Open Agriculture Foundation: Creating an open-source ecosystem to revolutionize the future of food

About Open Agriculture Foundation

OpenAgTM is an open-source community of more than 2,000 members working towards building an ecosystem that spans research, nonprofit, and commercial ventures. Its goal is to create healthier, more engaging, and more inventive food with technology. The Open Agriculture Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit supporting the initiative in local communities, helping schools improve their curriculum around food systems and agriculture.

Industry: Nonprofit
Location: United States

To propel open source research using OpenAgTM Food Computers for education and research, Open Agriculture Foundation decided to run its application back end and data analytics on Google Cloud Platform.

Google Cloud Results

  • Empowers educators and citizens to grow food with better yield, flavor, and nutrient density
  • Reveals insights into climate, genetics, and other variables with data analytics
  • Enables 3-person team to bring a solution to market in less than 3 months

Scales to accommodate thousands of Food ComputerTM devices around the world

The future of the human race depends on creating sustainable food systems with minimal environmental effects. What if citizens could produce their own food on a hyper-local level? What if researchers and educators could share specific sets of climate conditions and genetic variables in plants that produce the most desirable results?

Along these lines, the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAgTM) has its own vision for the future, which includes Food ComputerTM devices—open source technologies in enclosed, climate controlled environments—and Climate Recipes, which are specific sets of conditions based on cross linking plant phenotypic response (such as taste and nutrient content) to environmental, biologic, and genetic variables and resources required for cultivation.

The goals of the Open Agriculture Foundation are to bring together partners from academia, philanthropic organizations, and industry to support the use and accessibility of Food Computers in education; connect students from diverse backgrounds; and help educators to foster high-impact, transformational experiences. The foundation is building on OpenAg’s research, using citizen science to crowd-source a library of Climate Recipes designed to maximize desirable plant traits by correlating plant responses to environmental variables.

“By working with Google to create a robust user interface and back end, we can give our community the resources to collect data, share it, and collaborate, driving forward research on 21st century food systems.”

Paula Cerqueira, Special Projects Manager, Open Agriculture Foundation

Creating healthier food systems

OpenAg uses Food Computers that can range from a 30-centimeter cube for educational applications to a 40-foot shipping container for large-scale experiments. More than 2,000 “nerdfarmers” in 62 countries form a user community that collaborates to explore future possibilities for local and global food systems. They help OpenAg create a more sustainable food system that is more transparent, and more efficient at producing, fosters experimentation, and educates.

Educators use Food Computers as a tool to teach different disciplines and generate rich, dynamic academic curricula. Through the Open Agriculture Foundation, students have the opportunity to build their own Food Computers, giving them an intimate grasp of the technology and what it can accomplish. The Open Agriculture Foundation also gives students and educators the opportunity to become part of a larger open source community where data from the classroom is collected and shared around the world.

Using data for positive change

The Open Agriculture Foundation is helping the community create the Open Phenome, an open-source digital library of Climate Recipes, which Food Computers run to control their environment.

To fully develop the Open Phenome and propel open source, citizen science-based education and research, the Open Agriculture Foundation decided to use Google Cloud Platform (GCP). GCP allows the foundation to serve datasets and updates to its user community. As a participant in the Google Data Solutions for Change program, the Open Agriculture Foundation received cloud credits, self-training resources, and technical support. For its data analytics project, the Open Agriculture Foundation focused on integrating its Food Computers using Google Cloud IoT core and translating that information into structured data with Google BigQuery.

"By working with Google to create a robust user interface and back end, we can give our community the resources to collect data, share it, and collaborate, driving forward research on 21st century food systems," says Paula Cerqueira, Special Projects Manager for the Open Agriculture Foundation.

“As a long-time user of other cloud services, I can say that Google Cloud Platform is a far superior offering. It’s the most flexible architecture we could find to provide compute, data storage, and communications for our Food Computers.”

Rob Baynes, Lead Back End Developer, OpenAg

Getting data from plant to cloud

Plant and climate data is transmitted from growing environments using IoT-connected actuators and sensors that measure humidity, temperature, CO2, and light levels (see Figure 1). To manage the IoT devices, the Open Agriculture Foundation uses Google Cloud IoT Core, a service for highly secure device connection and management. Data is then transmitted to GCP using MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) and Google Cloud Pub/Sub for highly secure data publishing and individual device control of sensors, actuators, and cameras.

Openag Cloud Architecture

Once the data is in GCP, Google App Engine provides a flexible, serverless compute environment to power a web-based user interface for users to send Climate Recipes to their Food Computers. They can also monitor their plants’ environment and growth with images and notifications, and share and discover new Climate Recipes. User profiles, Climate Recipes, and device information are stored in Google Cloud Datastore, while Google Cloud Storage provides a cost-effective repository for images and backups.

Cloud Functions for Firebase provides an open function to accept public keys from IoT devices and save them to a public Cloud Firestore NoSQL cloud database. The Open Agriculture Foundation’s three software developers were able to design, build, and deploy the new back end in less than three months.

“As a long-time user of other cloud services, I can say that Google Cloud Platform is a far superior offering,” says Rob Baynes, Lead Back End Developer at OpenAg. “It’s the most flexible architecture we could find to provide compute, data storage, and communications for our Food Computers.”

“What all of our users have in common is the desire to contribute to an open source, citizen-science project to create a library of plant and climate data that will help to define the future of food and agriculture. Google is helping us create that future.”

Paula Cerqueira, Special Projects Manager, OpenAg

Growing a garden of insights

To mine research data and Climate Recipes for insights, the Open Agriculture Foundation uses Google BigQuery, a managed service for on-demand analytics, as its data warehouse. Google BigQuery allows the foundation to offer a public dataset that anyone can use on a pay-per-query basis. It can apply different user access controls on each dataset, making it easy for affiliated research groups to keep data private for a desired period of time and then make datasets public once the research is published.

“Google BigQuery gives us the power to query across Climate Recipes and bring in other public datasets, such as weather data, that are very relevant to researchers,” says Rob. “It’s a big win for our user community, allowing researchers to look for correlations between large datasets.”

Sharing for a better future

As Food Computers multiply and users experiment with new Climate Recipes, data and phenotypic results will be made available on GCP so that they can be shared, borrowed, scaled up, and improved upon around the world. Educators will be able to use Food Computers to teach students about engineering, biology, coding, and farming to inspire the next generation of nerdfarmers. Growers and gastronomists will be able to produce larger quantities of more nutritious and better tasting foods. Researchers and industry will be able to rapidly phenotype desired responses in plants to improve food security.

“What all of our users have in common is the desire to contribute to an open source, citizen-science project to create a library of plant and climate data that will help to define the future of food and agriculture,” says Paula. “Google is helping us create that future.”

Data Solutions for Change

The Open Agriculture Foundation participated in Data Solutions for Change, a Google data analytics program for nonprofits to achieve their missions at scale. As a participant, the Open Agriculture Foundation received Google Cloud credits, self-training resources, and enablement support.

For more information on the Data Solutions for Change program and, if you’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, how to apply, visit.

About Open Agriculture Foundation

OpenAgTM is an open-source community of more than 2,000 members working towards building an ecosystem that spans research, nonprofit, and commercial ventures. Its goal is to create healthier, more engaging, and more inventive food with technology. The Open Agriculture Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit supporting the initiative in local communities, helping schools improve their curriculum around food systems and agriculture.

Industry: Nonprofit
Location: United States