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To market, to market…

by Trish Barker

An online database that brings together farmers and customers is just one example of the power of geospatial Web tools.

Across the nation, farmers are producing meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables and are looking for buyers. Meanwhile, customers—from individuals to large retailers—are interested in buying these commodities, particularly from local or regional sources. Because agriculture supply and demand tend to be diffuse and fragmented, it’s not easy for the suppliers and potential customers to find one another. But thanks to a free online resource created in Illinois, American farmers are linking with processors, retailers, and consumers.

MarketMaker was created by the University of Illinois Extension, the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research in 2004 as a free online resource to help farmers and potential customers find each other. Since then, a multi-state partnership of land grant institutions and state agricultural agencies has grown it into one of the most extensive collections of searchable food industry data in the country, boasting more than 400,000 profiles of farmers and other food enterprises in 17 states and the District of Columbia. In Illinois alone it’s used by more than 15,000 people every month. Even the world’s largest grocery retailer, Walmart, is using it to source local products for its stores. The MarketMaker team recently earned an award recognizing its outstanding multistate effort from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Consumers have become much more outspoken about what they expect from the food they eat, but we are a very diverse marketplace so one size does not fit all,” explains Darlene Knipe, a University of Illinois extension specialist for marketing and business development and one of the creators of the MarketMaker concept.

“MarketMaker is an agile system that allows farmers and businesses who grow and sell the food to respond more quickly and efficiently to the wide range of consumer demands. If MarketMaker can help them participate in these emerging market opportunities profitably, consumers will have more food choices. It becomes a win-win situation for everyone.”

NCSA research scientist Jong Lee, with colleagues Chris Navarro and Luigi Marini, recently helped improve MarketMaker’s web mapping and search functionality by applying open-source technologies.

Matching markets

The MarketMaker application comprises tens of thousands of lines of code while the MarketMaker database contains literally millions of data points. The website lets users combine demographic data (from the U.S. Census and other sources) with data supplied by farmers, producers, suppliers, restaurants, and stores.

A customer can use the site to search, for instance, for sources of grass-fed beef within 50 miles, while a producer can use it to find areas where demographics indicate potential customers may be found. Being able to overlay information such as age and income distribution on maps showing the location of food sources, markets, and consumers gives MarketMaker users a lot of power to make decisions.

Using Web 2.0 tools such as Google Maps on the front end and scalable, standards-compliant geospatial web services on the backend, NCSA is helping MarketMaker attract users and prepare for growth.

“Modern Web 2.0 geospatial interfaces are very interactive; they allow users to quickly select regions of interest and the types of data to filter and overlay,” says Lee. “And they do it without the delay and screen refresh from reloading an entire webpage.”

NCSA’s contribution significantly expands the economic impact of this marketing resource, notes Knipe. “To build this national network of interconnected sites of searchable localized consumer and food industry data would not have been possible without the assistance of NCSA. The improvements they have made to MarketMaker are stunning. We are dealing with complex queries drawing from large amounts of data and yet Jong Lee has been able to develop a system that is fast, efficient, and intuitive to the user.”

Taking the single state concept and expanding it into regional and national models with the data overlaid on one screen had the team members using skills that are a ways removed from their current work, says Jim Myers, former leader of NCSA’s Cyberenvironments and Technologies (CET) Directorate who is now at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “MarketMaker was a straightforward project for Jong and his team because it required skills and tools they’ve been using in other projects. Since we’ve had to consider computational and data scaling, and the issues involved in scaling to large numbers of users, on those projects, NCSA was able to build solid functionality for MarketMaker that can naturally be scaled and extended as MarketMaker grows and needs additional capabilities.”

Other geospatial tools

As they grow, MarketMaker may again turn to NCSA as the CET directorate has worked with other groups to create online geospatial tools. To enable researchers to capture, store, analyze, manage, and present data that is linked to a geographic location, the CET team has leveraged third-party and NCSA open-source components to create a general system framework and geospatial toolkit that can be applied across domains. This Digital Synthesis Framework (DSF) incorporates both data management and workflow-based data processing and can be used to quickly create and publish new web applications.

For instance, the CET team adapted DSF to help Illinois 4-H participants learn about plant growth and how changes in atmospheric carbon impact crop yields. Researchers have used DSF to analyze sensor data from Corpus Christi Bay and can use it to explore USGS stream gauge data from across the Midwest. In both these cases, observational data is input to computational and/or statistical models to produce clear maps and graphs of results.

The DSF is also being used in a project analyzing the Chicago urban watershed/sewershed. A user drags a computer mouse to zero in on an area of interest or can import pre-set boundaries, like neighborhoods or political wards, and receive customized analyses of rainfall during a storm. A related effort is getting under way to analyze water quality and quantity in agricultural regions that will involve intensive monitoring and modeling of the University of Illinois’ South Farms.

Myers notes that the DSF streamlines the creation of geographic information systems (GIS) and reduces the effort needed to produce robust, scalable environments.

“Open-source GIS tools have made it possible to build interesting web applications, but doing so in a way that allows the quick addition of data sources and new models requires additional e-Science capabilities,” he says. “Add providing custom interfaces for users with different needs, and making everything scalable and manageable, and you have a significant challenge. With the DSF, we’ve made it possible to quickly build and evolve environments that already have these abilities built in. That’s what cyberinfrastructure is about—reducing the costs to develop and evolve tools supporting research, education, and society as a whole.”

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