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GCN : October 2013
GCN OCTOBER 2013 • GCN.COM 13 by NASA's MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite. "We wanted to be able to use an objective measure of vegetative health to compare against crop claims," said Bert Little, ex- ecutive director of Tarleton State Univer- sity's Center for Agribusiness Excellence. "In 2008 we put out a preliminary paper showing that we could tell the difference between irrigated and non-irrigated farm- ing practices in cotton in West Texas." With the launch of the Landsat 8 satel- lite earlier this year, the project has gained access to higher resolution images and data, including near-red and infrared scans. "What that gives you back is es- sentially the greenness that is reflected by chlorophyll in plant leaves," Little said. "The greener that signal, the healthier the plant." That can help show if there was a viable crop on land a farmer claimed he was not able to plant. And it's not just a matter of detecting plants, since a field bordered with trees or overgrown with weeds could produce a false positive. Thanks to higher-resolution data from Landsat 8, however, the project can now distinguish between systematic growth, which is indicative of crops, and chaotic growth from weeds. "We've written code so that the comput- er can go back and evaluate the satellite signal from fields," Little said. RMA and Center for Agribusiness Excel- lence have built a data warehouse -- which resides on Tarleton's Texas campus and runs on Teradata Database 14 -- that draws data from more than 170 data sources, including 3 terabytes of RMA policy in- formation that has been connected to 120 terabytes of weather, satellite and other remotely sensed data collected by the uni- versity. Apart from using Teradata Data- base 14 platform, software development has taken place at the Center for Agribusi- ness Excellence. "We're doing all of this in-house," Little said. " Off-the-shelf soft- ware is good for routine tasks, "but when you're doing exploratory studies you have to build your own tools." THE PAYOFF To date, USDA has spent $50.68 million on the program. According to RMA, the spot-check-list project alone has resulted in savings of $975 million in unjustified claims payments from 2001 through 2012. What's more, it is estimated that the pro- gram has saved $2.5 billion in cost avoid- ance. While the primary payoff has been in preventing fraudulent claim payments, the system has also benefited some farm- ers who would incorrectly have been de- nied claims. In one instance, two farmers were initially denied their claims for hail damage because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could not verify that a hail storm had occurred on the day in question. The Center for Agri- business Excellence, however, was able to locate recorded NEXRAD radar data in the data warehouse that indicated a very iso- lated, very heavy storm that produced the damage. The program also has served to demon- strate the effectiveness of data mining to insurance companies. Once insurers saw the results being generated by the pro- gram, "they wanted to direct their quality control programs through data mining as opposed to doing random sampling," Bry- ant said. "It is so much more effective, and everything is cost-benefit driven." "We have come light years since we started this process," said Michael Hand, RMA's deputy administrator for compli- ance. "Back in the beginning all we knew about remote-sensing tools was we'd see a pretty image every now and then of a farm. Now we are actually using the data from the satellites and incorporating them in our business processes." NEXT STEPS Officials at RMA and the Center for Agri- business Excellence expect more benefits as the available data improves. Bryant, in fact, sees the capabilities the team is developing being used for many other jobs in addition to preventing fraud- ulent crop claims. "In the future, we're looking to use this data to begin to do some proactive work in identifying problem ar- eas in the country with different crops," he said. And the quality of data is improving quickly. Little said his first priority is to integrate more of the Landsat 8 data. A single pixel of data from the older MODIS satellite covers roughly 11 to 13 acres, but a single pixel of data from Landsat covers a circle approximately 50 feet in diameter. With the higher resolution data, "We can do what we're doing much better -- and we can do more specific things," he said. He also expects that the day is not far off when the program will be able to dif- ferentiate among different types of crops. "Each crop has its own special signature of reflected light," and satellite-based sen- sors can pick up that data, he said. "What we're doing is bringing more and more empirical evidence into the crop in- surance program so that those naysayers who claim that it's rife with waste, fraud and abuse won't have a leg to stand on," Little said. •