Ben Parker/Sun Assistant Photo Editor

A Cornell team wins overall prize at the 2021 Digital Ag Hackathon.

March 9, 2021

36 Hours of Innovation at Cornell’s 2021 Digital Ag Hackathon

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In just 36 hours, participants in the 2021 Digital Ag Hackathon illustrated some of the ways an industry as ancient as agriculture can still benefit from modern, data-driven technological advancements.

From March 5 to March 7, over 200 students from the top five agriculture schools in the world participated in a series of workshops and networking events before competing for over $8,000 in prizes to help turn their innovative proposals into reality.

According to Prof. Steven Wolf, natural resources and environment, and Hackathon faculty chair, digital agriculture refers to a focus on data in the agricultural and food sectors. 

“Agriculture and food are very old industries, and they are, up to this point, not particularly data dense,” Wolf said. “Digital agriculture can create complementary resources that can be combined with human, experiential and locally based knowledge.” 

The event was hosted by the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture, with the support of Microsoft, Cargill and other corporate sponsors. In addition to Cornell, student and faculty guests hailed from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, University of São Paulo in Brazil, China Agricultural University and the University of California, Davis.

Over 30 teams pitched their ideas to the judges, who ranged from affiliated professors to professionals and experts from the USDA, Microsoft, Infosys and Dairy One. 

The judges assessed the students’ pitches across four categories: Novelty, Grand Societal Challenges, Market Readiness and Data. The winner for each category won $1,500, with one team taking home the overall prize of $2,000. 

PicturePerfectFruit and Unstuck Truck both took home the awards in the “Market Readiness” category. PicturePerfectFruit pitched a smart device to be used in grocery stores that predicts when produce will be perfectly ripe for consumption. Unstuck Truck optimizes tractor lending in Brazilian cane sugar farms.

The data award went to Sprout, an app that helps those living in food deserts begin gardening. 

Agfrica, another project that uses technology to address locust infestation in Africa, won the “Grand Societal Challenge” prize. The innovation has the potential to recuperate $2.5 billion in crop damage, and alleviate the environmental and human costs of locust swarms. 

In the “Novelty” category, ScrApp took home the title. The team created an app that allows farmers who need feed for their animals to participate in a bidding system for food waste. 

The overall winner was awarded to the “I Like to Move it, Move It!” team, composed of Cornellians Whitman Barrett MPS ’21, Mina Barakatain MPS ’21, Lily Lin ’17 MPS ’21, Zenas Lim MPS ’21, as well as Riske van Vliet of Wageningen and Christopher Prajogo of UC Davis. The team created a model for developing countries to tackle food spoilage during transport.

The virtual event allowed more students outside of Ithaca to attend than ever before. While last year each university brought five to 10 students to the in-person event, this year, over 20 students from each attended.

“Our team came from all different backgrounds, and I’m grateful for how we came together to brainstorm and create a solution to such an important problem,” said Yvonne Chan ’21 who worked on the Agfrica team. 

Despite the 36-hour timeframe, students who participated in the event developed lasting friendships.

“My favorite part of the event was working on the project all night and making 1 a.m. jokes with strangers that became lifelong friends literally overnight,” said Shiang-Wan Chin, a Ph.D. candidate in systems engineering and member of team Agfrica.

As a past winner of the “Grand Societal Challenge” prize, Chin’s experience at previous Digital Ag hackathons inspired him to pursue a Ph.D. in computer and systems engineering with a focus in digital agriculture. This year’s event only confirmed his decision. 

“My experience was fantastic,” Chin said. “This hackathon literally changed my life.”