Confirmed Rumors: 2013
May 02, 2013 – By Kelby Kleinsasser
In my brief foray into Healthcare Information Technology (IT), it took only a couple of weeks to discover that the challenges they faced were harshly reminiscent of what we’re facing in Ag Information Technology.
Yet from a business perspective, the business-to-business arm of Healthcare IT has been lucrative for at least a decade, as evidenced by the fact that there are about a dozen publicly-held Healthcare IT companies. So what’s the problem in Ag IT? Why aren’t pure Ag IT companies scaling like their counterparts in Healthcare IT? What’s holding Ag IT back?
Before I start, let me clarify some terminology. Healthcare IT is served by hardware and software companies whose mission is to improve patient safety, health care quality, efficiency, data collection and potentially help restrain rising costs. Ag IT is similar in that it is served by a combination of hardware and software companies. While I don’t discount the role of hardware in Ag IT, my analysis has been skewed towardssoftware companies providing software across a range of areas. Table 1 shows some examples of different types of software products within each industry.
You might be thinking, where’s telematics? Telematics is akin to how a medical device communicates with the Internet to move its data — it is infrastructure. You can think about telematics as infrastructure right along with local and wide-area networks (LAN/WAN), cellular systems, Wi-Fi, networking, security appliances and other Internet backbone technologies and protocols. One of the biggest reasons that Healthcare IT has been able to scale as an industry — to the tune of $24 billion by 2015 — far earlier than Ag IT is that core Healthcare IT relies on an exceedingly mature LAN/WAN infrastructure. In Ag IT, the infrastructure that we need to achieve breakout growth is still being built and installed, all the way out to the machine.
Just a couple of years ago, there were large areas of the U.S. that weren’t covered with cellular signals. Today, even in lesser developed international markets, access to signal has reached a tipping point. In Ag IT, we will continue to rely on companies’ investments in infrastructure for several years. Those companies will continue to be incentivized with a disproportionate amount of the available profit while this is underway, with the longer term shift toward companies servicing the end consumer more directly.
Now, let’s shift gears and move away from hardware and infrastructure toward the pure software aspects of Ag IT (see Table 1). Where Healthcare IT and Ag IT maintain striking similarities is in the area of interoperability between software systems — more specifically, the lack thereof. With the passage of the Federal HITECH Act in February 2009, new rules were created demanding interoperability within Healthcare IT. Out of the $25 billion dedicated to driving the adoption of Healthcare IT, roughly $600 million was targeted at the states to build out state-level Health Information Exchanges. Because of the sophisticated nature of the Health Information Exchanges grant program, actual data on implementation of Health Information Exchanges is very difficult to interpret. But the overwhelming sentiment in Healthcare IT is that the money has not been effective in driving Health Information Exchange development and adoption because many states basically licensed a commercially available product and “checked the boxes.”
As a result of this tokenism, interoperability goals in Healthcare IT are still far from being met. Furthermore, the federal dollars will dry up without the emergence of a compelling and sustainable industry business model. Consequently, businesses — especially actual healthcare facilities — have been very reluctant to make investments in Health Information Exchanges because it will ultimately end up being reflected as a cost increase to the patient.
Because of all this, as recently as March of this year, I maintained some serious doubts that Healthcare IT was on the right track in the area of interoperability. However, a recent announcement made by a newly formed organization called the CommonWell Health Alliance has many in the industry suddenly bullish on the future of interoperability in Healthcare IT. The organization was formed by several of the country’s top Healthcare IT software companies, most of them publicly held. This alliance has been formed with the following mission:
Speaking at the press conference announcing CommonWell’s launch, Cerner CEO Neal Patterson said, “It’s time for vendors, even as they continue to compete in the marketplace, to break down their data silos.” He added that progress on the data liquidity front would have to come from the private sector. “Our government is not going to deal with this problem.”
Interestingly, Farzad Mostashari, the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology for the United States, has taken issue with this commercial alliance. “The question to ask is, will it work, will it help move us forward? Many efforts have tried to be ‘the’ network, but it can’t come at the price of inhibiting other good activities,” he said.
I’m having a difficult time believing Mostashari’s contention that the CommonWell Health Alliance isn’t going to move things forward, considering that the history of interoperability in Healthcare IT has seen tens of thousands of peer-to-peer integrations between systems. An entire sub-industry was created within Healthcare IT just to support the old model with untold billions going toward consulting and product development. Most of these costs were ultimately paid by the provider and passed along to the patient. A new study from the West Health Institute says that $35 billion of an estimated $750 billion in healthcare waste per year could be eliminated from the system by solving the problem of interoperability.
Regardless of how Health Information Exchanges ultimately take their final shape, the HITECH Act has definitely driven adoption of Electronic Health Record/Electronic Medical Record technologies as intended, so there is some positive news for Healthcare IT. However, there are numerous qualitative aspects of the new adoption that are cause for concern today. Moreover, one of the unforeseen consequences of all the changes in Healthcare IT caused by the government has been a complete paralysis of innovation. Virtually every software company in Healthcare IT has been forced to shift resources from R&D to becoming certified in the new environment. These certifications, called the Stages of the Meaningful Use within the HITECH Act, are scheduled to extend into 2016, leaving little hope of things improving any time soon.
For Ag IT, the lessons to be learned from Healthcare IT are abundant — and none are as clear as how to go about achieving interoperability and the need to proactively take matters into our own hands. Commercial entities must come together in order to prevent waste from being a necessary step in the process. I’m happy to report that there’s a lot of great news, because there are already many great efforts taking place in Ag IT. Many of those efforts are focused on solving engineering challenges related to equipment interoperability. For the pure software aspects of Ag IT there’s already an organization that stands out as the candidate capable of making a seismically positive impact on Ag IT. It is the AgGateway organization, and while the organization is structured and operated as a not for profit, it is constituted almost entirely of commercial entities with common interest in collaboration across organizational boundaries.
The mission of AgGateway is very similar to that of the CommonWell Health Alliance in that its focus is on interoperability. The big difference is that AgGateway has been around for almost a decade and is highly organized and managed. For the past four years, AgGateway has consistently achieved more than a 35% growth rate in its membership and today is made up of about 180 companies including all of the names you’re probably thinking of right now. The key issue being addressed in AgGateway is data standards, and that’s no easy thing to tackle. It’s well understood in both Healthcare IT and Ag IT that the lack of data standards is the central issue behind the majority of information systems challenges.
By now you might be exhausted just thinking about reading another article on standards, so we’ll exit the topic on a high note. Progress can and is being made. With the continued support from agribusinesses like the members of AgGateway and other groups, the opportunity to avoid the calamities that have occurred in Healthcare IT is within reach. It’s my sincere hope that agribusinesses not only keep investing in these collaboration efforts by being generous with resources, but also make your company’s position well known so your employees and customers can also contribute and participate.
Clearly, this critical component in the future of agribusiness will continue to evolve in the coming days, particularly in the area of software development. Stay tuned for updates as significant advances occur.
Kelby Kleinsasser is a partner/director of consulting services at AgIntegrated, an ag technology consulting firm and maker of the Onsite data management ecosystem. AgIntegrated has a mission to put information to work for ag through innovative technology products and services that promote interoperability amongst systems.
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February 27, 2013 – By Paul Schrimpf
We here it far and wide in precision agriculture circles: the key to the next wave of technology adoption is in making all the disparate software, hardware, and systems “play nice,” allowing farmers to actually focus on farming and making the most of the data they collect.
Leveling the technological playing field by offering a “color blind” cloud-based solution and inviting manufacturers to participate has put AgIntegrated in the spotlight over the last couple of years. And with the very recent addition of ag technology veteran Kelby Kleinsasser, the company is looking toward further expansion and new horizons.
“We are thrilled to have Kelby join AgIntegrated’s executive team, with responsibilities that include directing and expanding our consulting division,” says Duane Reese, president and co-founder. “Kelby brings a highly relevant set of experiences in the software as a service (SaaS) business and cloud based, data-driven systems across multiple industries including agriculture. The addition of Kelby to our team demonstrates AgIntegrated’s commitment to drive precision ag adoption through open, integrated systems.”
We got an exclusive opportunity to catch Kleinsasser shortly after accepting the position to get his take on why he returned to agriculture for this particular opportunity, and where he sees AgIntegrated heading in the months and years ahead.
Our target is any party in agriculture that develops, institutes, oversees, or otherwise makes decisions on connected ag information technology. Although there are varying terms used to define information management, our definition includes any software that is leveraged in the planning, controlling/execution and analysis of the crop lifecycle.
More specifically, this includes agronomic systems, decision support tools, telemetry platforms, asset (fleet) management, dispatch, ERP (general ledger, etc), and in-field computing (field computers, mobile apps, etc). Our customers and prospects are therefore made up of ag retailers, ASP’s, independent software vendors, and precision technology and specialty hardware manufacturers.
Because more and more agribusinesses are working to streamline and productize their information management offering, we feel strongly that our business can grow by helping them deliver on promises with what is likely to be a messy technology environment at best. And even if an agribusiness has not yet productized information management, they have invariably found themselves in the midst of a sophisticated web of parties who in many ways are competing with one another to earn status as an information manager in the growers’ minds.
We view all of those companies as targets for our services because we know that success is not guaranteed when the technology deck has been stacked against them. In many ways we see ourselves as the proverbial “last mile” of fiber that a cable company or telco lays down to connect their subscriber to a broader infrastructure.
We believe that the industry will move forward quickly if companies capable of investing in information management technology R&D can stay focused on infrastructure and specialized solutions. As long as they are, we won’t see the same money being thrown at multiple supposed one-size-fits-all solutions – the virtual stalemate and a perpetuation of the zero sum game we’ve seen in the past.
We’re pretty stoked that companies such as Raven with the Slingshot API and John Deere with FarmSight are creating infrastructure that will allow integrated solutions to actually work. But, at the same time, we’re also seeing and hearing that most agribusinesses don’t have a clear vision for how they will leverage it and in many cases that they don’t understand it. We will have been successful in 2013 if our targets perceive us as the company who can make it all work.
If the signals we’re reading hold true, we’d expect to see demand for our services and products growing even stronger throughout the next three to five years. Regarding our products such as Onsite, the strategy is pretty simple. We will invest in high quality, open products that enhance our ability to be successful integrators.
Above all, our prospects and especially our customers will see AgIntegrated becoming hyper focused with an accelerating tempo and stronger emphasis on proving that the open movement will deliver the elusive results that ag information systems have been promising.
I’ve spent the past year working with a healthcare technology company helping them to achieve scalability and to adjust products that adapt to the rapidly changing regulatory landscape. More broadly speaking, my focus has been — and remains – on R&D and product management of pure SaaS business delivered via Cloud technologies that drives scalability, performance, mobility, and rapid innovation through software that’s easy to enhance.
One word. Movement. The Collaboration Movement has considerable momentum and it’s creating enormous opportunities for innovation. The landscape is very different from the ag of even three years ago. There are countless opportunities to make a difference leveraging my strengths and interests here so I feel a sense of obligation to get back to work. So when a leader in the Collaboration Movement – AgIntegrated – came calling, it quickly became obvious that now is the time to make this move. I’m very pleased to be a part of the executive team and to be working with a group of very gifted professionals across the organization.
The leadership at AgIntegrated has a great perspective on what it’s going to take for the business of ag information to grow as a whole and ultimately to use it to meet tomorrow’s demands for food production. We share in our willingness to stick our necks out there and we don’t get too hung up on what people are saying. During my time in the agricultural industry from 2008 through 2012, I was fortunate to meet a lot of people who taught me about agriculture, who care very deeply about it, and who are building awesome products to meet its needs. Building on those products and relationships through a precision ag targeted consulting offering – and some cool new products of our own – our approach to information management will enable the industry’s best products to drive end user value. We think of ourselves as color-blind technology enablers and although the mission of enabling is never done, we believe that we can help shape tomorrow’s ag information landscape.
Schrimpf is the Group Editor for the CropLife Media Group at Meister Media Worldwide, with full editorial responsibility for CropLife, CropLife IRON, Cotton Grower and PrecisionAg Special Reports.
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By David Hest
Cloud-based computing in precision agriculture took a huge leap forward in 2012 and is likely to make another big gain in 2013.
In the past 12 months, options for using “the cloud” to provide wireless connectivity to tractor and combine displays grew dramatically, to the point it is now possible to eliminate the frustration of shuffling thumb drives to keep precision ag data up to date.
The number of cloud-based precision software options that add anytime, anywhere data access increased as well. The software promises streamlined decision making by making information available to key farm management players.
If talk about cloud computing leaves you scratching your head, you are not alone. For the technology geek crowd, a jargon-laced term like “the cloud” provides a strong hint of what this is all about. But for most of us, not so much.
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, defines “cloud computing” as the use of hardware and software computing resources that are delivered over a network, typically the Internet. “The analogy I use is the cloud is what enables online banking,” says Paul Welbig, Raven Industries marketing director. Data (your account information) are stored on server computers. To access the data, you fire up a smartphone or tablet computer application or a computer Web browser, then connect via the Internet to view account information.
Given the mobile nature of farming, wireless connectivity — typically through the cellular communication network — is an inseparable component of cloud computing. Other key components include online data storage that boosts information-sharing possibilities, as well as powerful computing resources using online server computers to streamline data analysis. “Cloud computing can create synergy between farmers, agronomy consultants, retailers, seed companies and other suppliers,” says Trevor Mecham, Case IH Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager. “You are putting a collaborative effort together, through a Web-based service, to share information in real time. That is the holy grail for data management for larger farming operations.”
If wireless connectivity is the core technology behind cloud computing, in-cab displays are the chief targets of the desire to get connected.
“The amount of data flowing to and from farm fields is just unreal,” says Tim Taylor of MapShots, a precision software company. “The industry is very rapidly moving toward wireless transmission of data in real time. Thumb drives will be a thing of the past.”
Here’s a roundup of wireless connectivity options that allow precision ag data to be imported and exported to and from displays. In addition to data transfer options, many systems also include vehicle performance and/or location tracking functions.
Raven began offering wireless services to compatible Raven displays in 2010, when it introduced its Slingshot (ravenslingshot.com) communications system. Slingshot, which also delivers RTK corrections to Raven receivers and most other receiver brands, uses a 3G cellular data modem to minimize data download times. The Slingshot Field Hub kit, which retails for $2,000, includes access to the Slingshot online network. Access keys for third-party software via Slingshot are $150 to $400 annually.
Trimble began offering direct connectivity to its FmX and CFX-750 displays in 2010, enabling wireless import and export of precision data, including yield data, as-applied variety maps, drainage designs, guidance lines and prescription maps. The system is available through the Connected Farm service available to Farm Works Software customers. The annual fee for the office-to-field data transfer is $360. A cellular modem, a data service plan and required Farm Works software are additional. Visit connectedfarm.com.
AgIntegrated (agintegrated.com) introduced Onsite, a cloud-based mobile and desktop application, in 2012. The company designed Onsite to solve the challenge of wirelessly transferring precision ag data to displays not currently supporting wireless data transfer. Onsite also provides a single data transfer system for use in mixed-brand farm equipment fleets. It links precision data stored on office computers to Internet servers that automatically download data to smartphones and tablet computers in the field. Data are then wirelessly transferred to a compact flash card or USB thumb drive via Onsite’s Relay data transfer device for manual download to the display. The annual fee per Onsite account is $499, with volume discounts available for multiple accounts. The list price of the OnSite Relay is $345.
The Outback Max (outbackmax.com) integrated display terminal, introduced by Hemisphere GPS in 2012, provides wireless data transfer using the optional ConnX data management system. ConnX connects the in-cab terminal with the farm office and service providers using AgJunction, AgVerdict, NutriScription HD, OptiGro and Precision.Ag data platforms. The ConnX cellular modem also accesses RTK correction signals and provides Internet connectivity for real-time weather and market information via a custom Web browser. The bundled price for the ConnX service, including a terminal unlock, a CDMA cellular modem, a cellular data plan and access to the ConnX website, is $2,695.
John Deere plans to open the wireless information pipeline to and from its GreenStar 2630 display in time for harvest 2013. The company expects more capabilities to be in place by 2014 planting, including import of prescription planting maps and export of as-applied maps to and from major precision ag software programs, says Charles Schleusner, product line marketing manager for My John Deere Solutions (myjohndeere.com).
“We believe in the value of the cloud for John Deere and our customers,” Schleusner says. “We want to remove a hurdle to allowing producers to easily share data with key advisors to help them make profitable decisions.”
To help accomplish that, John Deere, which is collaborating with outside companies to make data transfer seamless, has introduced MyJohnDeere.com, a centralized online portal to access, view, archive and manage business information. Prices for data sharing and advanced features on MyJohnDeere.com are yet to be released. The MyJohnDeere Web portal is available for access today free of charge.
In addition to the GreenStar 3 display 2630, users need a JDLink, which includes the Modular Telematics Gateway (MTG) cellular modem, which has been standard on 8R tractors since 2011 and has been standard on all John Deere large agricultural machines since 2012. My John Deere Solutions are available on other brands equipped with the required GreenStar 3 2630 display and MTG.Oberg Family Farms, Kragnes, Minn., runs its Case IH equipment on rented ground near Argusville, N.D. Photo: Mike Krivit
Precision ag software companies have incorporated cloud capabilities ranging from data transfer to online data storage, seamless behind-the-scenes online computing to supplement PC software, and Web-based programs that reside solely on the cloud.
Here’s a look at several cloud-capable precision ag software options.
AgJunction (agjunction.com), which was purchased by Hemisphere GPS in 2012, is a totally cloud-based software program. All data are stored and analyzed on remote server computers and accessed through a Web browser. It is available through service providers such as fertilizer dealers and agronomists, including Wilbur Ellis (AgVerdict), Crop Productions Services (NutriScription HD), Jimmy Sanders (OptiGro) and Precision Ag Consultants (Precision.Ag).
Farm Works Software (farmworks.com), a division of Trimble, uses the cloud to wirelessly synchronize Farm Works data on office computers and FmX and CFX-750 displays via its Connected Farm (connectedfarm.com) service.
MapShots AgStudio (mapshots.com), new to farmers in 2012, is a hybrid office computer and cloud-based program. It stores precision ag data on the cloud, but office computing power is used to analyze data and develop application prescriptions.
FarmRite, from SST Software (sstsoftware.com), has been available to ag retailers and their customers for more than a decade and is a totally cloud/Web-based precision ag program. It is designed to process variable-rate fertility recommendations, yield maps and other analyses and decision-support services.
Two cloud-based nutrient management and variable-rate seeding prescription development services introduced in 2012 hint at a future where sophisticated farm-specific decision aids will be a mouse click away.
United Soils Inc. (unitedsoilsinc.com) designed i-F.A.R.M. to bring sophisticated crop nutrient management tools to any Internet-connected computer. The open-platform program’s tools allow the importation of soil test data from any soil test laboratory, and yield data from major yield monitor brands. Web-based tools then manipulate data to develop downloadable fertilizer prescriptions based on soil fertility, nutrient removal from the previous crop, yield goals, fertilizer prices and other management factors. The i-F.A.R.M. program is available through participating fertilizer dealers, often as part of a service package, or by direct subscription for $400 to $600 annually, plus a per-acre controller file creation fee.
The R7 Tool from Winfield Solutions (winfield.com), the seed and crop protection products arm of Land O’Lakes, harnesses the power of industrial-strength computers and software to bring a Web-based precision planning tool to the farm. The tool, which was rolled out to Winfield retailers in the fall of 2011, allows farmers without extensive yield and grid soil sampling records to get a start in variable-rate seeding and fertility. It crunches data harvested from multiple years of satellite images to identify management zones, assist in building variable-rate seeding and fertilizer prescriptions, and identify top genetics. The R7 Tool is available from Winfield Solutions retailers.
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