Solving Crop Problems by Leveraging the Crowd

Published Oct-26-14

A crowdsourced website can help to lift people out of hunger by providing a free, global information resource about plants and plant diseases.

PlantVillage, United States

The Story:

Solving Crop Problems by Leveraging the Crowd Crowdsourced science projects that involve citizen scientists, academics and other knowledgeable experts have made significant contributions to numerous fields. They include astronomy, ecology and AIDS research. The democratization of science can accelerate research, help to solve longstanding scientific problems, save time and expand the field of people who can make scientific discoveries.


PlantVillage is an open-access site whereby anybody in the world with a connection to the internet can easily share and gain information about plants and plant diseases. Many of the users come from developing countries and they are able to dive into a free library of science-based information on more than 150 crops and 2,000 plant diseases. Every important crop is covered.

The crowdsourced resource was created by Marcel Salathé and David Hughes, two biologists at Penn State University. Marcel has an interest in developing tools for participatory media to solve big challenges in the world, such as those related to health, disease and food security. While David is fascinated by the task of feeding a planet of 9 billion people in the coming decades. The pair are also driven by a desire to prevent crop and food disasters that are caused by a lack of knowledge.

Free Access

The underlying premise of PlantVillage is that knowledge that can help people to grow food should be accessible to all for free. While there is already a lot of information out there, it is not always easy to call up or share. Every piece of content on the PlantVillage site is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, which means that it can be shared and adapted for free, even for commercial purposes (provided the results are made available under the same license).

"We want to democratize access to the world's knowledge on plants," Hughes said. "Historically, much of that information has been contained behind paywalls by commercial companies. We are translating and rewriting a lot of that knowledge in simple, understandable terms so it's practical, relevant and free for those who need it." In so doing, PlantVillage hopes to speed up the rate with which solutions are found for crop challenges.

Tricky Questions Answered

In addition to the vast and expanding archive of information, there is an active, user-moderated forum whereby users pose plant-related questions to the PlantVillage community. Answers are voted on to push the best content to the top. The site is as much for the private gardener in Manhattan or Manchester as it is for the farmer in India or Africa. However, there is an emphasis on helping people to grow food to prevent hunger and starvation.

A brief scan of the forum demonstrates the variety of subject matter being tackled. For example, there are questions related to growing strawberries in Kenya, basil leaves turning black and controlling blister beetles.

PlantVillage is supported by a grant from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and in the future the team behind the site hope to add such features as video chats and more content translated into several languages.

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