Ag Tech: Entering a New Era of Innovation

On Thursday, I attended the 2016 Agriculture Technology Innovation Summit, the first conference of its kind on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

The goal of the conference — organized by Research Park — was to bring together ideas from innovators, companies, and academics and create a forum about where agricultural entrepreneurship is headed for the future. It’s an exciting area of innovation, and you could definitely feel this excitement at the conference.

Speakers presented on topics such as precision agriculture and the future of food. Where are we headed? The future of precision agriculture might include a more “interconnected” farm. Julian Sanchez from John Deere said we should imagine what “things” on the farm would say if they could talk to each other. What kind of information could they provide, and how would this affect precision agriculture?

The real challenges of precision agriculture became clear from the moderated discussion panel. Most of the challenges spur from data, and the massive amounts of data related to agriculture. Panelist discussed how it’s confusing to know what data is meaningful, and how we should value this data in the marketplace. And what’s the best way to collect the right data in a seamless fashion so that it’s beneficial to the farmer?

Questions like these must be answered with innovation, which is why entrepreneurship may have been the most important point addressed at the conference. This was reinforced by one speaker, Aaron Gilbertie of Aptimmune Biologics. He encouraged anyone with a valid idea related to the food animal health to seriously think about starting their own company that will drive innovation.

Panelists encouraged budding entrepreneurs to have mentors, position themselves for success, and overcome their fear of failure in order to succeed.

To feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050, we need a lot of change. A lot of people are going to have great ideas that will turn into some real, tangible change, and they need solid platforms to be able to do this. As a science communicator, there’s a lot to write about. But even more, as someone who’s interested in technology and innovation in general, there’s even more to be excited about.

Number of requested SafeWalks increasing on University of Illinois campus

Many soon-to-be college students are frequently given the same advice regarding campus safety: to avoid walking alone at night.

This advice has become easier for University students to follow with SafeWalks, a free service offered by the University Police that allows students, staff, and faculty of the University to request an escorted walk home by calling a number or pressing a button on their newly released mobile app.

SafeWalks runs from 9 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday and from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, according to the University Police website. Walks can be requested from any location on campus, and the escorts are members of the University Police Student Patrol.

According to Ryan Johnson, the Student Patrol Coordinator, the number of requested SafeWalks has increased in the past couple of years. Two years ago, he said around 1,000 to 1,100 walks were requested, and in 2014, around 1,400 walks were requested.

Jacob Fleener, a team leader for the Student Patrol, said that since the beginning of 2015, around 400 SafeWalks have been requested, averaging four to five requests per night.

The increase can be attributed to better campaigning and marketing efforts by SafeWalks, Johnson said. They are continuing their efforts to raise awareness about this free service through their newly released mobile SafeWalks app, which will automatically pinpoint the location of the user and allow them to request a walk with the press of a button.

We’re trying to better connect with this generation of student, when everybody seems to be on a smartphone,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the app will make it easier to request a walk, and will also benefit non-English speakers and students who may be too intoxicated to make a phone call.

“There is no other kind of app available in the country at any other university that’s like it,” Johnson said.

Informing students about the unique benefits of SafeWalks has also been a key part of their marketing campaign. Though SafeRides, a free late night ride service by the Champaign-Urbana MTD, is also offered, it can only service people from specific bus stop locations. SafeWalks, on the other hand, can pick people up from any location.

Fleener said that after a request is made, a Student Patrol member is usually there within five to 10 minutes, whereas SafeRides usually takes 15 to 30 minutes.

He said there are a variety of reasons for why students may not utilize SafeWalks — either they don’t know it exists, or they know it exists and choose not to use it. This could be because of the walking aspect or because they are afraid to get in trouble for being intoxicated when requesting a walk.

“A lot of people think we are the police, when we’re not, we’re just normal students,” Fleener said. “We can’t get you in trouble or anything like that; our goal is just to get you home safely.”

Aside from escorting SafeWalks, the Student Patrol fulfills other campus safety duties such as nightly campus building checks, working pedestrian traffic, setting up police barricades, and assisting at events such as football games.

Fleener, a senior who has been a member of the Student Patrol since 2012, said that members are trained for police and radio codes as well as correct behavior in specific scenarios. After passing a veteran exam, they are assigned to one of three patrol teams and are required to work a minimum of one out of every five days.

“I absolutely love my job,” Fleener said. “I’m excited to go to work every night.”

He added that the job teaches valuable skills such as communication, presentation, and self-defense, and allows members to serve the community in a different aspect.

The Student Patrol and the SafeWalks program have resolved countless dangerous situations over the years, such as breaking up fights, ensuring dangerous persons are off the streets, finding vehicles or items the police have been looking for, or helping students get medical attention, according to Fleener.

Johnson said the program has an “unblemished” track record so far.

“Every person that request a safe walk makes it home safely,” he said.

As far as improving campus safety overall, Johnson said SafeWalks has definitely contributed.

“To have a successful public safety program and have a safe community, we’re one slice of the pie,” he said. “It takes several different aspects to make it successful.”