Sunday, March 27, 2016

How can we use data for improving food production?

Food security is one of the hottest topics nowadays; with a constantly growing population that is expected to reach (and even exceed) 9 billion by 2020, and the traditional food production systems reaching their limits, new, innovative ways need to be followed in order to ensure that there will be enough food for everyone in the upcoming years. What is strange is that at the same time, huge amounts of food are going to waste on a daily basis; in EU alone, more than 100 million tones of food are going to waste annually.

Image source:

Intensive and industrial agriculture exhibit higher yields of cultivated crops but the price is high: The (increasingly high) use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers, among other chemicals, has its toll on the ecosystems, flora and fauna at a small and larger scale. Traditional crop varieties are replaced by hybrids resistant to plant pests and diseases; these hybrids are sterile and may be harmful to useful insects, disrupting the ecosystems. Even domain giants like Sygenta have realized the impact of the excessive inputs in agriculture and introduce initiatives like the Good Growth Planwhich makes use of data for allowing the reduction of inputs thus minimizing their environmental impact. On the other hand, the much safer and environmentally-friendly organic agriculture cannot provide alone the response to the increased demand for food, as yields are usually lower and the effort needed is higher, leading to increased (labor) costs.

Can data help address this issue?
The answer is yes and it seems that data can help in different ways. The use of data can help in making informed decisions and educate stakeholders; for example, the use of appropriate data can help in the identification of the most appropriate crop varieties for a given location, affect the amount of inputs required for pest & weed control, the volume of water for irrigation required etc. Such data can be collected through various means, such as sensors, maps (including soil and climate), related publications, reports, images (e.g. aerial ones) even social media (Twitter has been used for sharing data at a global scale). The example of the Good Growth Plan is a good one as it makes use of various types of data collected over the years in order to help minimize the harmful inputs used for increasing yields. The recently published Discussion Paper of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, titled "How can we improve agriculture, food and nutrition with open data?" also provides a wealth of examples where open data has contributed to a better (and cleaner) agriculture and food production.
A more radical approach comes from the Open Agriculture initiative of MIT's Media Lab, which is working on open source agriculture, by designing and building food computers that ensure the application of optimal environmental and nutritional conditions for plants cultivated in growth chambers; this allows the growth of e.g. vegetables under controlled conditions that have been considered as optional based on "recipes" or values that have been determined based on data aggregated from various sources as well as through testing and experiments. Needless to say that no pesticides, herbicides etc. have any place in this way of growing food.

According to Caleb Harper, Director of the Open Agriculture Initiative, "In the future, even broccoli will have an IP address. Ultra-efficient, sensor-packed urban farms will collect huge quantities of information on every crop they grow and develop data-driven insights into what makes a tomato tastier and a head of broccoli grow faster. That information will be shared, and global agriculture will improve". (You can read the full article here; if you have more time, just watch the video above).

The point is that data can indeed lead to a better and environmentally sound framework of food production; what we need are efficient means for collecting, organizing, analyzing & sharing data, as well as a mean for transforming this data into meaningful (and useful) recommendations that will drive the agricultural practices. This is not science fiction; it is something that already takes place (maybe in an unorganized way so far) so it is up to us to grab it, adapt it and use it.

Why am I telling you all these? I recently got involved in CAPSELLA, one of Agroknow's new projects which aims (among others) to support local communities of farmers and food producers in making informed decisions on their activities by allowing them to access related and high-quality data from various open data sources as well as social media. The project will work on making existing data more easily available to these stakeholders through innovative ICT solutions that will be built on their requirements. And we are referring to food producers that have opted to operate in a way that will benefit the environment and agrobiodiversity, respecting natural resources (so away from industrial agriculture) so they could use all the help they could get from existing data that will allow them to increase their yields and grow higher quality food.

It's all about the data after all, isn't it?

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Call for Papers: 10th International Conference on Metadata and Semantics Research (MTSR’16)


The 10th International Conference on Metadata and Semantics Research (MTSR'16) will be held at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome (Italy) on November 22-25, 2016. Traditionally, MTSR brings together scholars and practitioners with common interest in the interdisciplinary fields of metadata, data and semantics. The conference provides an opportunity for participants to share knowledge and novel approaches in the implementation of semantic technologies across diverse types of information environments and applications, such as Cultural Informatics, Open Access Repositories and Digital Libraries, E-learning applications, Search Engine Optimization and Information Retrieval, Research Information Systems and Infrastructures, e-Science and e-Social Science applications, Agriculture, Food and Environment, Bio-Health & Medical Information Systems.

This year, MTSR’16 celebrates the conference’s 10th anniversary with the theme of bridging the past, present and future of metadata, data and semantic technologies. The organisers encourage prospective authors and conference participants to reflect on the following questions:
  • How the documented evidence produced over the past years can be used as a driver for innovating management and processing of data and information?
  • How close are we from the vision of building powerful learning systems that will meet the needs of modern societies through high quality data infrastructures and data-driven interfaces?
  • What are the main challenges that modern metadata and semantics research has not addressed yet?

What is of interest to our agrifood community is the Special track on Metadata and Semantics for Agriculture, Food & Environment (AgroSEM'16)which aims to bring together researchers and practitioners that are dealing with theoretical, methodological, experimental and application-oriented aspects of knowledge engineering, applied to agriculture, food and environment. This year, AgroSEM is chaired by Juliette Dibie & Liliana Ibanescu from AgroParisTech & INRA and we kindly invite anyone to contribute with a submission on metadata, semantics and related topics always in the field of agriculture, food and the environment. Agroknow has a tradition in participating to AgroSEM either through submissions or through contributions to the Programme Committee.

If you are interested in submitting a paper to MTSR 2016/AgroSEM 2016, you need to check out the following deadlines:

15th May 2016 : Submission deadline
30th June 2016 : Notification of acceptance
10th July 2016 : Camera-ready papers due
22nd – 25th November 2016 : Conference at FAO of the UN (Rome, Italy)

You can find detailed information about MTSR 2016, such as practicalities and submission processes, on the event's website.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Working with legal interoperability in the fishery and marine sciences

One of the most interesting things that I have been working on during the last weeks is related to an analysis of data sources and stakeholders in the fisheries and marine sciences in terms of legal interoperability - a work taking place in the context of a contract with the UN FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. What I am actually contributing to a detailed deliverable for the EGI-Engage project is an analysis of data stakeholders in the marine and fisheries sciences, major data sources and licensing schemes available (the latter being the most important part of my contribution to the deliverable). The aim of this work is to identify major obstacles in terms of legal interoperability between existing data sources in the specific sectors, identify common patterns in their licensing schemes and come up with recommendations that will facilitate data exchange between these data sources, thus enhancing data use, reuse and sharing and allowing the development of data-powered services on top of them.

My involvement in this work allowed me (along with my colleagues Babis Thanopoulos who is coordinating our contribution and Theo Kontogiannis) to participate in a really interesting meeting organized on 17/3/2016 at the FAO premises in Rome, Italy by the FAO team. The aim of the meeting was to present this ongoing work to people from various departments of FAO (e.g. legal, communications, geospatial etc.) that attended the meeting so that they could express their opinion and explore opportunities for the application of the methodology in other contexts as well. The meeting was chaired by Marc Taconet, Chief of FAO's Fishery Statistics and Information Branch (FIPS) while Anton Ellenbroek from the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department & Eise Van Maanen, a consultant working with the UN FAO team on this work. In the audience there were also people working for a really long time on information and knowledge management, like our good friend and collaborator Johannes Keizer and Stephen Katz. The meeting allowed us to present the work done so far and get valuable feedback from the participants, who provided a different view on the topics presented.

Despite the fact that for me was just a one-day trip, it seems that it was enough time for presenting our work, getting feedback for it, discussing the next steps, interviewing a couple of interesting (and interested) FAO staff members and meeting good friends like Johannes Keizer, Thembani Malapela and Fabrizio Celli from FAO AGRIS and AIMS. Meeting experiences and knowledgeable people like Marc Taconet (who I last met in the European Open Science Workshop last November after meeting him for the first time during the joint CIARD/GODAN consultation meeting in April 2014) and Anton (among others), is a great experience and potentially a start for new collaborations and interesting work

There is still quite a lot of work to be done in the context of the deliverable to be produced and submitted so I guess you'll hear more about it in the next months. :-)

Παρέχοντας από το 2009 έως σήμερα εξειδικευμένες υπηρεσίες που βοηθούν τη γεωπονική γνώση και πληροφορία να γίνει διαθέσ...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Facilitating access to educational and learning resources: Experiences so far

As you may already know this week (March 7-11) is the Open Education Week 2016 - an initiative that aims to raise awareness of free and open sharing in education and the benefits they bring to teachers and learners. The event takes place at a global level and is coordinated by the Open Education Consortium, a global network of educational institutions, individuals and organizations that support an approach to education based on openness, including collaboration, innovation and collective development and use of open educational materials.

I wanted to take the opportunity to write something relevant to this concept, as a small contribution to this global event - and it seems that the best I could think of is our (as Agroknow) contributions in facilitating access to educational resources, mostly in green topics.

I have been working with green educational projects and initiatives for quite a long time now; starting back in 2009 with the eContentPlus project Organic.Edunet, which led to the development of a multilingual green learning portal that featured about 11,000 educational resources appropriate for various levels of green education. The portal was further enhanced in the context of the Organic.Lingua ICT-PSP project, which not only added domain-specific automatic translation features to the portal, but also worked on the evolution of the metadata schema (Organic.Edunet IEEE LOM AP) and the ontology (Organic.Edunet ontology) used for the description and classification of these educational resources respectively. The Organic.Edunet Web portal is open and available to anyone.

Other projects like the Leonardo da Vinci Organic.Balkanet and CerOrganic ones worked mostly on developing specialized training curricula for the organic farming sector. These courses were made available through a learning portal called Multimedia open learning environment (MOLE), a fully-featured course management platform with multimedia capabilities. While the platform required a free registration for accessing most of the material, it supported the Organic.Edunet IEEE LOM AP and the OAI-PMH protocol for publishing the metadata records with other platforms. The Herbal.Mednet project also worked on the development of educational material for the vocational training sector, focusing on the organic medicinal and aromatic plants.

Our latest projects (both as Agroknow and individual members) include the recently completed GreeNET and the still ongoing Green Learning Network. The former created an inventory of Best Practices related to sustainable development and environmental protection, an Discovery Space for green OER on these topics and other related (and useful tools) - all available through the GreeNET Hub. At the same time, Green Learning Network working on developing a network of educators, agriculturalists, institutions, learners and user communities in Lifelong Learning, has created a number of OER hubs for different types of educational communities, namely Higher, School, Informal and Vocational - all of them featuring discovery spaces for the discovery and retrieval of high quality OER in the corresponding fields. These hubs are enhanced with social sharing options, that facilitate access to and sharing of OER with existing colleagues and online communities through social media.

We also had the pleasure to actively contribute to two other projects working on the ECVET (European Credit system for Vocational Education and Training framework) sector, namely ECVET-STEP and the Agricultural Alliance for Competence and Skills based Training (ACT), which focused their work on mapping the existing training curricula, opportunities and skills with competences standardized in the context of ECVET.

On top of that, I had (and still have) the opportunity to represent Agroknow in educational networks that are interested in the promotion and facilitation of access to OER, like the European-based EdReNe (Educational Repositories Network); and let's keep in mind that Agroknow is also activated in other educational networks like the ARIADNE Foundation and GLOBE (Global Learning Objects Brokered Exchange) which work in providing the necessary technical and policy developments for the global educational and learning communities. Last but not least, Agroknow is actively involved in the Global Food Safety Partnership, a global initiative led by the World Bank aiming at combining food safety training and technical support so developing countries can improve their food safety systems and benefit from better compliance with food safety standards (Agroknow has developed a GFSP demonstrator for the vocational training material of interest to GFSP) .

More updates on Agroknow's contribution to the OER communities will follow soon - especially with the launch of AGINFRA that will facilitate the interoperability and connection of various educational and learning initiatives in the agri-food sector at a global level, by providing the required infrastructure and services for enabling this. Stay tuned for more info!