skills needed to thrive; and information technology across the food and agriculture sector lags the current state of the art.

What ag and ag technology needs, Krogmeier says, are open-source development, open standards, and market forces that shape the best possible products. “There doesn’t have to be only one way to do everything,” Krogmeier says.

A just-released open-source product suggests this is not just a pipe dream.

Blockchain for Produce?

OATS recently teamed up with PMA and the firm Centricity Global to develop Trellis, an open-source framework to electronically exchange produce safety-audit data.

Trellis answers a distinct pain point for the produce industry. Currently a grower receives an audit score for the safety of his or her produce — say, 96.6% — which then moves along with the produce through the distribution system from grower to packer to distributor to retailer, etc. One problem with the current system is that the data can be falsified — for instance, non-organic growers can maintain their produce is organic. Another problem is that the detailed data contained in the audit is rarely looked at, let alone analyzed, because it’s emailed through the chain in a clunky and hard-to-use PDF format.

“Food safety and other audits are supposed to identify and address risk, but in reality, mounds of PDF reports don’t lend themselves to easy analysis,” says Ed Treacy, PMA’s Vice President of Supply Chain Efficiencies. “Companies are having to manually enter data into their computer systems, or convert information from various sources and formats. In a perishables industry, time is a luxury we often don’t have — and that means we’re missing out.”

With Trellis, audit data and authorizing signatures at each step of the chain are encrypted so they can’t be tampered with, and pass quickly through the internet wholly intact but also extractable so that data can be parsed out for varying purposes and parties.

“Now we can focus on the value of the information and what to do with it, not how to get it where it’s supposed to go,” says Drew Zabrocki, CEO/CTO of Centricity Global.

“Bonus,” Ault says, “it’s open source, so there’s no cost to industry to use it or to contribute to it.”

In the end the central objective not only for Trellis and OATS but also for ag data and ag technology as a whole is to make data work for the grower rather than the other way around.

Right now growers equate data with hassle, Ault says, and rightly so — he runs down all the data points he as a farmer must personally touch every year. “This is not farming,” he says, “this is three beads of sweat on my forehead every season.” But open-source projects as promised and promoted by OATS offer near-term relief. “Everyone wants the hassle out of the way so we can start doing things with the data,” Ault says.