Researchers from the Department of Informatics Explore Sustainable Food Systems

April 20, 2018

When you think of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), farming might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet research being conducted in the Department of Informatics is advancing the use of technology for sustainable agriculture.

sustainable food system “brings farmers closer to consumers by producing fruits and vegetables, or raising livestock or fish closer to the places they are sold.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “a move towards sustainable food has become an important component of public and environment health.”

Designing for Sustainable Agriculture
Last year, Ankita Raturi received her Ph.D. in software engineering from the Department of Informatics, working with Professors Bill Tomlinson and Debra Richardson. In 2016, along with Tomlinson, informatics Ph.D. student Juliet Norton and a cohort of HCI researchers, Raturi co-organized a workshop to bring together designers, researchers and practitioners at a workshop on Designing Sustainable Food Systems (#FoodCHI) held at the ACM Conference on Human Computer Interaction. The following year, for her dissertation, she investigated information management and farm-level modeling challenges faced by small- to medium-scale sustainability-oriented farmers in California. A major contribution of this work was the design of MoSS, a framework to enable the Modeling of Sustainable Systems in the domain of agriculture.

Raturi is now a postdoc at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab and Center for Environmental Farming Systems, where she’s developing an open-source decision-support platform to help farmers engage in both scientifically grounded and pragmatic sustainable agricultural practices. “It’s pretty exciting,” she says, “to be working with scientists, farmers, extension agents and developers to scope out and plan our build!” She’s also co-organizing next month’s Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology (GOAT) Conference to “bring together the nascent open ag tech community to meet, learn, share and establish a common vision for creating open technologies for our food system.”

Addressing Limits
First-year informatics master’s student Meena Muralikumar is also interested in the intersection of technology and environmental sustainability, which is why she came to UCI. “When I saw that one of its research areas is Environmental Informatics, I knew I had to apply,” she says.

Meena Muralikumar, M.S. Informatics Student

Even before Muralikumar officially started here at UCI, she reached out to Informatics Professor Bonnie Nardi, whose research examines the role of technology in helping us transition to sustainable environmental and economic practices. “She pointed me toward the work done for Computing within Limits workshops,” says Muralikumar, who ended up working with Nardi on a paper about a framework for using food-tracking systems to promote sustainability. Muralikumar will present their paper, “Addressing Limits though Tracking Food,” in Toronto next month at the LIMITS 2018 workshop, co-chaired by Nardi.

“I’m interested in rethinking how we design, develop and use technology given the resource limits and environmental issues we face,” says Muralikumar, who plans to focus on sustainability for her master’s thesis and hopes to pursue her Ph.D. here at UCI as well.

Muralikumar aims to further the research of Nardi, Tomlinson, Raturi, Norton and others. “Their work has already changed my perceptions of sustainability considerably. I want to build on their work in looking at how technology can be leveraged for social good and for environmental and social sustainability.”

If you’re interested in learning more about food sustainability, check out the events for UCI’s Earth Week 2018. In particular, visit UCI Dining’s “Sustainable Foods Fair” from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday, April 24 at the Gateway Plaza, where various organizations and vendors will be celebrating the many facets of sustainable foods.

— Shani Murray