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Student challenge targets dairy data improvement

Stephanie Skernivitz Published on 11 March 2014

Students from Australia, Maryland and Louisiana handily won the attention of leading science organizations and a household-name philanthropist foundation in their efforts to address how to improve data sharing related to dairy farm production.

Specifically, a $7,500 innovation contest challenged participants to create new methods to enhance data measurement, collection and sharing as it pertains to small-holder farmer dairy production in developing countries.



Through a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program was presented by two New York Academy of Sciences organizations, Scientists Without Borders and The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science.

This program is intended to offer relevant means to aid milk producers, policy-makers and researchers in their efforts to boost production and quality of milk. The end result, according to the aforementioned organizations, would lead to better economic returns for farmers, as well as potential enhanced nutrition for producers and consumers.

alejandra leyton

Alejandra Leyton
Masters of Public Health student,
Tulane University

The first-place winners ($5,626) are Veena S. Katikineni, medical student at University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Alejandra Leyton, masters of public health student at Tulane University.


They issued a proposal called “Dairy Surveillance for the Future,” in which they proposed developing community-based “reward circles” for small-holder farmers to build groups to gather and disseminate dairy data via a questionnaire and shared SMS mobile device. Then, researchers and policy-makers could analyze generated data.

Katikineni explains, “Reward circles give an incentive for groups of farmers to bring their information to us. This model encourages neighbors to come together with a guaranteed prize of support in a manner of their choosing.

Depending on what’s feasible for that particular community, this could mean feed for their livestock, access to credit and access to markets, tools and technology, among others. All of this would be implemented through a decentralized model, meaning from the bottom up. Local leaders help facilitate the reward circles forming, meeting and sending their information to regional staff and then on to the national level.”

She and Leyton note that their proposal was designed to collect information. By bringing producers together, such as small U.S. dairy herds, for example, they note that producers are empowered with social support and have a forum for improving farm production.

Katikineni notes that underlying their project is a basic theme relevant to all dairy producers in the U.S. and beyond: “Work together. Team up. Create strong networks of knowledge, instead of relying on individual interactions, to report progress on how your farm is doing,” she says.

She and Leyton note how sharing information in a planned group format may improve quality control, offer reward and lower economic costs of any system.


“Lean on your neighbor and allow your neighbor to lean on you. For we all just ‘need somebody to lean on,’ as sung by the great Bill Withers,” Leyton says.

adnan nain

Adnan Naim
Ph.D. student
Griffith University

The second-place honor ($1,875) went to Adnan Naim, Ph.D. student at the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. His proposal, “Dairy Calendar,” uses a calendar combined with images to convey data pertaining to the dairy animal, feed, milk volume and product endpoint.

A cloud storage system would permit dairy farms to upload data; then researchers and policy-makers could access this data.

Naim says his dairy calendar is based on images that can help answer dairy-related questions by dairy farmers. It targets dairy farmers that live in remote areas, are less educated or illiterate, and lack in technological resources (mobile, Internet), which limit data sharing with dairy data management people.

There are duplicate copies of the calendar, so that one copy can be transferred to a secondary consumer who can upload data on a “cloud-based” calendar, which can be accessible to researchers and policy-makers at the regional, state, national or global level.

“Every calendar has a unique ID number, which can tell us the geographic location of a farmer. I designed my calendar in a manner where every question to be answered can be placed in the form of an image.

For example, if we want to know what kind of animal and how many of them a farmer holds for getting milk, then we can put the images of cow, buffalo or goat and for number, then we can use an abacus method, drawing lines for as many as the number of animals.

In another example, where we want to ask the farmers about the feed they provide to those animals, we can put the images of animals or cattle feeding on green grass, hay or oil cakes. The farmer will encircle a particular image, which will be an answer to that question,” he says.

While designing his image-based calendar, Naim classified four categories of people involved in its usage, based on education, availability of IT resources and capacity to interpret data.

1. Small farmers (less educated, remotely located, with limited connectivity resources, i.e., information technology such as mobile and Internet)

2. Peers or local community who can share issues regarding data generation and collection with consumer or data management people

3. Secondary consumer (who consumes milk or processes milk for producing other dairy products): These people are more educated, live in cities or urban areas and have better means of communication, like smartphones with Internet connectivity, built-in cameras in mobile phones, enabling them to send data to a regional data center easily.

4. Regional data center: The final destination, where data will be studied and analyzed. Next, data will be uploaded to a cloud-based common platform like “Dropbox,” where researchers and policy-makers can access it and use for their purposes at regional, national or international level.

Though Naim says he has not yet had a chance to interact directly with U.S.-based small dairy farmers about his project, he says, “The concept of a cloud-based dairy calendar with questions in the form of images could be a successful way of collecting data from dairy farmers and sharing it with policy-makers and researchers ... so that more information can be gathered and researchers could work on solving their problems.”

Visit the Scientists Without Borders website for more details on Naim’s proposal.

The winners of this challenge were selected by a panel set up by Scientists Without Borders. Panel participants were: Lindsay H. Allen, Ph.D., R.D., USDA-ARS and University of California – Davis; Claudia M. Garcia, DVM, Elanco Animal Health; Sean Paavo Krepp, country director and program manager for AppLab and Community Knowledge Worker Initiatives for the Grameen Foundation Uganda; Dan LeClerc of the Digital Design for Agriculture team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Ben Lukuyu, Ph.D., International Livestock Research Institute. There were 40 submissions total from 19 countries.

The dairy data challenge project with the Gates Foundation, Scientists Without Borders and The Sackler Institute involves a collaboration to generate an online crowdsourcing activity, significant stakeholder teamwork and a student-led reward-based contest to research, collaborations and new models in human, animal and veterinary sciences that may lead to noteworthy results in addressing human malnutrition. PD

Stephanie Skernivitz is a freelance writer in Berea, Ohio.