Rise of smart phone apps: Arkansas team launches multiple ag-related apps

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A s smartphones have become ubiquitous around the world, the availability of agriculture-related apps has surged. While extremely valuable to users, those developing those apps have found the process is hardly straightforward and requires an ability to search out workarounds.

At least that has been the experience of Dharmendra Saraswat and colleagues at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. Over the last couple of years, his working group has launched a number of native agriculture-related apps.

In 2007, Saraswat was hired by the university as geospacial technologies specialist. In October that year, Apple launched its flagship product, the iPhone.

Not long after, a person in the program development area of the Extension office phoned Saraswat.

“She said, ‘Can you develop something on the iPhone platform?’ Boy, that was something new for me, although I’m well-versed in programming. Programming for mobile devices was in its infancy. There were no classes offered in schools, and the iPhone was using another language style.”

Saraswat didn’t give her a definite answer. “I said, ‘This is something I need to look into.’ And I did.

“During that time period, 2008/2009, several small companies began exploring the options available to produce apps. There was one content management system (CMS) — software that allows for app development — available specifically for mobile devices.”

Developed training app

Saraswat subscribed to that software and secured some seed funding from a USDA program devoted to southern water quality.

That funding allowed him to pay for the CMS, and he developed a training app: How to use Google Earth or Google Map to assess water quality of a location or region using a variety of data developed by state/federal/local agencies — Where are the reservoirs? Where are the streams and rivers? What’s the land use? Where is stream flow high versus low?

The CMS, although easy to develop content for mobile devices, was very limiting in certain respects, says Saraswat. “First, a user must have an account before they can access whatever content has been put out for use.

“The software was limited to the number of subscribers that I had paid for: 50 people. That isn’t the case now for apps for the current generation of smartphones: iPhone, Android, or Microsoft devices, etc.”

That wasn’t the most important limitation, though.

A huge limitation

“As an engineer, when trying to do simple unit conversion applications, or perform engineering analyses based on equations or formulas, the mobile CMS was found wanting. That was a huge limitation. It wouldn’t allow embedding audio or video files that are often used by Extension agencies for educational purposes.

“So, the idea for apps was a really good one. But for the Extension Service, what we could do at that point wasn’t good enough to allow us to share all forms of educational content — publications, videos, podcasts, etc.”

At that time, Saraswat and colleagues had developed apps for functions like insect management in horticultural crops. Those were well-received and won awards. “We knew we were on the right path,” he says.

Then, Rick Cartwright became associate director of the UA’s Cooperative Extension Service. “He’s a very forward-looking person. When he got wind of what we were doing, he was on board very quickly. That was in sharp contrast to my colleagues in similar positions at other universities and organizations, who had found it difficult to convince their bosses that it was a great idea to develop content that could be viewed on mobile devices.”

First app for corn

With Cartwright’s support, Saraswat began to meet with other specialists. Then, “A situation arose that pushed us to develop a first app for the corn crop.

“Because of good corn prices, by 2012 there were several counties in Arkansas that made a major switch to corn from other crops. We had Extension agents and producers who weren’t fully prepared for that. Some needed additional education on corn.”

The Arkansas Corn and Grains Sorghum Board saw some of the initial work Saraswat had been doing and was intrigued. “They decided to support the effort and, in 2013, we launched Corn Advisor. Initially, it was for Android devices.

“Here’s the thing: In developing apps, we don’t want something that can’t be added to later. We don’t want a handful of apps for each crop. We want an app where — as field recommendations change or new technologies arrive for the crop — the updated data can be easily added to the existing app.”

Access to guidelines

A description of the app from the download page (http://bit.ly/YJliWB) reads, “This app is designed to assist corn producers in Arkansas by allowing access to corn production guidelines developed by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. In an interactive manner, users can search information for lime application rate, nitrogen (N), phosphorus and potassium (P & K), zinc (Zn) and sulphur (S) application rate, identify nutrient deficiency symptoms using pictures, identify and control corn diseases and field insects, and access the Corn Production Handbook from within the app. Users can also follow the corn specialist through integrated Twitter feed for quick updates on production issues.”

Saraswat says the corn app is very handy and easy to use. “Say, you look up a particular disease for corn. Not only can you read about the symptoms, but you’ll also learn how to control it. There’s also a section on corn insect management that is very popular.”

The good thing is that once the app is installed, the user can access all this information without having to connect to the Internet.

“It’s all-inclusive,” Saraswat says. “If you’ve installed it on your mobile device, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re in an area with a good Internet connection. That’s good news if you’re in the middle of a cornfield somewhere.”

New apps, upgrades

Now more comfortable with the development process, the team has picked up the app releasing pace.

This year, “To show how we continue to upgrade and continually provide updated data, we launched the Android version of a module on irrigation management. It provides producers with information on how to best make irrigation decisions. Within that app, the user can also access an irrigation scheduler from the University of Arkansas.”

Following corn, the Arkansas Soybean Promotion board also wanted to be involved with an app. Saraswat’s team was eager to tackle the project and has “made a good amount of progress on developing Soybean Advisor,” he says.

“It will work along the same lines as the app for corn. We want it to be in the hands of producers before start of production in 2015.

“Cotton Incorporated has approached me to help launch a Cotton Advisor app, which is already available for Android.”

Another app under review is Rice Advisor. “Among other things, it has seeding rates for rice. Also, it has a seed drill calibration category, along with a latest edition of the Arkansas Rice Handbook.”

Other apps in use

Other apps with a notable user base launched by the group include Manure Valuator (available for both iOS and Android devices), Hort Plants (available for iOS only), and CE Budgets (available for iOS devices only).

“We also developed an app for Arkansas Galaxy Conference, a premier annual professional development activity for Extension employees, Arkansas Rice Expo, and International Master Gardner’s Conference (organized by University of Arkansas in 2013).”

Saraswat is keen to acknowledge those he works with. “App development is truly a team-based effort, and I am really thankful to my colleagues, who have spared their valuable time and shared
resources to make it happen.”

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