Cornell’s 2nd annual Digital Agriculture Hackathon drew more than 150 students, who worked together to brainstorm solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Students swap skills to seek solutions at digital ag hackathon

Students in fields ranging from computer science and engineering to business, agriculture and animal science convened at the second Digital Agriculture Hackathon, Feb. 28-March 1, with a shared purpose: to combine their disparate skills to brainstorm ways to make the world a better place.

Members of the Cornell ML team work together in the final moments of the hackathon.

“I’m cooperating with so many other majors that I have never come into touch with – it’s just so brand-new and refreshing,” said Jel Zhao ’20, an animal science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), one of nearly 150 hackathon participants. “They know stuff that I don’t know, and I know stuff that they don’t, but we can come together into one room to figure out solutions to make animals’ lives better.”

Zhao’s team – which also comprised students studying computer science, information science, and international agriculture and rural development – created a machine-learning model to detect anomalies in cow vocalizations to try to pinpoint health concerns. The 25 student teams developed their ideas with input from mentors from Cornell, visiting universities and companies, including event sponsors Cargill and Microsoft.

“Modernization has created tremendous increases in food productivity, but technology has also displaced millions of people from agriculture and contributed to public health problems and ecological degradation,” said Steven Wolf, associate professor of natural resources and faculty co-lead for the event. “We need to engage creatively and critically with technology as applied to agriculture and food, and this approach was highly evident in the ideas and sensibilities the students brought to the hackathon.”

Few products and services affect as many people as food and agriculture, and insufficient access to food, inefficient supply chains and reliance on petrochemicals are major global challenges. Digital agriculture, which applies the tools of technology to agricultural systems, can help improve efficiency, reduce hunger and protect the planet.

Cornell impacting New York State

“These are big, broad challenges, and student groups came together to identify problems and create solutions, all within 36 hours,” said faculty co-lead Hakim Weatherspoon, associate professor of computer science. “To me, the key is to use digital agriculture to advance studies in both directions – not just applying a machine-learning model to make agriculture more efficient, but to use agriculture and the life sciences to advance computer science.”

In addition to getting advice from mentors, participants attended workshops on topics including design thinking, machine learning and using Microsoft’s Farmbeats lab kit, which can track sensor readings to provide growers with data. On the hackathon’s third day, the teams presented four-minute demos to the judges, followed by four-minute Q&As.

Cash prizes were awarded to winning projects in five categories: grand prize ($2,000); and novelty, grand societal challenge, market ready and data/analysis ($1,500 each).

“Last-mile delivery of data-driven market optimization of fresh produce sales for ultra-rural farmers,” a project developed by three engineering master’s students and a doctoral student in nutrition, won the grand prize of $2,000.

This year, students from three of the world’s top agricultural universities – Wageningen University, the Netherlands; the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil; and the University of California, Davis – traveled to Cornell to participate, as did hackers from Cooper Union, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Ithaca College and New York University.

Projects developed by the 25 teams at the Digital Agriculture Hackathon used technology to improve the food chain, boost farmers’ productivity and reduce waste.

“It’s been really nice to meet people doing different types of agriculture,” said Ziqiu Kang, a master’s student in biological engineering from Wageningen University, whose team built an app that would use photos and machine learning to analyze crop planting conditions, with the goal of helping farmers reduce food waste caused by plants rotting in the fields. “The level of research here is very high, and it’s been really broadening.”

Around half of Cornell’s participants were undergraduates and half were graduate students, representing nearly 50 fields of study across 11 schools. For agriculture or animal science students, the hackathon provided an opportunity to explore how digital tools of technology could aid their fields; for computer scientists and engineers, it was a chance to apply their skills to pressing, real-world problems.

“I’ve done a lot of work with machine learning, but I’m always on the lookout for applications for machine learning that have the potential to make big global impact,” said Joshua Fan, a doctoral student in computer science and a teammate of Kang’s. “And I think agriculture seems to be one of those high-impact areas, because millions of people depend on it for their livelihoods and it affects food security. So I was just curious to see what this was all about.”

The hackathon, held at the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), was hosted by the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture, which is supported by the provost’s Radical Collaboration initiative; Cornell Engineering; CVM; Computing and Information Science; and CALS. It was organized by Entrepreneurship at Cornell. A full list of hosts and sponsors can be found here.

The winners:

  • Grand prize: “Last-mile delivery of data-driven market optimization of fresh produce sales for ultra-rural farmers.” Saurabh Yadav, M.Eng. ’20, computer science; Shashank Shirke, M.Eng. ’20, engineering management; Soumya Ananthakrishnan, M.Eng. ’20, computer science; Kathryn Merckel, doctoral student, nutritional sciences.
  • Novelty: “Using waste byproducts from tequila production for a healthy probiotic drink.” Houston Claure, doctoral student, mechanical engineering; Apratim Jash, doctoral student, food engineering; Adam Kendrick, MBA ’20; Patrick Schulz, M.S. ’21, food engineering.
  • Data/analysis: “Rapid soil-borne pathogen testing kit.” Courtney Gibson ’22, plant science; Saeed Hosseinzadeh, doctoral student, plant pathology; Anneliek ter Horst, Kia Canning and Kyle Cheung, U.C. Davis; Brian Barbieri, Wageningen University.
  • Market ready: “Making food consumption safer for people with food-related health conditions.” Harley Keh, MBA/MHA ’21; Jordan Gorelick, M.Eng ’20, systems engineering; Elena Suarez ’23, plant science; Ben Tumulero, Waginengen University.
  • Grand Societal Challenge: “Providing precise, affordable and actionable forecasting of plant diseases using a network of static sensors and mobile robots.” Harshitha Puttalakshmamma, M.Eng ’20, engineering management; Valentin Porcellini M.Eng. ’20, information science; Jeonghoon Lee, Georgia Tech; Yiping Xie and Samihana Khanal, Wageningen University.

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub