Grow your own - garden

Grow your own

13 November 2012

Not everybody has green fingers. But a new science-based app, supported by the Met Office, aims to make growing your own fruit and vegetables much easier.

The new project is called Growers' Nation. It's the brainchild of Met Office Radar Products Scientist, Selena Georgiou, who started it with a team of fellow scientists, app developers, gardeners and a forestry school teacher during the NASA Space Apps Challenge earlier this year. This international competition challenged people to address societal issues of global importance - as well as those to do with space - during the course of one weekend.

"An increasing number of people in the UK are showing an interest in growing their own produce, but some may be put off because they are new to it."

The Met Office led the European effort and hosted one of the UK events. It was a great opportunity to use scientific weather and climate data in new and innovative ways. At the start of the weekend, NASA invited team leaders to pitch their ideas. Selena put forward a concept based around helping people make better use of the space in their gardens, school grounds or local areas for growing their own produce.

The idea was accepted and the Grower's Nation team was born. The original idea grew and it soon became clear that the benefits of an easy-to-use and informative application could be very wide ranging.

"An increasing number of people in the UK are showing an interest in growing their own produce, but some may be put off because they are new to it - and find the idea of getting started too complicated," says Selena.

To help get people growing, the team developed a global map application that incorporates climate, soil and weather data. It gives people information about the best time to sow, plant and harvest in their location - some of the main aspects that will encourage people to get started. The app is a real confidence-builder for people who have the passion, the energy and the time to grow produce - but had previously lacked the knowledge.

"With increasing food prices, it makes total sense to make the best use of local available land. And we also think that if people can effectively grow produce locally and sustainably, then it could have a positive impact on the number of food air miles too," says Selena.

Turning a dream into reality

The project went on to win the NASA Space Apps Challenge's 'Galactic Impact' prize at the international finals. And since then the enthusiastic team has continued work on the project, with support and funding from the Met Office.

"We're really happy that the Met Office will be supporting the project for six months. This means we can really get it off the ground and build a more robust app that we hope will be ready in March - just in time for the growing season," says Selena.

In addition to developing the app, the team is working towards creating related educational resources that will fit in with schools looking to start or maintain growing plot projects. As Selena explains, "The app will be a great free resource for a range of different people, from those starting out in their back garden, to a primary school class who want to develop their own growing plot."

Going beyond UK shores

Eventually the team plans to expand its reach to farmers in developing countries, where access to comprehensive, science-based advice is hard to find. Unfortunately, in these areas access to smartphones is scarce too. So the team is exploring other ways to disseminate this information, such as SMS messaging and printed weekly digests.

As Selena reflects, "It's been an exciting journey so far - but we're still just at the beginning. Long-term, however, we're hoping to make a real difference both in the UK, and in other regions of the world."

More winning designs

International Space Apps Challenge

The NASA Space Apps Challenge was a meeting of great minds - and even greater ideas. Idea Street, a platform that gives staff the opportunity to drive innovation, represented the UK public sector.

Here are just a few of the other fantastic challenges created at the Met Office HQ:

 - Hazard Map - Met Office Weather Impact Research Scientist, Jo Robbins and Emma Bee, a Geographical Information Specialist who is on placement at the Met Office from the British Geological Survey, created a real-time hazard mapping app, which harvests information from existing social media and public data.

 - We Love Data - A team based at the University of Dundee developed a device to warn hay fever and asthma sufferers when the next day's pollen count was expected to be high.

 - Predict the Sky - Met Office Applications support and development specialist, Emma Hibling, created an app to calculate when cloud conditions were just right, so you can watch astronomical phenomena, such as meteor showers.

We Love Data also won at the regional Met Office event. In addition to Growers' Nation, the judges also agreed to sponsor and take forward two other challenges - Hazard Map has now linked up with ShelterBox, an international disaster relief charity, and Predict the Sky with Mubaloo, a mobile app development company.

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