Husker Faculty Plays Leading Role in Building National Agricultural Data Network | Nebraska today
Modern technology can flood today’s agricultural producers with data from their farms and ranches. Tractors, combines and sprayers, aided by satellites, sensors and drones in combination with crop and livestock information, together generate a steady stream of information on the ground.
These precision agriculture datasets are large, but they exist separately on a wide range of software platforms. This disconnect is a major hurdle, preventing growers from sorting and using data for maximum efficiency, profitability, and environmental sustainability.
A new federally funded initiative is working to end this disconnect by creating a network of national agricultural data repositories, the National Agricultural Producers Data Cooperative. A group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty members are at the forefront of leading the effort, which involves a wide range of stakeholder universities and organizations.
The project aims to establish “a national framework for data that will be supported primarily by our land-grant institutions in partnership with producers and ranchers,” said Jennifer L. Clarke, professor of statistics and food science and technology at the Nebraska and director of the university’s Quantitative Life Sciences Initiative. The planned national data framework is intended to be accessible, secure and supported by compatible software platforms across the agri-tech industry.
Above all, Clarke said, the project is designed to meet the real needs of producers and enable “data-driven decision-making in agriculture.”
Clarke has a starring role in the project, for which the WE The Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently awarded a $960,000 grant, marking the initiative’s second round NIFA funding.
In addition to Clarke, Husker faculty members with key roles are Joe Luck, precision agriculture and biological systems engineering; Laura Thompson, agricultural extension and agricultural research; Liz Lorang, data management and information systems; Matt Spangler, bovine genetics; Scout Calvert, University Libraries; Hongfeng Yu, Advanced Cyberinfrastructure and High Performance Computing; and Trenton Franz, hydrology and water management. Key partner organizations include Ag Data Coalition, AgGateway, Open Ag Data Alliance, National Animal Germplasm Program, Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture at Virginia Tech, MarketMaker, Clemson University, and Bovine Genome Database.
The first phase of the project focused on building a collaborative community of participants, gathering information and identifying critical needs. This new and second phase, said Clarke, increased functionality NIFA funding to facilitate critical pilot studies to concretely move the process forward.
One of these studies will feature a pivotal role for Nebraska’s beef industry. Husker researchers will work with the state’s beef cattle populations – cow-calf, semen stock, feedlot, on-farm research – to develop ways to host the data, store it and provide effective access to producers. The work will be done in partnership with two federal depots, the USDA‘s Animal Germplasm Resources Information Network and Bovine Genome Database.
“Nebraska is ahead,” Clarke said. “Having such a framework can be important for Nebraska and for national agriculture. It is also an important part of tackling climate change and building climate resilience.
Communication and dialogue are an integral part of the cooperative data process. Producers and organizations are encouraged to learn about the initiative on its website and join the project mailing list.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will host a Data Cooperation Conference in May at the Nebraska Innovation Campus, with a focus on public input.
“We are a land-grant institution,” Clarke said, “and one of our goals as faculty is to support Nebraska and solve the challenges that Nebraska and its constituents face. So we really need to have the voice of voters around the table. This is what really makes our activities interesting and valuable.
A central objective of the project is to develop technical solutions to connect the many different and incompatible agricultural data platforms. The researchers are studying two main options. One is to develop software called an application programming interface that allows translation between different systems. The other is to establish collaboration between technology companies so that, in the future, the new software systems they develop are compatible with each other.
“We need the idea of interoperability to be in the design phase of the systems so they can actually talk to each other,” Clarke said.
The initiative involves a wide range of academic disciplines and stakeholder organizations trying to solve complex problems at scale. It’s a complex process that showed project participants the need to strengthen their communication and coordination, Clarke said. The process also showed the need to avoid a “one size fits all” mentality; agricultural needs are too varied across the United States.
“Agriculture is local,” Clarke said. “Each farming system will have slightly different needs and requirements. So we need to work with our regional partners and talk to people on the ground to find out their needs.
The project can help meet national agricultural needs, “but another part is how to adapt the framework to regional needs” – underscoring the project’s continued need for public input and effective collaboration. Learn more.