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While we know that climate change will likely affect every aspect of the food system—from our ability to grow food, to the reliability of food transportation and food safety, to the dynamics of international trade in agricultural goods—we don’t yet know how to anticipate and mitigate against what may be negative changes. With this in mind, on July 24, 2015, Microsoft, in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), will launch the Innovation Challenge, a contest designed to explore how climate change will impact the United States’ food system with the intent of achieving better food resiliency.
The challenge invites entrants to develop and publish new applications and tools that can analyze multiple sources of information about the nation’s food supply, including key USDA datasets that are now hosted on Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-computing platform.
The challenge offers prizes—including a top prize of US$25,000—for applications that make use of the USDA data and provide actionable insights to farmers, agriculture businesses, scientists or consumers. In addition, through the Microsoft Azure for Research program, Microsoft is granting hours of cloud computing time and terabytes of cloud storage to be used to aid university researchers and students who take part in the challenge. With a November 20, 2015, deadline for entries, challenge participants have three months to submit their applications. Winners will be announced in December 2015.
The food resilience theme of the challenge seeks to inspire the creation of tools that help users analyze and explore our food systems. For the first time, key USDA datasets are available in the cloud, where they can be accessed and blended with other data to obtain novel insights or produce new types of end-user applications. Combining USDA data with cloud-computing resources allows even very high fidelity and complex models to be processed in a timely manner and enables results to be delivered to remote users on their laptops, tablets or mobile phones.
The increased prevalence and availability of data from satellite imagery, remote sensors, surveys and economic reports mean that we can analyze, model and predict an extremely diverse set of properties associated with our food production. Applications might combine data from the USDA and other government sources, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the United States Geological Survey, and can be targeted at farmers, scientists, food producers, insurance companies or consumers.
Simply put, the intent of the challenge is to stimulate the exploration of the USDA’s data and to encourage new questions to be asked of these data, either in isolation or in combination with other data feeds or tools. We expect that many developers will start from existing data science tools, machine learning algorithms and visualization techniques; whatever the starting point, we are confident that participants will create valuable tools that promote the goal of food resilience.
For more information about the USDA partnership, read the Microsoft on the Issues blog.
—Daron Green, Deputy Managing Director, Microsoft Research