Microsoft: There is no single process that cannot be improved by data

13:32 PM | February 8, 2021 | Joseph Harvey

Claudia Roessler will be speaking at the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit on March 8. As the director of agriculture strategic partnerships at Azure Global – a Microsoft business – she offers a unique view on the use of cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning in the animal health sector. IHS Markit's head of animal health Joseph Harvey spoke to her prior to the event.

Joseph Harvey: What is Microsoft Azure?

Claudia Roessler: Azure is Microsoft's intelligent cloud platform, comprising 200 products and cloud services designed to bring new applications and solutions to life. Azure allows users to build, run and manage applications across multiple clouds, on premises and with edge computing. We see our customers embracing the cloud as they digitally transform their organizations to engage with their customers, empower their employees, optimize their operations or transform their business.

Microsoft particularly cares about making cloud services available globally – in over 60 regions and 140 countries – and understanding the industry and regional requirements of cloud customers, such as industry standards and certifications. For example, Microsoft has the most comprehensive set of compliance offerings with over 90 certifications.

JH: How does Azure compare to other cloud computing platforms?

CR: It’s the breadth and depth of the cloud that addresses the unique needs and desires of organizations that are moving into the cloud. Microsoft’s vision is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.

We put significant investment in innovation. There were 1,000+ new capabilities introduced just in the last year. Among the categories of product innovation to which Microsoft has devoted enormous amounts of time and resources are artificial intelligence, machine learning and mixed reality. The tools of artificial intelligence should be in the hands of every knowledge worker and every frontline worker.

We not only invest in the most comprehensive artificial intelligence portfolio, but also look beyond and ask: 'What does responsible machine learning look like?' We believe artificial intelligence plays an important role for our customers' businesses but beyond that, what is important for our planet and for a sustainable environment. This is also reflected in our own commitments to our environmental sustainability.

Security from the ground up is important for businesses that run on the cloud. We are spending $1 billion+ in security R&D and have over 3,500 cyber security experts who build multi-layered, built-in security controls and unique threat intelligence from Azure to help identify and protect against rapidly evolving threats.

Then, it's about trusted cloud and data privacy. For us 'your data is your data'. This means, in times where data increasingly becomes the core value prop of a business, companies want to ensure that no one else can take advantage of their proprietary data. Microsoft has the highest standards of privacy and confidentiality of data stored and processed in Azure services. Not only will we protect data but also ensure it is used only in a way that is consistent with our customers' expectations.

JH: What sectors is this technology currently used in?

CR: What we see is every company is becoming a tech company. The acceleration of end-to-end digitization is taking place across companies in every industry and sector. More than 95% of Fortune 500 companies are using Azure to do so.

The digital capabilities address internal process effectiveness in areas such as manufacturing, sales, marketing and customer service – in particular in a COVID-19-enforced digital world – but also revolutionize the customer experience, how products are brought to the market, innovation for new products, and even a new generation of digital products and services.

For example, FedEx reinvented how supply chain management works. Building a solution on top of Azure Synapse Analytics reimagined how they can use data and tech capabilities, to enable the organizations to manage new, faster digital supply chains globally.

In agriculture and food, we see both – the more traditional players such as the input providers, ag retail, co-ops and equipment providers, and, more often, we now see consumer good companies, retailers and large food-grower brands interested in having end-to-end visibility in their supply chain. Insurance companies and banks show interest in digital agriculture from a risk-mitigation perspective. We also see governments and academia defining paths on how to support farmers accomplish their growth targets, while sustainably farming their land.

JH: What type of customers use your technology in the agriculture industry?

CR: Microsoft is becoming much more deeply involved in vertically specialized markets. Microsoft has dedicated an industry engineering team that is building out the Microsoft FarmBeats platform and agriculture-specific cloud offering, which is enabling agriculture and food organizations to build applications and analytics solutions.

FarmBeats takes on the heavy lifting of organizing, cleaning and preparing data for geospatial analytics. Agriculture data such as satellite, weather and equipment data is taken out of its silos and brought into one common platform. The platform provides a data model, a spatial and temporal data store and several foundational data models that allow a fast and effective development of agronomic solutions such as precision spraying, seed placement, field monitoring or yield analytics on top.

Besides this strong investment is an agriculture-specific data platform, Microsoft is investing in enabling smart equipment (digital twins), data sharing, and collaboration and connectivity. All highly relevant and important capabilities to enable insight on farms.

We see a broad adoption of these services across the food and ag industry. There are early adopters in the industry such as:

1. Food producers and consumer brands. There is an increased interest in creating more transparency around food, partially driven by consumers wanting to better understand food provenance and sustainable footprint. Food safety, food quality and nutritional information play an important role as well.

2. Input providers and researching organizations. Drivers are here to make better decisions on the farm, improve practices and increase yield. The ability to reason over environmental, management and genomic information leads to new product and new trait development.

3. Farm equipment and animal tech companies. There is a significant opportunity in automation and in ensuring animal welfare and safety with technology.

Among the early adopters of FarmBeats is the USDA. They have got a "ton of data" and struggled to figure out how to utilize it all. With FarmBeats, they combined sensor data with drone and satellite data, which will help to better understand how soil conditions, weather and management intersect to drive crop performance and long-term conservation of water and soil.

Land O'Lakes – an agriculture and food-processing company – is standardizing on Azure, not only to enhance its own digital capabilities but also to help in "revitalizing rural communities and transforming the agriculture industry to build tighter connections between consumers and farmers through innovative cloud technologies". They are using FarmBeats to build a connected agtech platform that will bring together Land O'Lakes' portfolios (such as WinField United's R7 Suite, Data Silo and Truterra) under one unified architecture.

They are also working on a Digital Dairy solution that will enable traceability throughout the Land O’Lakes supply chain, providing transparency, and ensuring consumer confidence that foods are of the highest quality and sustainably sourced.

JH: What are the levels of tech uptake in agriculture like compared to other industries?

CR: When it comes to digital innovation, I would call agriculture a 'late bloomer'. It's a 10,000-year-old industry. However, data collection on farms has previously proven difficult, due in part to limited connectivity. The speed for processing vast amounts of image information only got to where it's needed in the past couple of years. There is very little data aggregation on the farm and beyond multiple farms. If farmers buy sensors from different providers, data is sitting in silos with a limited chance of reasoning over combined data.

We saw similar patterns in other industries. Agriculture is, what I consider, a 'phase one'. It's all about data gathering. The industry understands it's important to collect data from farms, barns, animals and the environment. It's used to monitor, alert and understand when something happens. It's more focused on data and visualization then necessarily insight.

'Phase two' is when you start aligning data along timelines geospatially, and trying to understand cause and impact. This leads into predictive analytics. It allows you to foresee what might happen based on the information observed. For example, you can catch a disease before its outbreak.

Ultimately, we want to get to a 'phase three' of prescriptive analytics. Here, you constantly monitor and track insights, decisions and create a digital feedback loop that allows you to self-optimize responses, or proactively suggest changes in farm planning or management. This is particularly important for innovations around outcome-based services, risk mitigation or as a foundation for breeding, plant/seed development and research.

JH: What does your specific role at Microsoft entail?

CR: I'm responsible for strategic partnerships in agriculture. Microsoft is an enterprise-focused organization and, as such, we partner with the companies in the agri and food value chain that are building out digital services for farmers, and are playing the role of a data aggregator in the industry. In this role, I'm working with both the industry experts and our technology experts. I ensure we translate the needs of the industry in tech and bring the technology innovation to clients.

It's a very exciting time. I've been working in data and analytics since early in my career and saw the initial adoption of cloud services, industry and business solutions. Only now, I see organizations truly becoming digital 'service' providers. Very few companies will remain pure product companies in the future.

As an organization, Microsoft offers to really listen to the challenges and opportunities that customers have, and then find ways where together we can come up with solutions to those challenges. We only succeed when our customers succeed.

JH: How can cloud computing benefit the animal health industry?

CR: Ultimately, it's all about making better decisions based on data. There is not a single process or place, where you cannot improve outcomes, environmental sustainability or wellbeing of animals by monitoring data and making better informed and timely decisions based on insight.

There are a couple of trends I’m seeing in the animal health industry:

1. A multitude of smart sensors that help monitor environments and physical 'things'. Sensors are 'on point' 24/7 wherever they are needed, and excel human capability to monitor and inspect. For example, cameras or sensors in barns can warn about animal stress or unhealthy conditions. Large areas can be monitored through remote sensing. Examples include monitoring herds via drones or satellite for safety and against theft.

2. Digital Twins and identification of patterns with artificial intelligence. This is about identifying what might happen and to address health, risks or inefficiencies before they happen. A digital twin creates a digital replica of the physical world for physical objects, and allows us to monitor conditions and foresee issues before they happen.

3. Traceability and data sharing to create transparency, compliance and tracking. This is about creating transparency regarding a journey of a product (from grass to glass, from pasture to plate) for proofing authenticity, provenance, taste and quality control, consumer preference, sustainability and ethical/animal welfare.

4. Creation of digital feedback loops to monitor success, learn and improve. Avoiding food waste, better supply chain planning, more personalized nutrition, precision agriculture – all of these will help produce enough sustainable and healthy food. Those all require an incredible understanding of what's happening, the cause of our decisions and how we can learn from it in the future. It's a meticulous tracking of data decisions, and implementation of digital feedback loops.

Last but certainly not least, the industry has not even scratched the surface of understanding the microbiome. There is a wave of innovation in the food industry coming from microbiome science, as more is discovered about the interplay of microbes and foods, and the impact on human and animal health, as well as optimal soil conditions to drive crop yield and improve animal farming.

Eagle Genomics – one of Microsoft's partners in agriculture – has this fundamental belief that non-experts, non-data scientists need to be able to work with data and drive '21st century science' around the microbiome. They developed the e[datascientist] platform that enables unifying constellations of complex, multi-dimensional data, and the exploration and extraction of signals and networks of relationship that are otherwise undetectable by humans alone.

JH: What barriers to adoption of technology do you foresee in the animal health/agricultural sector?

CR: When Microsoft started our work in agriculture, we wanted to make sure technology is available and accessible for everyone. For example, we have the Microsoft Airband team that is focused on bringing connectivity to rural areas. We are partnering with the Future Farmers of America and universities on digital skills. Through FarmBeats, we would like to make technology affordable by merging high-value data with low-cost, largely available data such as free satellite data.

There is this expectation that digital transformation in agriculture lays on the shoulders of farmers. Personally, I think farmers have enough on their shoulders and we need organizations and governments to step up and become the sponsors for digital transformation. Data and analytics feed of large amounts of data, and therefore you need those large aggregators that help funding and reasoning over large amounts of data. Thankfully, we see organizations stepping up and taking on this role.

Of course, this requires the highest standards of data privacy by those organizations, and the trust from farmers that data and analytics is handled to their benefit and not against them. So, there still is a long journey ahead for the industry.

Ms Roessler will be speaking at the virtual Animal AgTech Innovation Summit on March 8, 2021. Register now for the summit and save a further 10% with our discount code: IHSM10.