Help figure out how the US can keep food on our tables in a time of climate change

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Envision this: The Mississippi River, a major transportation system for the U.S. food supply, dries up and no longer has water. How do we get that food from Point A to Point B? Are there sites along the river’s 2,350 miles for cold storage, so the food doesn’t go bad if river traffic comes to a standstill?

It isn’t a plot for a Hollywood movie. It’s a worst-case scenario that could happen because of climate change. To start figuring out solutions about how climate change will impact aspects of the U.S. food system, Microsoft is partnering with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the newly launched Innovation Challenge.

The challenge brings together some mighty muscle: Data, machine learning, the cloud and developer brainpower.

Entrants will develop and publish new applications and tools that can help analyze multiple sources of information, including key USDA data sets that are now being hosted on Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform.

Microsoft and the USDA are offering prizes for software applications that make use of the USDA data, and that provide insights to farmers, agriculture businesses and consumers.

Microsoft also is granting cloud computing awards to help university researchers and students who want to take part in the challenge, which closes at the end of November. Winners will be announced in December.

The top prize is $25,000, and it will go to the developer of the most creative application that best exploits the USDA’s cloud-based data.

And there’s quite a bit of data available – 100 years’ worth. That’s right: 100 years.

That’s because the USDA is one of the oldest federal agencies, and has been collecting information for a century about topics like crop production practices, financial outcomes and demographics.

The Microsoft Research-USDA effort is tied to the Obama administration’s call to action to federal agencies to organize the data they have related to climate information, and to make it accessible to the public as part of what’s known as the Climate Data Initiative.

Other federal agencies are also responding to the call to action, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation and NASA.

The administration also asked the agencies to partner with the private sector in achieving these goals, because it is going to take everyone’s help – the public, the private sector and various partnerships – to answer the complex questions tied to the impact of climate change.

“When we started thinking about mining data, and being able to have somebody in the private sector work with us, Microsoft was there,” says Dr. Ann M. Bartuska, USDA deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, in a video about the effort.

“I am looking forward to discovering what creative ideas the community comes up with when blending together USDA and other government data sets, and novel ways of analyzing that data with access to our Microsoft Azure cloud-computing platform,” says Dr. Daron Green, a deputy managing director within Microsoft Research.

Microsoft and the USDA hope the challenge will “provide a great incentive for developers and researchers interested in data science to put together some great applications helping address the USA’s food resiliency needs,” Green says.

To learn more, read Green’s post on the Microsoft Research Outreach blog and the USDA press release.

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