Karen Watts has been hired as the new digital and innovation manager for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Her job will be to bring modern technology and farming together.
“I love learning about emerging technologies and I get to learn the newest technologies every day,” she said. “This job is like a hackathon. I look to see what works, develop a proof of concept and prototype the new technology for us. It’s going to put us ahead in innovation … Artificial Intelligence isn’t the future. It’s the present.”
Watts has been working for the Division at the Cooperative Extension Service Information Technology unit for about 18 months. In her new position, she’ll be “looking at new and emerging technologies and how they can be implemented in the Division of Agriculture with existing and new applications,” she said.
Sam Boyster, chief operating officer for the Cooperative Extension Service, said he was looking forward to seeing how Watts will integrate emerging technologies into the division’s daily mission.
“We hear a lot about blockchain, AI, and machine learning,” Boyster said. “This position will allow us to stay abreast of these innovations and their application across agriculture, as well as our other supported program areas. The goal is to see how we can leverage these technologies to the advantage of Arkansas producers and help us educate our agents and clientele in these areas.”
The Division of Agriculture conducts research through its Agricultural Experiment Station and transfers discoveries to the public through the Cooperative Extension Service. At a recent conference, Watts saw researchers using AI in rice genome work.
“No other extension office has this position. We are setting a trend,” Watts said. “I wanted to help agents and producers and make a difference in their lives.”
Watts presented a litany of potential avenues to put ag and tech together, including blockchain, advanced climate software using machine learning to do predictive analysis; nano trackers and sensors; chatbots and other virtual assistants; data mining and data visualization; and the new possibilities offered by 5G mobile platforms.
She will also continue her work in application development, including e-commerce and business intelligence and “educating in the use of the new technologies and also pursuing and obtaining grants,” Watts said. “I wear many hats.”
Among her roles is that of student. After completing her Masters of Science in Information Science in the fall of 2019, she will pursue her PhD in Computer and Information Science.
While an undergraduate in information sciences at UA-Little Rock, Watts traveled the country competing in hackathons – events in which coders compete or collaborate to create usable software within a limited time – is another concept she’s bringing to the Division of Agriculture. She helped develop RockCity Hacks, the first hackathon designed for grades 9-12. All the case uses will be ag-based.