The United Nations Global Pulse, an innovation initiative on big data and data science, and Western Digital recently announced the winners of the Data for Climate Action Challenge (D4CA) at the Data Innovation: Generating Climate Solutions event during the United Nations climate change conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany.
An unprecedented open innovation challenge to harness data science and big data from the private sector to fight climate change, D4CA was launched earlier this year and called on innovators, scientists, and climate experts to use data to accelerate climate solutions. Access to large amounts of data – anonymized and aggregated to protect privacy – accelerates the ability to spot connections, gain insight and develop predictive algorithms that can provide more precise direction and decisions. The Data for Climate Action Challenge demonstrates what’s possible when public and private sector organizations partner for social good.
WIRED Brand Lab: Can you walk us through your idea?
Erdem: We’re running a startup in Turkey that designs digital tools for farmers. We tell the farmers when to irrigate, how much water does the crop need and how much fertiliser, and at which stage of growth.
WBL: Farmers have been successfully growing crops for thousands of years. How does your dataset compare to that indigenous knowledge?
Erdem: We track and follow meteorological data, as well as the health status of the plants, the humidity of the soil and temperature of the soil. This allows us to precisely tell them what to do with the plants.
The traditions in farming, and the industry as a whole is quite conservative. However, because of climate change, things are changing. For example, in one particular region it could be raining less, in another the timings of rain could change, and somewhere else there could be too much water. We need to adapt. Things are not like it used to be.
We are designing tools to assist the farmer, but we do not underestimate the talent and experience of the farmer. We provide the data, but we let them interpret and apply that as they wish.
WBL: How is that information delivered to the farmer?
Erdem: We can send SMS messages to the farmers, or alternatively they can access it via a web browser or more recently, an app. We’re building out the functionality of the app to behave like a chatbot, so a farmer can have a conversation with the app about how best to look after the plants.
WBL: What datasets did you use?
Erdem: Right now, we combine weather forecasting data, satellite data and remote sensing data. We have sensors, which we deploy at each farm that provides us soil humidity and temperature.
WBL: How many farmers are you currently working with?
Erdem: We’re working with a company that works directly with the farmers to promote our services. So far we’ve reached more than 100,000 farmers.
WBL: What has been some of the feedback from farmers?
Erdem: Crops are often at their most vulnerable in early spring. When plants are flowering, frost can severely damage them. We can provide them with precise details on frost warnings allowing them to take action and save their crops.
WBL: How so?
Erdem: If frost is forecast, farmers can make a fire in the farm to increase the temperature in that small area. Alternatively, farmers have machines that circulate warm air, and change the air temperature slightly to keep frost away.
WBL: How has the farmers knowledge compared to the data you have gathered on what’s happened on their farms?
Erdem: When it comes to wheat growing, what farmers consider before they seed is soil moisture, but they don’t look at air temperature projections, which can have a significant impact on when to sow the seeds.
In our datasets, we found if there’s a delay in one week of seeding from the optimal date, there is a five per cent yield penalty come harvest time. In Turkey, that equates to around $8 per acre. When you have hundreds of acres that’s a big impact on their profits.
WBL: How much has Turkey changed as a result of climate change?
Erdem: According to projections, Turkey will be drier. We are already a water poor country, in terms of how much each person has access to. This is going to get worse. The link between how water is used between rural and urban areas is going to become more tied together. For every drop of water a farmer misuses, that will mean less water for those living in cities.
WBL: What are the next steps?
Erdem: Our current aim is to reach as many farmers as possible. We want to be a free service for farmers to allow us to build up larger datasets that can be useful in other ways. For example, in the future, we’d like to be able to act as an early warning system for crop disease outbreak. So if we detect disease on one farm, we can inform farmers before it gets to them and destroys their crops. By crowdsourcing we can have a better understanding of farming and help secure food supplies for everyone.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.
Data Makes Possible will be following the winners as they work to implement their solutions and bring real change to our world, and we’ll be publishing interviews with the thematic and data visualization winners throughout January and February.