Hackers compete for best food app

Inside a food hackathon

Adam Calo competing at the hackathon

UC Berkeley student Adam Calo, in his final hours of competition, explains this new approach to impacting food system challenges. Calo is a postdoctoral candidate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management. His travel to the hackathon was funded by the UC Global Food Inititative.

From Cambodia to hackathon

Humphrey fellow joins hackathon

UC Davis humphrey fellow Sam Oeurn Ke joined the Apps for Ag Hackathon in hopes of bringing technology solutions back to Cambodia, where he is an extension specialist.

December 3, 2015

Old coffee cups, laptops streaming code, baggy eyes deprived of sleep: the usual signs of hackers at work. But a poorly lit hacker hideaway this was not.

The overnight competition, called the Apps for Ag Hackathon, featured farmers, food science students and extension specialists—all teamed up with software developers to craft quick technology products that better connect solutions to challenges in the world’s food systems.

A conference for food solutions

The hackathon, in partnership with the World Food Center at the University of California, Davis, was one of a series of events at the Food, Ag and Health Solution Summit, held Dec. 1-3 at UC Davis. Each chapter of the Summit brought together uncommon collaborators to partner on a range of possible solutions in agtech innovation.

On the first day, the World Food Center’s Precision Ag Workshop paved a long-term roadmap for partnering with industry collaborators. Ranging from small startups to global corporations and well-established California commodity associations, each organization had investment goals for front-end irrigation technologies and was looking for new opportunities to collaborate with academic researchers in this area.

The pace was rapid-fire for a panel at the Summit forum on day three: entrepreneurs from eight different agtech startups had seven minutes to pitch their companies to the audience. Delving deeper into the world of agtech financing, a later panel discussion asked professional investors for inside advice on what they look for in early startup models. UC Davis faculty members like plant nutrition professor Patrick Brown were involved on every level of the Summit, including advising hackers on how to target specific challenges in agricultural.

While the World Food Center presented each of these events, several partners were involved with the Solution Summit, including the University of California Global Food Initiative, which supported two of the hackathon participants with funding for travel.

Hacking through the night

Running continuously in the background of the other Summit events, the hackathon set a 32-hour window for participants to fuse together teams, brainstorm their products, develop rough cuts of the software and present their final pitches to the judges.

"People get a little low on sleep, they get a little silly, the creative juices really start flowing, said Apps for Ag organizer Patrick Dosier to Capital Public Radio. Software developers often have their headphones on and they're in the zone writing code."

With $10,000 in total prize money at stake, the hackers were wrapping up their presentation slides in the final minutes of the competition when the conversations began taking on a new tone. They were evolving away from talk of web hosting software and .png files towards making plans to meet for a coffee later or to collaborate like this again in the future. While a few people rehearsed their pitches, others exchanged business cards, phone numbers and handshakes.

A hacker carries his pillow, waiting for sleep

A hacker, carrying his pillow, blanket and overnight bag, waits for the final presentations. (Photo: Brad Hooker)

Update: Hackathon winners make finals in TFF Global Challenge

Following the Apps for Ag Hackathon, the Ag for Hire team also competed in the Thought for Food Challenge and has been selected as one of 10 finalists to compete in Zurich. 

From the Central Valley to Silicon Valley

By presentation time, the hackers were exhausted. Some grabbed catnaps in the now vacant rooms they had inhabited for nearly two full days. Thanks to blankets donated by AT&T, most were able to grab quick slumbers during the night.

On stage, the Ag for Hire team explained their app to the judges. By connecting contract farmworkers to farmers, the team had built a “LinkedIn for agricultural labor.” The app idea would ultimately take first place at the competition.

“As a worker myself, it’s hard to find a job where I can apply my skills,” said team member Alejandro Avalos, who has worked on farms since age 12. “Our app helps a worker find a job based on his skills and actually get a decent wage for it.”

Nick Doherty, a UC Davis undergraduate student and recent pick for Apple’s 20-Under-20 list, was also on the team.

Along with the $5,000 award, the team will fly to the Thought for Food Global Summit in Zurich, Switzerland, next year. Second place and a $3,000 prize went to the team for CropRescue, an app that allows growers to communicate directly with food banks to make excess food donations easier and more efficient. The final $1,500 prize went to the Green Thumb team, which created a task-tracking app to enable better communication among crop advisers, growers and foremen.

UC innovation goes global

The Solution Summit was held in partnership with the Innovation Institute for Food and Health, the Mixing Bowl Hub and the SARTA AgStart incubator. Sponsors for the Solution Summit prizes included Intel, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the UC Global Food Initiative, UC Innovation Alliances and the Royse Law Firm.


Top photo: Zac Palin (left) and Dave Middleton search for software solutions for their agtech strategy. News section photo: Evan Wiig, director of the Farmer's Guild, helps set the challenges for the hackers. (Brad Hooker/UC Davis)

CIA food hackathon winners

See the Food Hackathon that inspired the competition.