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Using data to help farmers fight drought

Gaurav Ramakrishna

Lead developer, IBM Call for Code

Gaurav Ramakrishna is always up for a challenge. A native of Bangalore, he came to Canada at 24 to pursue a Master of Engineering degree, embracing the cold winters and wide-open spaces of his new home. In his first year at the IBM Ottawa Lab, Gaurav and his team won the Call for Code employee challenge with a solution to help farmers in developing countries manage drought. Now, he’s the lead developer on the Call for Code staff, helping other creators bring their solutions to life.

How did you get involved in Call for Code?

I was working for the Cognos Analytics team in 2019 and there was a workshop held in our lab promoting Call for Code. The themes that year were climate change and the effects of climate change, and my manager encouraged me to join. There had been flooding in Ottawa that year, so a lot of the teams were focused on flooding, but I come from India, where drought is an issue. My family has farmland, and I’ve seen how difficult it gets for farmers when there’s drought.

I told my teammates, “I have a good user story for drought,” and that’s when I explained how farmers struggle with irrigation issues when there’s a drought, but at the same time, when they do have adequate water resources, they have no knowledge of how much to water and when to water, they just do a free flow. So, when water is available, they overuse it, and the overflow just ends up going into the rivers or the ocean. Instead, they could be saving this water in man-made lakes or ponds so they would have it in times of drought.

How does your idea help in times of drought?

The team designed an end-to-end solution to help farmers optimize their water usage to grow healthy crops.

We focused on farmers in developing countries, and came up with this idea of Liquid Prep, which uses a soil moisture sensor that sends data to a microcontroller, then transfers it to a mobile app that we created. It’s user friendly and icon-expressive so even farmers with limited literacy can use it, and it’s portable so it can be used anywhere there’s internet access.

The solution is open-sourced in the Linux Foundation, and anybody can go to our GitHub site and follow the instructions for how to spin up the solution from scratch, and all the components can be purchased from Amazon for less than 100 Canadian dollars.

How did winning Call for Code affect you?

I’m always interested to learn something new and to do something to help when there’s a problem. As a developer I am always thinking, how can we give back to the community? Call for Code is an answer to that question. The whole concept is fantastic. There are so many ways to give back to the community as a developer, and Call for Code opened doors for that. It motivated me so much that I moved from my old team to the Call for Code team so I could help with more projects.

What is your job now? How would you describe your work?

Every year we have a global winner in the Call for Code space. I help this winning project team to solidify their solution. When we announce our challenge, there’s very limited time for participants to design and submit a solution, and it will be minimum viable product stage. After the winner is announced, the Call for Code team helps them evolve their solution to where it’s fully functional. Finally, we help the team make their project open source and host it on the Linux Foundation.

It’s amazing to be on the judging panel and to see the creative ways people think.

How does creativity play into your work?

We need creativity in every field. Without creativity I don’t think you’d see all the changes you see today. A creative mindset is what lets someone take a spark of an idea and turn it into something real.

For me, it’s curiosity that drives creativity. I’m a curious person, and when something is unknown, I like to find out how it works. I’ve always been that way. Curiosity leads me to creativity, and my creative mindset leads me to a solution.

If you could have dinner with anybody, alive or dead, who would it be?

Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam — he was president of India when I was young. He grew up with a very poor family, and worked so hard all his life to get his education. He became one of the biggest scientists in India, he was a big contributor to the Indian Space Research Organization. He’s a great inspiration for a lot of Indian students. He was so down to earth, a humble person, but at the same time he had such great knowledge and he was willing to share that knowledge. I just want to follow his lifestyle — be simple, no matter how big you grow in life, be down to earth, no ego or anything. Try to help whoever asks for help if you can help them.

What advice would you give young people who want to foster creativity in their careers?

I would say always be open, try to go out of the box. Not just with your work, but with whatever you’re learning. The more you know, the better you can solve anything. That’s how you feed your creative mind. I feel like once we get into a pattern, we get comfortable and we just keep looping. Keep exploring and learning, and whatever you learn, share it with someone — motivate others to break the loop.

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