Big Data On The Farm: UND Leads New NSF-Grant On Big Data And Digital Agriculture

Travis Desell
Travis Desell

The University of North Dakota, in partnership with Iowa State University, Kansas State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is leading a multi-institution Digital Agriculture Spoke grant of about $1 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF describes the UND-led project as follows: Digital Agriculture – Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Plant Sciences and Education.

“This is unequivocal testimony from the federal government that UND can lead Big Data efforts,” said Grant McGimpsey(pronounced mah-JIM-sey), vice president for research & economic development and co-PI on the NSF award. McGimpsey also is dean of the UND School of Graduate Studies.

Spectrum of data

As noted in the Midwest Big Data Hub’s own home page, the Midwest is vital to global agricultural production. The Midwest’s ag sector is a key player in the regional and the national economy.

Farmers, landowners, governments and other entities in the region now can access data from a spectrum of agricultural activities—these data are gathered from sensors in farm and related equipment, aerial imagery, survey data, management and policy models and other sources.

The Midwest Big Data Hub Digital Agriculture spoke will help collaborators across institutions to build partnerships to address emerging issues, such as precision agriculture, ecosystem management and services, socio-economic impacts, and specific data-related issues. UND has appointed Evan Boucher as project manager to coordinate this project.

The NSF Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs is a program that aims to encourage multi-sector collaborations among academia, industry and government.

10 spokes

The grant aims to foster collaborative relationships among Midwestern agricultural and Big Data, or high-tech computing, constituencies. The project also includes national and international collaborations.

According to the NSF announcement relating to this grant, the agency awarded $10 million to 10 “Big Data Spokes” to initiate research on specific topics identified by the Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs.

Project topics range from precision agriculture to personalized education. The data spokes reflect the unique priorities and capabilities of the four NSF-funded Big Data Hubs—including the 12-state Midwest Big Data Hub, based at the University of Illinois—which represent consortia from the Midwest, Northeast, South and West of the United States.

“(The Spokes) advance the goals and regional priorities of each Big Data Hub, fusing the strengths of a range of institutions and investigators and applying them to problems that affect the communities and populations within their regions,” said Jim Kurose, assistant director of NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, in the NSF release. “We are pleased to be making this substantial investment today to accelerate the nation’s big data R&D innovation ecosystem.”

Midwest team

The Digital Ag grant’s other co-PIs are as follows, in alphabetical order:

  • Jennifer Clarke, director, Computational Quantitative Life Sciences Initiative, and associate professor, Food Science and Technology Department and Statistics, University of Nebraska Lincoln
  • Joe Colletti, senior associate dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University Natural Resource and Ecology Management; Colletti is the lead for the Digital Agriculture Spoke project.
  • Travis Desell, assistant professor, Computer Science, UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.
  • Gregory E. Monaco, director for research and cyberinfrastructure initiatives, Great Plains Network, and research associate professor, Department of Psychological Sciences, Kansas State University.

Background

In March 2012, the Obama Administration launched the Big Data Research and Development Initiative to improve the ability to solve some of the nation’s most pressing challenges by extracting knowledge and insights from large, complex collections of digital data. The Big Data Hubs, announced last year, are one way the NSF is addressing this need by fostering multi-sector collaborations among academia, industry and government, and bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to solve regional challenges.

Like the Big Data Hubs, the Big Data Spokes will take on a convening and coordinating role, as opposed to directly conducting research. Each will gather important stakeholders, engage end users and solution providers, and form multi-disciplinary teams to tackle questions no single field can solve alone. However, unlike the Big Data Hubs, which aim to span the full range of data-driven challenges and solutions in a geographic region, each Big Data Spoke will have a specific, goal-driven mission.