Articles C2 Summer 2022

Why Open Source is more than Software: The Example of the Linux Foundation’s AgStack project

The Linux Foundation’s goal to create the greatest shared technology investment in history by enabling global open collaboration across companies, developers and users has profoundly impacted our digital heritage. Its tactics proved that using a shared development model fosters human collaboration, accelerates innovation, and notably expands adoption, with text book examples including Linux, Kubernetes, Cloud Foundry, and Jenkins. Propelled by this success, the set of open source projects under the Linux Foundation has expanded to over 400 projects.

Now, a new Linux Foundation project, AgStack, aims to expand the definition of open source from discrete software code to also applying to a comprehensive set of open services aimed at solving one of the world’s greatest challenges – hunger – by getting data to those who need it from those who have it at the time it’s needed. AgStack ties open software and openly available data to build an open highway of information that’s collaborative, and at the same time, secure. Although AgStack is specifically aimed at agriculture, this new concept of open services can be applied to multiple industries, such as healthcare, housing, and education. It merely requires one to be open to working collaboratively.

 

Leveraging open source to improve agriculture efficiency

Global agriculture is a highly-complex, interrelated trillion dollar industry. Its ecosystem is massively inefficient and confronts grave challenges in the face of climate change. It employs half the world’s population and uses 70% of the world’s fresh water.  Of the thousands of stakeholders who have to work together, its small holder farmers produce at least a third (from Our World Data) of the entire world’s food supply and represent some of the poorest people in the world. With 30% of our food wasted and 30% of the world’s people hungry, there’s quite a bit of room for improvement.

The AgStack project seeks to increase global agriculture efficiency through the creation, maintenance and enhancement of a free, re-usable, open and specialized digital infrastructure for data and applications. This software infrastructure is community-maintained and provides a free and secure digital “operating system” for all agriculture stakeholders to run their agriculture applications – from farmers to marketers to extension agents. AgStack essentially sits between digital agriculture applications and third-party cloud systems, and uses an openly available API to deliver the required data, models, frameworks, extensions and toolboxes to help farmers be more successful in growing crops in a sustainable manner.

 

Connecting the right data to the right people at the right time

Farmers are constantly grappling with weather, procurement, supply-chain, and disease-related issues.  With better data, they can make better decisions on what to plant, when to fertilize, how to irrigate, when to harvest, etc. Knowing what their particular soil requires at specific times and how to avoid pests and diseases can make or break a harvest. Even knowing market demands can help them better plan and avoid waste.

AgStack addresses these issues by focusing on being able to deliver four pieces that interconnect:

  1. Data. There is already a tremendous amount of data openly available today; weather data, satellite data, soil data.  Research about new varieties of seeds and fertilizer can significantly boost productivity. Near real-time information about soil types, weather conditions, market predictions, and nearby insect infestation can help farmers make better decisions on the ground. But hunting for that data requires time, expertise, and language translation in order to be useful.
  2. Models. Many universities and research groups have developed models to predict how pests evolve, how different soils evolve, when to fertilize, etc. Again, much of this material is publically available and features permissive licensing, but you have to go off looking for it.
  3. Frameworks. Things like user registries and asset registries are other things that can be shared that are hosted by AgStack. Some of these help identify field boundaries in such a way that protects the owners’ personal information. Others can look at them to determine if the field they’re working on has similar attributes and requires similar considerations.
  4. Extensions and toolboxes. Extensions come from folks who share new research that can help farmers improve their practices. For example, tagged image datasets or tagged audio datasets can be extremely useful for those developing applications using machine learning algorithms. These datasets can help one determine if something is a piece of lettuce, an almond, or something else.

It’s all about connecting the right data to the right people at the right time so the best decisions can be made.

 

Where does HPE fit in all this?

Being able to deliver all this from edge-to-cloud requires intensive data computation. Hewlett Packard is supporting this effort in a couple of ways. As a founding company, HPE has:

  • Donated server hardware, memory, and cloud space
  • Sponsored the project through HPE’s Tech for Good program, demonstrating that technology has the potential to drive real and positive change when harnessed effectively
  • Openly collaborated, offering technical guidance on how to more easily and scalably provide for data motion and monitoring

Janice Zdankus, HPE Vice President of CTO Technology Strategy and Innovation for Social Impact, whose team is involved with the AgStack project, as well as supporting projects like CGIAR and DigitalGreen, points out that “bringing together industry, technology, academia and government partners to solve key societal challenges, global impact can be delivered and scaled.” Her colleague, Ted Dunning, HPE CTO for Data Fabric, a member of her team and an elected member of the Board for AgStack, agrees, adding that “a modern world should make it possible for us to be generous.”

 

A road to a better tomorrow – open to all

AgStack Founder, Sumer Johal, joined the HPE Developer team just recently to offer his take on what makes AgStack so special. “It’s not just open source software; it’s also open services. It’s like this global road that anyone can ride on. Something that’s neutral and trusted. Something everyone can use. Something everyone will want to adopt.”

How successful will it be? Sumer had a thought on that as well. “If you measure success by adoption and not by money, then you start looking at the world and seeing that it has large gaps in adoption that happen because everyone has a different view on how they want to make money. But it turns out, just like Linux demonstrated, that once you get away from money and look more at adoption as the currency, ironically you wind up making more money for stakeholders because more people adopt it.” AgStack has a great opportunity here. The world needs it to be successful. And it needs developers and data scientists to help it be successful by contributing to this open source initiative.

For more information on the AgStack project, refer to the AgStack project website or read this announcement from the Linux Foundation. You can also check out this HPE Developer May 2022 Munch & Learn video replay.