Author: Dr. Ayesha Hakim has a PhD in Computer Science from Massey University, New Zealand. She joined University of Auckland as Research Specialist and then joined Waikato Institute of Technology (WINTEC) as a Lecturer in Computer Science. She moved to Pakistan in 2018 where she is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at MNS-University of Agriculture, Multan.  She is IEEE counsellor and focal person of blended learning and LMS. Her research interests include data science, precision agriculture, shape and audio analysis. She is currently working on developing computational systems for insect-pest surveillance, identification and control using AI and IoT applications.

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Agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and plays a vital role in the overall development and progress of the country. It is about producing food and relevant products by raising certain crops and managing livestock for desired purposes. Farmer is the key person who is responsible for preparing fields, sowing seeds, managing irrigation, protecting crops from pests, and harvesting the crops at the right time. There are a lot of different factors affecting the crop production and quality including soil composition and condition, weather patterns, temperature, light intensity, water level, diseases, pests and weeds in the field. The success of farming depends upon controlling all these factors to achieve the desired yield and quality of crops.

Data science is an art of discovering knowledge and insights out of data to solve a particular problem using scientific methods, processes, algorithms and systems. It is an umbrella term covering artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, data mining, big data & analytics and more. Data science is applied in multiple application areas across all research disciplines, environments, and societies. A data scientist is an individual with multidisciplinary skills in computer science, business, economics, statistics, and the necessary domain knowledge to solve a particular problem. Above all, data scientist should have the ability to ask right questions out of data in hand at the right time.

The world is generating more data than we expected. The growing use of social network, easy access to internet, sensors, machines, microscopes, telescopes is generating more and more data that is continuously growing. In Pakistan, out of the total population (218.7 million), there are 76.38 million internet users, 164.9 million mobile users, and 37 million active social media users. Currently, there are more than 410 thousand homes in the country where smart devices are being used. Among social media users, 98.7% of internet users are facebook users and 44 million people are purchasing goods online using e-commerce websites.

These statistics show that there is huge population of Pakistan who are active mobile users and a big number of people are active internet and social media users. We can easily imagine the amount of data being generated every second in the country. This data is nothing more than ‘noise’, unless it is analysed and used for getting some useful insights. This calls to a big opportunity for data science applications in Pakistan!

Agriculture is generating huge amount of data including land record, soil data, weather data, crop yield, quality, insect-pests, pesticides, fertilisers, farmers and more, that needs to be collected, stored, and analysed to devise useful relationships. Data science has the power to transform agriculture by analysing and extracting useful insights that can be used for predictive analysis and making informed decisions. To keep up with the pace and gaining maximum benefits, Pakistan needs to be at the forefront of emerging technologies.

At MNS-University of Agriculture, we are working on various data science applications by using the key tools and techniques to manage major factors affecting agriculture productivity. We are working on developing mobile applications to enable farmers to monitor their farms and orchards while sitting at their home. They can identify the hotspots that have been attacked by insect-pests and spray only affected areas in order to minimise the harmful effects of pesticides on fruits, soil and environment. Keeping in mind the effect of climate change, we are working on designing low-cost weather stations using IoT-sensors to provide precise weather information. Using precise weather information, farmers can plan sowing and harvesting timing at farm-level. We are working on various projects to determine seed variety and grade of food crops using artificial intelligence to ensure maximum production and export. For fruits and vegetables, we are working on non-destructive ways to determine the right time of harvesting based on maturity level using state-of-the-art techniques.

There is a strong need to extend collaborations among research institutions, industry, and academia to participate in joint research and commercialisation projects in order to meet the needs of agriculture industry and farmer community for mutual benefit. Under the visionary leadership of Prof. Dr. Asif Ali (Vice Chancellor), Department of Computer Science is effectively working on translating academic research to usable products that can be used by farmers and industry.