Reflections on big data for agriculture and the environment at evokeAG 2020

SWAN Systems were at Startup Alley at evokeAG 2020. In this post, Rod shares his thoughts on agtech, big data and managing water & nutrients to minimise adverse environmental impacts

Data the New Currency

If data is the new currency, the vexing question is where best to invest? And what levels of return are you seeking when balancing the need for economic, environmental and social outcomes? Put these challenges in the context of how best to manage and preserve one of our greatest resources – water – and things start to get really interesting.

At the recent evokeAG conference in Melbourne, major tech players IBM, Microsoft and Telstra all extolled the value of data in helping to solve the big global challenges. There was also recognition of the role that startup companies have in taking the increasing availability and reliability of data to provide specific and valued operational outcomes. Data for data’s sake is not enough and in fact many end users are suffering the “drowning in a sea of data” syndrome. The real challenge is to process data into bite sized and practical insights that deliver on the triple bottom line as demanded by investors.

SWAN Systems is a software platform that is delivering in the water management space and providing end users with a level of insight, control and functionality not seen before. A product of its time and place having been developed over the last 10 years by irrigation specialists from WA, the cloud-based product is generating water and nutrient solutions for all types of applications across Australia and offshore. From Melbourne City Council through to Treasury Wines, Anna Plains Station, SA Water Corporation, Singapore Island Country Club Golf and Harvest Farms, a growing number of large scale water users are realising the benefits of applying a scientific approach to using data to inform on best practise water consumption.

Red dots in a gridded pattern showing Weatherwise Watering forecast points for Greater Sydney

Weatherwise Watering

While the above solutions may seem to suggest that SWAN Systems is only relevant for large scale users, the first step in any data story is around digestible inputs. In SWAN’s case this is a comprehensive but easy to interpret 7-day weather forecast. SWAN sends out a free daily email under the banner “Weatherwise Watering” to any subscriber. This email provides the data one would expect from a weather forecast – temperature, humidity and wind. However Weatherwise Watering goes a step further and provides detail on estimated rainfall and estimated ETo (i.e. evapotranspiration, which is the water loss from a plant or crop by both evaporation and transpiration). It can be challenging to understand what a 50% chance of a rain amount between 2 to 5 mm practically means for your plants. The Weatherwise Watering email will give you a number that you can use to adjust the irrigation that your plants require, based on the forecast weather conditions.

Bar graph showing seasonal water use (budgeted versus actual) for the 2017-2018 growing season at Fruitico’s Waroona vineyard.

Optimising Water Use

Optimising water use, i.e. providing the right amount at the right time, not only makes economic sense but also provides environmental solutions through reduced nutrient leaching, and social returns through being seen to adopt smart technology to help solve the global issue of water conservation.

Take for example the simple frustration experienced by many of seeing the irrigation system at the local park on when it’s raining! We all think there must be a better way and communities are increasingly demanding that we adopt better systems. A recent article in Irrigation Australia reviews the role SWAN Systems is playing with a growing number of councils and public open space managers to help them to use water in the most efficient and environmentally friendly manner possible.  Reviews undertaken through the SWAN platform indicates that in general, overwatering of between 20% – 30% is commonplace.  People talk about the 1% adjustments, imagine the excitement of a 20% uplift.

While saving water (and related to this is saving power) is important in agriculture, the drivers for the adoption of water management technology are also around product quality and yield improvements.  Put simply if precision management can lift the quality of a grape berry so that it ends up being used in a $30 bottle of wine rather than a $10 bottle, then the margin uplift is material. Similarly, by using precision management to increase the yield and quality of table grape berries, a substantial increase in profits can be realised. Using SWAN Systems to precisely track vine requirements across all its differing phenological stages is a major focus for an increasing number of vineyards across Australia.

Another interesting application is when the irrigation water is sourced from treated / recycled water.  One of the solutions for managing our dwindling rainfall is to use treated water across an expanded range of parks, school ovals, agriculture and horticulture. The economics of using such water include the existence of beneficial elements within the treated water (e.g. nitrates and phosphates) that have great nutritional value to many crops. The flip side is that you must monitor and report on such water use – hence the value of SWAN’s integration of water and nutrient scheduling and reporting. SA Water is a world leader in the use of treated water and they are working closely with SWAN in the roll out of the system for use in the sector. SWAN has also been used by WA’s Rottnest Island Authority to monitor the use of recycled water on the Island’s golf course.

AgriFutures evokeAG sign in the entrance hall of the heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, looking up at the vaulted ceiling.

Summary

The evokeAg conference provided a wonderful opportunity for a growing number of enterprising companies to showcase their wares to an international audience. Australia may be at the front line of managing climate change and the effects of reducing fresh water supplies and increasing temperatures – however it is also at the front line of providing solutions. SWAN Systems is proud to be a part of a technology solution that, combined with all the other actions being undertaken by governments, industry and communities, will provide a role in managing future environmental challenges.

2020-02-29T11:52:19+08:00