S4 Agtech picks Google Cloud to transform agricultural risk management

Editor’s note: Today we’re hearing from S4 Agtech, a risk management solutions company for agriculture that is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina; São Paulo, Brazil; and St. Louis, Missouri. S4 integrates multiple sources of agricultural data with its machine learning and other algorithms to determine agronomic and financial risk for farmers, seed developers, insurance and financial companies, traders and governments. With those tools, customers can make the best decisions for planting and planning, and transfer away climate risk to the financial markets. Read on for details on how the company is using Google Cloud Platform (GCP) to bring real-time data insights to users.

Like countless other industries, farming is going digital and undergoing big changes—driven by access to more actionable information. The agriculture business can now gather and analyze georeferenced data from satellites, combined with data from IoT sensors in fields, crop rotation and yield histories, weather patterns, seed genotypes and soil composition to help increase the quantity and quality of crops. This is essential for businesses in the agriculture industry, but it’s also critical to address growing food shortages around the world. 

At S4, we create technology to de-risk crop production. We provide customers seeking agricultural risk management solutions with the tools to make better, data-driven decisions for their crop planning, based on machine learning and proprietary algorithms. We interpret plant evolution on a global scale with predictive modeling and analytics, and offer super-efficient risk-transferring solutions. Our multi-cloud platform includes a petabyte-scale database, an open source stack, and—after 50 proof-of-concept evaluations—BigQuery for our data warehouse and the Cloud SQL database service to handle OLTP queries to our PostgreSQL database. These PoCs included, among others, Microsoft Azure Data Lake Analytics, IBM Netezza, Postgres/PostGIS running on IBM bare-metal servers with SATA SSDs and on Google’s Compute Engine with NVMe disks, and on-premises memSQL, CitusData and Yandex ClickHouse. 

Weeding out risk in an uncertain market
According to recent research, climate extreme events like drought, heat waves, and heavy precipitation are responsible for 18-43% of global variation in crop yields for maize, spring wheat, rice, and soybeans. This is a clear trend for other crops as well. Such variation poses risks of food shortages as well as large financial risks to farmers, insurers, and regions dependent on successful crop yields. Also, it creates vast humanitarian difficulties.

Our mission at S4 is to help de-risk crop production by matching the right data with analytics tools so farmers and other participants in the agricultural value chain can plan better, resulting in more reliable food supplies. In a nutshell, we create indices out of biological assets. These indices measure yield losses on crops that are caused by the effects of weather and other factors, which are then used as underlying assets for products, such as swap/derivative contracts and parametric insurance policies, to transfer risk to the financial markets. We enable insurers and lenders to buy and sell agricultural risks through the futures market. Also, our other products help farmers and seed and fertilizer companies provide customized genotype recommendations and fertilization requirements. This helps to optimize planting by geography, resources, and crop species, monitor phenological, pests and humidity evolution throughout the crop season, and estimate yields.

Local communities benefit from S4’s technology, as the ability to manage weather risks allows farmers to stabilize their cash flows, invest more to produce more with fewer risks, and develop in a more sustainable manner.

Growing data sources, reducing costs, accelerating performance
With the volume of diverse data sources and analytical complexity both growing at a very fast pace, we decided that using a major cloud services provider with a broad roadmap and global partnerships would be beneficial to S4’s future evolution. At the same time, we wanted to bring our services to users faster and cut costs by consolidating our on-premises technology stack. When we started evaluating providers, our leading criteria included a powerful geospatial database and data analytics tools along with excellent support, all at a competitive price. GCP prevailed in nearly all criteria categories among the 50 companies we measured. 

Our previous platform architecture included a hybrid relational database that used Compute Engine for virtual machines and Cloud Storage for database backup. The RDBMS was slow. Maintaining our own data warehouse was complex and expensive. We wanted to use machine learning and neural networks, but couldn’t do so easily and affordably. The complexity of that system meant that products or services requiring small changes or additions to the data model translated to expensive expansions of infrastructure or project time. Also, agronomical or product teams couldn’t test these changes by themselves, always requiring the intervention on no small part of the IT team, which led to further delays.

We added GCP services like BigQuery as S4’s cloud data warehouse and use BigQuery GIS for geospatial analysis, Cloud Dataflow for simplified stream and batch data processing, and Cloud SQL for queries to the S4 database platform, which have all made a huge impact on our services and bottom line. Database and analytics costs have decreased by 40% and customers are receiving our analytical results 25% faster. In addition, we’ve eliminated the time-consuming downloading of images, reducing storage and processing costs by 80%, because we no longer need expensive tools licenses, and have greatly reduced classification processing times.

Our customers working in the agriculture industry are also benefiting from this infrastructure change. They are now able to speed up their data analytics using our GCP-based platform.

“S4 products and technologies unlock the full potential of satellite imagery for crop prescriptions, monitoring and yield estimates,” says Nicolás Loria, Manager of Marketing Services, Southern Cone, Corteva Agriscience. “We’ve worked with S4 for the last three (and starting year number four) crop seasons as its team capabilities, data integration capacities, and analytics insights have allowed Corteva to perform an entire new solution. Thanks to S4’s customized 360° approach, fast response and delivery times, we have safely outsourced our remote crop analytic technical needs.”

This image is one example of the detailed data we’re able to provide to our customers, so they can better map crop land and plan as efficiently as possible. The image on the left shows automatic crop classification methods, while the image on the right shows manual methods with operator-assisted supervision. The results we get from these automated classifications using Google Earth Engine and BigQuery GIS are much faster and less expensive to produce.. They correlate strongly to what actually happens in the field.

Crop classification using satellite data.png
Crop classification using satellite data. Yellow=soy; light green=fallow; dark green=corn; red=pastures; orange=non-cultivable areas.

Also, this new architecture has allowed us to scale our models and databases with almost no limits, at a fraction of the cost vs. the previous models. We’ve saved a lot of time on executing processes and reduced work needed by our internal teams to do certain tasks, like preparing images, converting them, validating results, and more. Using Google Earth Engine has decreased the execution time of daily tasks anywhere from 50% to 90% of the previous time, going from an average time of 30 minutes to between four and 15 minutes, depending on the task.

In addition to saving money and time, we are able to focus on innovation with the GCP performance and features we’re using. We’re able to seamlessly add satellite data to analytics using both public datasets and our own private data, and deliver GIS data management, analytics, crop classification and monitoring in real time. We can do semi-automatic crop classification and classification using spectral signatures with Google Earth Engine. Later this year, we’ll be using neural networks for pattern recognition and machine learning in new applications to improve crop yields and fine-tune risk models. And using GCP and Google Earth Engine infrastructure means we can run models for customers in South America and around the world, since Google Earth Engine has global satellite imagery available. 

We’ve heard from our customer Indigo Argentina that they’re able to bring customers data insights faster. “We are working with S4 in the development of two different applications for satellite crop monitoring and yield assessment,” says Carlos Becco, CEO, Indigo Argentina. “S4’s technology allowed us to manage and analyze multiple sources and layers of information in real time, letting us uncover valuable insights in Indigo’s own microbiome technologies, and at a very competitive cost.” 

Analytical products and app development thrive with GCP
With GCP, we are updating and improving algorithms that we built manually with machine learning processes to develop drought indices for upcoming crop seasons. Algorithms can recognize specific phases of crop phenology (e.g., bud burst, flowering, fruiting, leaf fall) and correlate them with photosynthetic activity, light, water, temperature, radiation, and plant genetics factors. Other analytical products like crop monitoring, pre-planting recommendations, financial scoring, and yield estimation can now do a lot more for users by offering multiple layers and datasets, faster image processing, and real-time access via APIs.

We also replaced our bare-metal S4 app deployment with the App Engine serverless application platform. It provides tighter integration between the S4 platform and our BigQuery data warehouse for integration with marketplaces and third-party solutions. We get all of these Google Cloud features with all the benefits of managed cloud services, from multiversioning and security to automatic backups and high availability.

At S4, we trust technology to decode plant growth and help protect farmers and their communities from climate change. With growing food shortages due to increasing populations and intensifying weather, data and analytics can have a huge impact in lowering financial risks and improving agricultural yields. It’s one sector where cloud, database, analytics, and other technologies are combining to improve business outcomes and affect the lives of billions of people. Learn more about S4’s work and learn more about data analytics on Google Cloud.