The Farm as Lab: Information Technology Innovation in Computational Agriculture

Shaowen Bardzell
Jeffrey Bardzell

Sponsoring Agency
National Science Foundation


This research integrates two goals: to survey, document, and disseminate knowledge about innovation in alternative agriculture to the human-centered computing community, and to support alternative-agricultural innovation practices using system design approaches to develop novel technologies that build on and extend what is already happening on a diversity of experimental farms. In response to population increases, growing food demand, changing diets, and climate change, recent years have seen a surge in the use of information communication technologies in agriculture. Experimental farms carry forward many of the same underlying sociotechnical structures that helped to define the maker movement, but as yet they are not yet understood or supported. These structures include increasingly powerful end-user technologies, networks of knowledgeable and passionate practitioners, inquiry objectives relevant to computer science, and high benefit for their communities.

A major phase of the project will conduct ethnographic fieldwork that relies on a combination of participant observation, analysis of cultural and technological artifacts, and semi-structured interviews conducted within each of two research sites. One will examine alternative, IT-enabled farming practices in Taiwan to reveal how farmers experimentally innovate on a day-to-day basis. The other will focus on agricultural experiments in Indiana to understand and document how farmers, policymakers, and technologists use technology to address critical challenges in food production and sustainability and how agriculture-technology-oriented initiatives cultivate high-tech, high-skilled farmers of the future. Another phase of the research will combine documentary, discourse, and oral history analysis of policy materials from governments of both field sites to identify alignments and misalignments that either facilitate or undercut efforts intended to support agricultural innovation. The ethnographic work, oral histories and discourse analyses will be inputs into co-design workshops that will be informed by principles of participatory design. They will test promising agriculture technology breakthroughs, challenges, and tactics identified in the ethnographic engagements, and will take the form of "design sprints," a highly structured process widely used in the US tech industry for answering crucial questions with stakeholders, characterized by mapping the problem terrain, identifying risks and opportunities, concept generation, prototyping, evaluation and testing.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Research Area
Human-Computer Interaction