Second Annual International Food Security Symposium

Using Big Data to Improve International Food Security

“Using Big Data to Improve International Food Security” was the theme of the second annual International Food Security at Illinois (IFSI) symposium.

The two-day symposium brought together physical scientists, social scientists, and data scientists who use “big data” methods, including text analysis, geographic information systems, and remote sensing, to think about how we can use these methods to address international food security.

Encouraged to embrace an interdisciplinary approach, the symposium attendees enjoyed lively discussion about how data is currently collected and used and were challenged to think about what types of data and approaches will best combat food insecurity.

John McHarris, Programme Adviser for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Senior Program Advisor for the Food Security Analysis Service, opened the symposium with optimism. “Ending world hunger is possible and possible within our lifetime,” he said.

McHarris presented three examples of how the WFP has already used “big data”: 1) Tracking retail transactions in high refugee areas to compare spending patterns to detect anomalies; 2) Using call data records to track people before and after a disaster; and 3) Using geographic information systems (GIS) to seasonally monitor growing areas for abnormal dryness or wetness.

Dr. Ed Seidel, director of U of I based National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) followed McHarris’s presentation by urging the attendees to consider what U of I and NCSA can do to create or integrate data sets to meet the symposium’s goals. Seidel also discussed in detail Illinois’ new role as co-leader of the Midwest Big Data Regional Innovation Hub, a National Science Foundation initiative to enable a big data research program. The initial “spokes and rings” for the Midwest hub include Food-Water-Energy and Digital Agriculture. (For more information visit

The first session focused on resource use and included presentations on using satellites to monitor farmland conversion in emerging economies (Peter Christensen, UIUC), using solar-powered smart sensors to monitor weather patterns in Africa (Tom Evans, Indiana University), and using remote sensing and soil tests to generate measures of soil quality to provide useful information to farmers (Anil Bhargava, University of Michigan).

During lunch, attendees enjoyed a presentation by Stanford University’s Marshall Burke on how he is using novel, fine-grained and frequent satellite images to detect agricultural productivity and poverty.

The second session focused on challenges surrounding food quantity, including using airborne remote sensing and high-resolution modeling (Praveen Kumar, UIUC), building a continental-scale crop forecasting system (Kaiyu Guan, UIUC), and using data from ecophysicologial screening to improve cropping systems “from leaf to region” (David LeBauer, UIUC).

During its third session, the symposium welcomed two distinguished guests from a Delegation of the European Union (EU) to the United States. Damien Levie, Head of Trade and Agriculture Section, and Giulio Menato, First Counselor (Agriculture), reflected on global food security, trade, and EU’s role and participated in discussion with the audience on a variety of topics.

The fourth session, led by Duke University’s Matt Harding, focused on opportunities to use “big data” to understand food consumption and to design nutritional interventions. Harding touched on many of the overreaching considerations of using big data, noting that data is expanding at an increasing rate but the value actually comes from the depth of the data not necessarily the volume of data. “At the end of the day we need to be asking does the data offer new tools to solve specific problems? Does it promote welfare?” Harding asked.

The final session on Access and Nutrition discussed gaps in data on food security (Erin Lentz, University of Texas), provided an example on industry and NGO collaboration using data analytics to improve domestic food access (Karl Schnelle, Dow Agrosciences), and introduced the USDA’s Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative (Jamie Adams, USDA).

A two-time alumnae of the University of Illinois, Jamie Adams was integral in launching the GODAN initiative which supports the proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible, and usable to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring world food security (

After one and one half days of presentations and discussions, Kate Weaver (University of Texas) summarized the key takeaways and challenges of using big data towards food security. Specifically, she noted tensions between focusing on national level aggregates and individual/household level data. Also, data can be highly localized, non-standardized and silo-ed in ways that make it difficult to access, share, and scale.

“There are tremendous advances in harnessing technology sciences, but the applications are often geographically limited, and key decisions makers are not aware of or using the data,” Weaver said.

Kathy Baylis (University of Illinois), who suggested this year’s theme and co-organized the second annual symposium, closed the event by noting “This is just the beginning of the conversation.” She noted that big data has been used successfully in domestic food security to improve production, access and utilization. She said the intersection among big data and international food security is currently small and novel but holds great potential for reducing global hunger and malnutrition. She and the organizing team met after the event to create a list of next steps and outcomes for moving this conversation forward.

An inaugural symposium in Fall 2015 helped to kick off the IFSI initiative. This year’s and future symposiums will be themed around a specific aspect relating to food security.

Click here for information and presentations from the first symposium.


The International Food Security Initiative (IFSI) is a program of the Office of International Programs in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that seeks to focus the expertise and resources of the university to address the global challenge of ensuring that all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to achieve their human potential.