Notre Dame researchers will use the tools and techniques of data science to address global hunger thanks to nearly $5 million in new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
At the end of 2022, according to the United Nations, the world’s population reached a new milestone: 8 billion people. One in 10 of those people suffer from hunger and one in three lack regular access to adequate food.
Jaron Porciello, an associate professor of the practice at the University of Notre Dame’s Lucy Family Institute for Data and Society, said she likes to emphasize a lesser-known statistic. “We already grow enough food to feed the world,” she said. “It is possible to end hunger. But people have to eat every day, and hunger intersects with complex issues like poverty and climate change. This means there is no direct path. What we need is not a one-size-fits-all solution. We need a broad set of interventions, and we need the data to make those decisions possible.”
Thanks to a grant of nearly $5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Porciello is assembling the right team and the right tools to capture that data.
Part of the new funding will support the Juno Evidence Alliance, an effort to foster collaboration among nonprofits doing agricultural data collection, data analysis firms and governments funding development work. Juno will make it possible to make higher-quality, more evidence-based decisions about agriculture.
“When people think about big data, they think about satellite imagery, weather reports and traffic data,” Porciello explained. “But the data I work with is nowhere near as clean and collected. I work with small and distributed data sets and bring scientific studies together with technical documents, news reports and blog posts, and apply a framework to understand what is really going on and what could be done more effectively.”
Porciello developed the first taxonomy for evidence-based agriculture. The taxonomy classifies and organizes data sets to make the data meaningful to decision-makers. Juno will use this taxonomy’s machine learning capabilities to better understand the impact agricultural decisions have over time.
CABI, a nonprofit publisher of agricultural information, will aid in Juno’s launch. Juno will use several of CABI’s research databases and employ Porciello’s models to rebuild them. This will enable the Juno team to deploy its data science tools right away on a broad scale.
Juno is just one part of a larger partnership known as Ceres2030: A Global Roadmap to End Hunger Sustainably and Nutritiously. An important member of that partnership is the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
“Our relationship with FAO represents a new future that puts agriculture and food security squarely at the intersection of health, peace, poverty reduction and social equity,” Porciello said. “That is one of the reasons I came to Notre Dame: New outcomes require new partners and partnerships. Not all of the innovations we need will be found by focusing on crop and livestock research; we need to be thinking about farmers, their livelihoods, political will and the institutions that can help bring out these changes.”
Paul Winters, who joined Notre Dame in 2020 as the inaugural Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Global Affairs, will serve as a leader for the grant project alongside Porciello. Winters is also working with Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Kremer at the University of Chicago to establish the Commission on Innovation for Climate Change and Food Security. The commission will be chaired by Kremer, and commissioners will be senior leaders in politics and development. They will identify innovations that can be taken to scale and propose new “meta-innovations,” or innovative ways to promote innovative work in agriculture.
Nitesh V. Chawla, the founding director of the Lucy Institute, said, “We are grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for supporting Jaron and her work.” Chawla, who is also the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Notre Dame, added, “We are thrilled that through this new project the Lucy Family Institute will be able to take its mission to find ‘data-driven solutions for the good of society’ into the field of hunger and food insecurity.”
Porciello joined Notre Dame and the Lucy Family Institute in August. For her, Notre Dame is the ideal launching point for the project. “To work on issues like food security and hunger you need a service mindset as well as a research mindset,” she said. “I have found the community at Notre Dame to be very service-oriented and to be intentional about putting practice and service at the center of the research agenda.”
To learn more about opportunities to partner with the Juno Evidence Alliance, contact Jaron Porciello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact: Brett Beasley, writer and editorial program manager, Notre Dame Research, email@example.com, 574-631-8183; research.nd.edu, @UNDResearch
Originally published by Brett Beasley at research.nd.edu on Feb. 2.