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Using Open Data and Online Tools to Bolster Food Safety

The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, was formed in 1862 as a means of monitoring and regulating agriculture throughout the country. Although the organization has been widely criticized throughout its tenuous history, they remain the standard for the development and execution of federal laws surrounding agriculture, farming and food.

With that in mind, it's important that the USDA embraces the latest in information technology. In a recent bid to promote IT innovation and pave the way for increased technological development, the organization recently partnered with Microsoft to hold an Innovation Challenge aimed at exploring the effects of climate change and bolstering food resiliency.

Apart from that, the USDA even offered up critical datasets pertaining to agriculture, farming and food safety. This utilization of big data is the first of its kind in such public contests, but the results of the competition, which have only recently been announced, are fruitful to say the least.

Three separate prizes were awarded in total, as well as two honorable mentions, a Popular Choice Award recipient and a Large Organization Recognition Award recipient. George Lee of San Francisco was awarded the grand prize consisting of the Open Source Application Award as well as the Best Visualization in Time or Space Award, while Khyati Majmudar of Mumbai, India was given the second prize. The third prize went to Benjamin Wellington from Brooklyn.

Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary, described how the latest advancements in technology have the potential to impact future food production and safety. He was quoted as saying: "In yet another example of how public and private resources can be leveraged together to address significant global concerns, the winners of the USDA-Microsoft Innovation Challenge have used open government data to create an impressive array of innovative tools to help food producers and our communities prepare for the impacts of climate change and ensure our nation's ability to provide plentiful, affordable food."

In all, a grand total of $63,000 in cash and prizes were handed out during the competition, which included approximately 350 contestants involved in 33 distinct submissions. The winning entry, which presented a means of analyzing the data of all crops within five kilometers of any given farm, was awarded $25,000.

Dr. Daron G. Green, deputy managing director with Microsoft Research, shared Vilsack's sentiments by saying: "Combining the advantages of cloud computing resources with the government's desire to provide open access to public data is likely to transform scientific research and business innovation. Microsoft's partnership with the USDA evidences how public-private partnership can stimulate new applications, explore novel scenarios and, in this case, work towards a more resilient and sustainable food production."

Given the recent and undeniable success surrounding the Innovation Challenge of Microsoft and the USDA, it's safe to say that we'll see further efforts to integrate technology with the traditions of agriculture, farming and food safety within the United States. To find out more information about the USDA or any of their latest research, you are welcome to visit their official site at


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