Hackers take on their greatest challenge yet: the soil

Better farming starts with healthy soil

Data junkies, scientists, programmers and interface designers got their hands dirty at the National Soil Hack last month. Their mission? To develop a measuring tool that can monitor and improve the quality of Dutch soil.

In a student cafe in Wageningen University’s Orion building, teams of hackers worked feverishly. They had until the stroke of noon to successfully complete their quest to develop a coveted soil-measuring tool. The relief at noon was palpable – they had worked together intensively for two long days and now, finally, the work was done.

The Nationale Bodemhack (National Soil Hack), held on November 29 and 30 at the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, was an initiative by BodemCoalitie (the Soil Coalition), in partnership with insurance company a.s.r., Rabobank and water company Vitens. Soil quality is a key concern of institutions like these – bank and insurance companies’ revenue models depend on the value of land. For water companies, ‘healthy’ land is a guarantee for the current and continued supply of fresh drinking water.

Under pressure

Healthy soil offers greater nutritional value for the food we grow and is more resistant to climate effects such as long-term droughts and downpours. But the quality of land is under increasing pressure due to the ongoing intensification in crop production. That is what Carola Schouten, Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality told the Dutch Parliament in a letter earlier this year. The BodemCoalitie endorses this view and wants to improve soil quality by developing a national soil index, which can easily be used by farmers to help them make sound decisions for the health of their soil and farms.

“Farmers’ greatest capital”

Josien Kapma of FarmHackNL, who co-organized the Nationale Bodemhack, explains: “A dynamic soil index provides insight into the current soil quality and offers suitable measures to optimize soil conditions. Healthy soil is the basis for agricultural production, water quality and resilient ecosystems. Farmers take good care of the soil because it is their greatest capital.”

FarmHack encourages creative IT professionals to bring their expertise to the agricultural sector. According to Kapma, that makes it possible to translate social questions into opportunities for farmers to innovate on the farm.

“Hackathons bring solutions within reach”

- Josien Kapma, FarmHackNL

Hackers get down to earth

“The purpose of the Bodemhack was to develop a comprehensive tool for mapping the quality of the agricultural soil and water systems in the Netherlands,” says Kapma. “It will also monitor management quality. A hackathon is an ideal way to initiate a ‘quest’ for this tool.”

She knows from experience that teams working on various challenges in an informal and relaxed atmosphere can bring solutions to a problem within reach. “This hack offered a unique opportunity to work with experts and data donors (local governments and companies) to learn from each other and build practical applications.”

Soil experts meet IT specialists

“People from very different backgrounds, fields of knowledge and expertise meet during hackathons,” says Kapma. This high degree of diversity was also evident among the participants – mainly men – at Wageningen: there were soil experts and IT specialists from very different fields. The six teams worked with data provided by organizations including Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), WUR, Vallei and Veluwe water board and various agricultural businesses.

“It was great to see how sixty participants got along during two days of intense collaboration,” enthused Kapma. “It resulted in many innovative and creative solutions. Participants presented pitches to a jury of representatives from BodemCoalitie and WUR. Winners were selected on the criteria of objectivity, feasibility and whether their tool encourages users.”

Enthusiasm for collaboration

For many participants it was a new experience working in such a unique setting on an issue like soil. Hackers and collaborators alike were enthusiastic about everyone’s willingness to cooperate and share information.

Jip Welkers, who works as a business developer at Vitens, described the atmosphere as absolutely “amazing.” “Precisely because people from different backgrounds and expertise work together on finding a solution to a problem, you get unexpected new insights,” she said.

“Our team consisted of four farmers and someone from the Dutch Agriculture and Horticulture Organization (LTO Nederland) – people from totally different backgrounds. This made for some long and lively discussions.” Her team received the jury award for Cooperation, one of the six challenges. Welkers: “We came up with ‘dialogue tables’ with which to bring an integral soil tool to farmers and users. That went down well with the jury.”

“Everyone was involved, from farmer to bigwig”

- Josien Kapma, FarmHackNL

Tractor data

Another one of the Bodemhack’s challenges was: how to monitor tractor data to increase understanding of soil conditions and soil quality. Auke Sytsma, one hack participant, developed a measuring tool that links to sensors on the tractors farmers use to plough their fields and spray their crops. “The data that the tool yields gives us pin-point information about the condition of the soil,” Sytsma says. “It tells us which parts of the land are wet and which are dry; what effect that has on working the field; what the soil density is; what influence it has on the roots and development of a crop. That is all valuable information for a farmer.”

The Nationale Bodemhack’s main prize was won by the team Lots-of-Data. They found a smart way to connect Wageningen University’s big data program – a sort of ‘data warehouse’ with open data about agricultural parcels in the Netherlands – to JoinData, a non-profit cooperative for agricultural entrepreneurs.

Steps toward sustainability

How does Kapma reflect on the soil hack she helped to organize? “I am elated about the diversity of the participants: everyone got involved, from farmer to bigwig. I am also very enthusiastic about the joint opportunities that ‘soil’ and the data revolution offer.

“By developing a tool aimed at monitoring soil quality, the step towards more sustainable agriculture becomes easier. But it must be on the condition that the tools are developed openly and jointly. Farmers must have confidence in the methods, endorse them and do not feel judged.’”

“Investing in soil quality is important for farms to flourish”

- Anton Bartelen, Farmer

Rewarding farmers

One of those farmers is Anton Bartelen from Oud Gastel. He has an agricultural consultancy firm and follows new developments closely. Bartelen keenly observed the Nationale Bodemhack. “Various disciplines coming together during a hackathon to talk about a single topic yields new knowledge. I noticed there are a great deal of joint opportunities which can be tackled together.”

Looking at his own business, Bartelen would like to invest in new tools for soil monitoring and management. “Investing in soil quality is important to continue to run a flourishing business in the future. At the same time I feel that farmers who are willing to invest in sustainability must be rewarded in some way.”

What’s next?

Will the Nationale Bodemhack have a sequel? Kapma hopes so: “That is our intention, yes. The problem with ‘soil’ is that so many parties have an opinion about it, but centralized coordination – or even just a clear, shared vision – is lacking. The result of the hackathon is very specific: working together on solutions.

“A second, less visible result is that the parties then gain an understanding of each other’s needs, which increases their willingness to collaborate. We have to wait and see what will actually be developed; new initiatives can be created anywhere. The BodemCoalitie itself will also continue working towards a measuring instrument.”