September 1, 2021

AGGARWAL | Farm to Computer: What Cornell Computer Science Can Do for Ithaca Agriculture

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One in four farmers in America does not have access to stable internet connection.

Even more striking, three out of five farmers do not have sufficient broadband. So, even though the vast majority of farmers wish to use more technology, a study done by the United Soybean Board reported that 60 percent of farmers lack the connectivity to do so. This stems from inadequate investment in low-income, rural communities — one of those being upstate New York.

On my way back to Cornell’s campus I noticed just 12 miles away from my hometown of Syracuse that there was no service. To me, that means a temporary Spotify playlist pause or a call drop. But, to the farmers who live in these communities, it forces an entirely different way of life. 

I spoke with a farmer from Grotton, NY, which is a quick 24 minute drive from downtown Ithaca. He told me about his poor connectivity and how frustrating it can be to lack the technology so many — including myself — so easily utilize and take for granted. Smartphones are practically unreasonable to purchase because an expensive smartphone could easily break in his daily activities. While on the other hand, as a college student here at Cornell, the thought of not having the internet in the palm of my hand is what seems entirely unreasonable.

As a computer science student at one of the top engineering schools in the country, I have always benefited from the technological innovation that is quite literally at my fingertips. Being exposed to the stark difference between the haves and the have-nots — the Cornell technology community and the rural communities that border it — fueled both a sense of injustice and a purpose to work towards.

But, it also generated a sense of frustration. About 97 percent of our country is rural land and almost 20 percent of the population lives on it. Yet, our programming classes here largely skew toward providing for the three percent of our country’s land considered urban, densely populated and highly interconnected.

Recognizing that agricultural production needs to double by 2050 to satisfy the growing world population, we cannot afford to leave farmers behind technologically. Without access to valuable insights due to these financial and infrastructural constraints, small farmers are unable to improve profitability, optimize food production and implement climate-friendly practices moving forward. As the students of today and the leaders of tomorrow, being mission-driven and context-oriented in our learning will help drive the solutions we make. 

I can only speak to the plight of these small farmers from the bits and pieces I glean through our hour-long conversations. They are a group neglected by digital innovation. However, change is inevitable and as the potential of digital agriculture grows greater, so does the opportunity cost of sticking to the tried-and-true, yet anachronistic, farming practices. Unfortunately, due to their reluctance to accept new technologies, the gap has widened between the technology they are familiar with and the technology that is available. This phenomenon is called technological literacy, and it is remarkably low for most small farmers. 

However, this also presents the perfect opportunity for Cornell — and particularly computer science students — to serve an unmet need in our community. Many of the interfaces and new technologies farmers could use are inaccessible to them. Understanding the meaning of icons, gestures and website design trends, for example, is not guaranteed for all users. For example, we know that a circle in the middle lower part of the screen can be a camera button, or that you need to look for a hamburger menu to get more options, or that swiping left could reveal more information — but those who haven’t lived in our highly digitized world may not.

Therefore, the key in this transition is focusing on accessibility when designing solutions. Currently, mobile applications are mostly designed for high population centers with reliable connectivity — both of which are not present for much of rural, farming America. This sets up the following challenge: designing apps for a user not accounted for in our everyday lives nor in much of the design we learn as computer science students.

At Cornell, I have taken many classes in programming, design, and web development. Yet, none of them have been driven by impacting our local community. We should be designing websites for farmers, learning about methods and design tools that can make technology more accessible to underserved communities like our own and exposing computer science students to the audiences right here in Ithaca that can benefit most from the tools we are learning to master.

Change starts small, so we should start local. If technology is indeed the path for progress, then we cannot and should not leave our community behind.

Somil Aggarwal is a senior in the College of Engineering.Comments can be sent to [email protected]. print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.