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Plant Village

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A native of Dublin, Ireland, David Hughes grew up in a society that today is still influenced by one of the worst crop-disease disasters in history: the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, which caused the starvation deaths of an estimated one million people and led another million to flee the country.

As a result, the assistant professor of entomology and biology understands, maybe better than most, the devastating effects a plant disease can have on crops and the people who rely on them for food and income.

This understanding, combined with the mentoring he received early in his research career in evolutionary biology, germinated the seed of an idea in his mind. And that inspiration now has borne fruit in the form of an online network designed to get practical knowledge about plants and plant diseases into the hands—and mobile devices—of farmers and growers around the globe.

Called PlantVillage, the open-access site recently surpassed 900,000 users worldwide just 24 months after its launch in 2013, with users in North America, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and elsewhere. It has more than 4,000 images.

The concept is built, according to its website, “on the premise that all knowledge that helps people grow food should be openly accessible to anyone on the planet.” Hughes and his co-developer—Marcel Salathe, assistant professor of biology—are bringing that proposition to life.

We want to democratize access to the world’s knowledge on plants,” Hughes said. “Historically, much of that information has been contained behind paywalls by commercial companies. We are translating and rewriting a lot of that knowledge in simple, understandable terms so it’s practical, relevant, and free for those who need it.”

The effort has resulted in a library of science-based information on 153 crops and 2,000 plant diseases that can be accessed easily on mobile devices. With thousands of digital pages of information and more than 2,000 images, the library covers virtually every important food crop in the world.

“In addition to this repository, users can seek information and solutions from their fellow PlantVillagers. A crowdsourcing and ranking system enables the network of participating farmers, gardeners, scientists, extension specialists, and others to share perplexing questions and offer answers. The advice is moderated to weed out potentially bad information, and the best and most-valued answers are voted up by other users.”

“We don’t care whether they’re backyard gardeners, farmers, or researchers—we don’t discriminate,” Hughes noted. “They can be from Manhattan, Mogadishu, or Montana. Sometimes growers have solutions for problems that scientists haven’t figured out yet.”

The rise of mobile technology in recent years meant the time was ripe for such a project, explained Hughes, citing estimates that by 2019, 85 percent of the world’s population will have a smart phone.

“Many farmers have smart phones in their pockets,” he said. “We got to thinking that we could use these phones, which virtually all have cameras, to help diagnose plant diseases and share information that could increase production.”

In the future, Hughes hopes to see additional features, such as more information translated to different languages, video chats, and other enhancements. He recently received a grant from the College of Information Sciences and Technology to work with Professor James Wang to develop an app that can determine the disease status of plants.

In the meantime, he contends, PlantVillage is filling a need not being served by traditional outreach channels.

“The idea behind PlantVillage dovetails with the mission of modern agricultural extension,” Hughes said. “Ways of providing knowledge always have evolved. We are continuing this evolution and expanding extension in the digital age. By leveraging the power of the global plant community, we can help people grow food and lift themselves out of hunger and poverty in regions that formal extension programs haven’t been able to reach.”

By Chuck Gill