Imagine Cup’s surprise winners a boon for drought-stricken farmers

The Microsoft-sponsored Imagine Cup is a competition for students that’s almost a technology version of Australian Idol. Only it’s tougher. Much tougher. To enter the Imagine Cup you have to come up with a technology idea that’s innovative that works and will change the world in some way. It’s big ask for a seasoned IT professional let alone a student.

Then if you final you have a nerve-wracking 20 minutes selling your entry to the experts on the judging panel who are trying to punch holes in your presentation. As a result the teams that do well in the Imagine Cup across the world tend to be well organised units from the universities and colleges supported by the school and with a mentor who is usually a senior lecturer.

But the winners of this year’s Australian Imagine Cup were a surprise packet: four students from separate universities calling themselves the “Oz-dream team” who won with their entry of a computerised system for managing farm water resources.  The theme of the Imagine Cup this year is “a world where technology enables a sustainable environment” and their entry quite simply blew the judges away. The Oz-dream team finished ahead of teams from the powerful University of Canberra which had won the cup for the last two years.

Oz-dream team’s SOAK (Smart Operational Agriculture toolkit) is a combination of hardware and software designed to help drought-affected farmers better manage their limited water resources. It uses sensors around a farm that measure everything from dam depth to soil moisture adds external data such as weather forecasts and combines it with crop lifecycle information to create a highly sophisticated watering system. It controls farm sprinklers and prioritises water use to where and when it’s really needed.  It also gives the farmer an instant reading of the water status of the farm via a rich visual front end that uses Virtual Earth maps and Vista gadgets and is also able to deliver the information to PDAs.

There is nothing available right now for farmers with the sophistication and affordability of the SOAK system (a version to run a farm would start at around $2000) created by the four students. As judges we were amazed by the completeness of the project its scalability it’s readiness for commercial development and its ability to make an impact.

The Oz-dream team

The judges were impressed that the winning team had created the winning entry by itself collaborating electronically rather than working together at the one university and without academic mentors to guide them.

One of the team members Edward Hooper from the University of Melbourne said three members of the group had met at conferences through their involvement in a Microsoft student program. They decided to enter the competition and assigned each other specific roles. Hooper is doing a computer science and information systems and was primarily responsible for liaising with industry bodies to get requirements and support for the project. David Burela who has a bachelor of computing at the University of Tasmania was the system architect and programmer while Dimaz Pramudya who is doing a computer science and software engineering degree at Swinburne was a programmer. The group drafted in a fourth member to do the graphic design and interface Long Zheng who is well known for his istartedsomething blog. 

Dimaz Pramudya said the lack of a mentor to guide the team encouraged them to go straight to industry to find out what was really required to make their proposed system work.  “When we started up we didn’t have a mentor so we decided we might as well go to the real world and see what was out there. That’s how we actually got the requirements and how we formed the whole thing.”

Hooper added: “We just spoke to lots of different people from industry the targets for our system. We thought we’d get their feedback and make something that was going to impress them. What we’ve done is not really about technology it’s about using technology to solve a problem so we’re focused on the problem. As a team we all had different strengths which when combined covered everything.

The group began collaborating remotely. “Because we were in different states and different locations we all just started by teleconferencing” Burela said. “So the first month or so was just spent brainstorming. We started looking at managing water in households but we expanded from that after realising that the agriculture industry has a much larger effect on water consumption. So we started looking at agriculture then we went out and talked to relevant industry bodies we talked to farmers to other key players. Before we started working out what technology we could apply to this we defined the problem very well very specifically.”

The SOAK team’s presentation was rated by the judges as being of commercial quality. In other words of a standard you normally expect from students.  The Oz-dream team even set up a sprinkler on the presentation table which had the judges fearing it might turn on at any moment if the sensors detected excessive dryness in the presentation room.

Hooper revealed the team had done its homework. He was an observer at last year’s Imagine Cup finals and knew the standard needed.  “I watched the finals last year there are a lot of tricks to it and I was able to pick a lot of them which really helped.”

One was ensuring that the project featured collaboration from industry. Long Zheng said: “last year most of the entrants didn’t have industry collaboration that’s why we picked this up this year.”

Oz-dream approached the Morning Star Estate a winery on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and used its farm and vineyards as a case study. Getting together at the estate was a revelation for the team members Hooper says. “It all came together when we went to Morning Star and spent a whole day gathering requirements we then just went to a random Hungry Jacks pulled out the pen and paper brainstormed for a few hours and from there it just kept going.”

Visiting a real farm was an eye opening experience according to Zheng. “None of us have worked on a farm so from knowing really little about farms and having that standard approach to a farm where you think it’s simply about planting something watering and harvest it to actually witnessing how they do it and the problems they face that allowed us to build a solution that was not just pretty and satisfied our needs but satisfied the real users’ needs.”

How SOAK works

The SOAK system offers a farmer a dashboard which maps the farm on Virtual Earth maps and returns graphical reports of several farm elements. The farmer is able to define where the fields are located and their watering parameters. Some crops may be assigned more water than others. By also defining the crops’ lifecycle the farmer lets the SOAK system determine when in their growing cycle they need most water.

SOAK also integrates with weather forecasting so if rain is predicted soon the system won’t water a field before the rain but if it does not rain it will compensate. It also distinguishes between different water sources such a dam main and recycled water which will be used differently on a farm. And it will also send the farmer SMS notifications when there is a critical event such as a fault in farm equipment.

Information is presented to the farmer via a front-end system of three platforms: a web application (built using ASP.Net 3.5 and Silverlight 2.0 Beta 1; a PDA (written with .Net Compact Framework 3.5) and Vista gadgets. The whole thing is built on a service-oriented architecture with core components which expose themselves as WCF (Windows Communication Foundation) endpoints to which any number of further clients or functionality can be hooked up.

The verdict

The Imagine Cup’s judging panel consisted of Roger Lawrence Microsoft Australia’s Manager Developer Evangelism; Nigel Watson Microsoft Australia Architect Evangelist; Shekhar Kalra computer science lecturer at RMIT University; Shahed Khan Senior Software Engineer at Ocean Informatics and APC represented by its editor Tony Sarno.

Many things impressed the judges about SOAK. One was its potential to have a major impact on agriculture.  Nigel Watson said: “They picked the right mountain to climb. Their statistic was that the agricultural industry in Australia uses 12000 gigalitres of water per year. Now if they can use this technology to move the needle even slightly their advance can have a significant impact on the use of water in Australia or anywhere where their stuff is deployed.”

Roger Lawrence thought the best word to describe SOAK was “breathtaking.” He said “what I liked about it was that they had thought through something that would appeal to the individual farmer not only at the environmental level but also at the sustainable farming resource level at the farmers’ business level.

“So it’s not only about reducing inefficient uses of water but about using a smart technology to redirect that usage of water where it’s most effective so even in the areas where they may not be using less water they might be using water far more efficiently and producing more output as well. So it creates a natural incentive for the farmers to adopt it because it’s good not only for the environment but for the business.”

The judges liked completeness of the vision behind the SOAK entry. The team had not just created an application but a platform said Lawrence. “The completeness of the vision is impressive they have thought this through as a platform allowing an ecosystem of hardware engineering providers as well as more software services providers and moving on to a software plus services vision.”

Every component of the SOAK solution had been thoroughly explored by the Oz-dream team. “I loved the way they literally plumped the depths of the water sensors that are available and not only physical water sensors but weather forecasting and other services and they came up with ideas for other ones that they have been speaking to engineers about” said Lawrence.

Shekhar Kalra liked how the SOAK solution combined the latest technologies in one well-architected whole. “They’ve used Silverlight Virtual Earth map and all those things they’ve combined all of the latest technologies together and came up with a brilliant solution and it’s very cost effective.”

Shahed Khan was impressed with the sheer amount of research the team had done: “Their live case study for example. They’d actually tried it on a farm rather than it being a theoretical thing.”

The SOAK project could also be monetised in many ways. Watson pointed out there was an “entire economy” built into the solution. “Monetisation of the technology is possible at so many different levels from data mining through to water trading schemes. It’s just amazing the fullness of it the really cool thing about these guys is that they have thought of it all.”

The judges were also taken by the fact that the winning team had collaborated remotely.  “Not only have they produced an excellent result but they have done so coming from very different universities including one from Tasmania even!” Watson said. “This is a great example of collaboration between individuals from different universities so they are crossing these boundaries. You don’t see that often but we should definitely be encouraging this sort of thing.”

Coming second behind SOAK was a team from Imagine Cup powerhouse University of Canberra. Its “eGreen” project was praised for its innovative idea of judging a products’ environmental impact not just at its finished stage but throughout its development lifecycle and movement through the supply chain to the consumer. 

Third was also another team from Canberra University the “iWater” project. This focused on using intelligent metering to better manage water usage in the home.  Yet another team from Canberra University with a solution for improving bus route selection came fourth outside the placings.

Next – Paris

The Oz-dream team will now represent Australia at the World Imagine Cup finals in Paris in July where it will compete against the best from the rest of the world. It’s a pretty formidable undertaking given that the Imagine Cup (which has been running globally for six years) now receives 100000 entries each year and over 100 countries take part.

Ben EnglishMicrosoft Australia’s Ben English Group Manager – Technical Audience Marketing Developer and Platform Strategy Group oversees the Imagine Cup in Australia. He believes Oz-dream stand a good chance because they symbolise the massive improvement in the quality of entries in the Cup over the past few years. “The Imagine Cup has gone from being an interesting competition to something that people really want to win there is a lot of kudos attached to the Imagine Cup. The quality of the entrants has gone up enormously.” Microsoft would also now work with Oz-dream to further improve their project and presentation skills before Paris he said.

To grow the Imagine Cup in the future English said Microsoft would also work on building strong relationships with individual universities to integrate the competition into their curriculum. “We will work with the universities to make it an integral part of their course particularly the University of Canberra they have been very proactive in that area. That’s what makes students successful when they have the backing of the university when it’s aligned with their course objectives and it gives them time to do a good job.”

The winners also get industry placement as part of their prize. Oz-dream team’s members have the opportunity of a placement with Readify an Imagine Cup sponsor. 

English says that the Imagine Cup is ultimately about showcasing clever ideas from students in order to inspire other students to take up a career in ICT. “ From Australia’s point of view we know there is a skills shortage so what I think is really important for us locally is to try and highlight what the students are doing and try to ignite the rest of the student population to take up a career in ICT.”

David Burela
Long Zheng
Edward Hooper
Dimaz Pramudya
Roger Lawrence
Nigel Watson
Shahed Khan