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NC State and Oracle Pilot ‘Big Data’ Project to Grow Agriculture

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Video by Chris Liotta

Oracle has selected NC State as a university partner to pilot a new program that uses big data to solve grand challenges in everything from agriculture to textiles to engineering.

As part of the partnership, which kicks off this fall, Oracle will give the university cloud credits for five faculty and 100 students – more than a $600,000 value – to be distributed over the course of one year through the university’s information technology office.

In addition to the credits, Oracle will work with the university – and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) in particular – to launch a big data project that focuses on sweet potatoes.

“The importance of data and analytics in agriculture is definitely of age,” said Avi Misra, chief data scientist with Oracle’s big data and analytics platform team. “Agriculture as an industry has been around for a while, but they’re always looking for opportunities to do better, and I think the sweet potato use case we’re talking about is fantastic because it opens up an opportunity to really look at how the state of the art in AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) can help the industry.”

Steve Lommel, CALS associate dean for research and director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, described the partnership as “synergistic.”

“We have been working on the Plant Sciences Initiative for about 18 months and the word is getting out in the media and in the scientific community,” he said. “… Oracle saw that we were building this Plant Sciences Initiative where our goal is to do big interdisciplinary science in collaboration with companies, generate large data and then use that data to make decisions to improve agriculture. Their technology could come in and plug and play very easily with what we’re trying to do.”

Using big data could accelerate the pace at which crops like the sweet potato are bred, Lommel said. It took 10 years to develop the popular Covington variety, and new technologies derived from big data could whittle that to just three or four years.

“We have a lot of scientists working on sweet potatoes, and each one is creating a data set,” Lommel said. “And the idea is to take all these disparate data sets and find patterns and solve problems.”

Ken Caplin, Oracle vice president of technology for higher education and research, agrees.

NC State has been a long-term partner … for over 20 years,” he said. “I think what we’re doing is just taking it to the next level. Feeding the world is important, so if we can play a role in making that easier, making us more efficient and more effective, we’re on board.”