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Coast-to-coast collaboration targets food security

A team of 20 graduate students at Northeastern University’s Boston and Seattle campuses spent the spring semester working together, collaborating via Skype, GitHub, and Google Hangouts to build a software platform aimed at connecting stakeholders in the aquaponics farming community.

As part of a software development course, the budding bioinformaticists and computer scientists created a web-based system to foster collaboration among a global network of farmers, researchers, and educators who study sustainable food production and run their own aquaponics farms. The platform enables users to communicate across a social platform while monitoring and analyzing data from aquaponics systems around the world.

The students designed the platform on behalf of Project Feed 1010, an aquaponics research initiative launched by a Seattle-based nonprofit biomedical research organization called the Institute for Systems Biology. The initiative’s mission is to scale up sustainable agriculture, with an eye toward harnessing the power of aquaponics farming to solve the world’s impending food shortage.

This project gave students the chance to apply some of the knowledge they have acquired through their studies and build something that’s hopefully going to have some impact.”
—Ian Gorton, director of the computer science program at Northeastern University-Seattle

A combination of aqua­cul­ture and hydroponics, aquaponics thrives on the sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship between plants and fish. In this closed-​​loop ecosystem, fish waste­water is fun­neled from a fish tank to a grow bed, where it’s broken down by bac­teria to pro­vide nutri­ents for the plants. The plants, in turn, purify the waste­water and then filter it back into the envi­ron­ment in which the fish live. Unlike con­ven­tional farming methods, aquaponics does not pol­lute the envi­ron­ment, deplete the fresh water supply, nor upset the bal­ance of the marine ecosystem.

“Thanks to these Northeastern students, Project Feed 1010 stakeholders are collaborating at the forefront of sustainable agriculture research,” said Jessica Day, the initiative’s project coordinator. “The robust infrastructure developed by the group allows educators around the world to prepare and train the next generation of sustainability-minded problem-solvers in the classroom using real-world food systems.”

    The student group presented their finished product to the aquaponics community at a tech demo hosted by the Institute for Systems Biology.

The student group presented their finished product to the aquaponics community at a tech demo hosted by the Institute for Systems Biology.

The students divvied up the work, splitting into four teams that were overseen by Ian Gorton, director of the computer science program at Northeastern University-Seattle. There was a user interface group, a data analysis group, a social networking group, and a mobile app group, the latter of which worked to design a scaled-down version of the platform for the iPhone and Android operating systems. They spent three months on the project, logging more than 5,400 man-hours and staying in constant communication with PF1010 personnel through Piazza, the popular Q&A web service. When they were done, they presented the finished product to the aquaponics community at a tech demo hosted by ISB.

“This project gave students the chance to apply some of the knowledge they have acquired through their studies and build something that’s hopefully going to have some impact,” said Gorton. “It exposed them to the need to understand real-world requirements, which can be complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing, and taught them how to design software that is flexible enough to adapt to these changes.”

Nisha Kanani led the social networking group, which worked to design a private platform that enabled users to build profiles, share information, and communicate with each other. As a computer science graduate student, the project transformed how she plans to approach software development in the future. “It helped me change my thinking about coding any software,” said Kanani, MS’16. “From now on, I will think about various aspects of scalability, reliability, and how to host a product before I start coding.”

Gorton noted that students in future iterations of his software development course might continue to work on the project. As he put it, “It’s a really good education model, and it’s nice to build software for the public good.”

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