Students' AI-powered farming tool tops world's largest tech-for-good challenge

8 December 2023
Business School team Phyto is IBM 2023 Call for Code university winner
An AI-powered tool to help farmers naturally rehabilitate contaminated soil has been declared the 2023 Call for Code Global Challenge University winner - taking home a $US50,000 ($A75,500) prize for the University of Sydney Business School students behind it.

Abhinav Govindan, Alicia Sutandar, James Li and Roy Zhao developed Phyto, which draws upon a complex dataset, including local soil conditions and weather patterns, to develop a tailored phytoremediation plan for farmers around the world.

Phytoremediation is the process by which certain plants can naturally remove soil contaminants, such as metals, pesticides and oils, creating more arable land for crops.

University of Sydney Business School Dean, Professor Leisa Sargeant congratulated the team, whose award was announced at a press conference during COP28 in Dubai this week.

“These highly innovative undergraduate students exemplify leadership for good. I have no doubt they will take what they have learned through this global challenge, and make a disproportionate positive difference in the world,” Professor Sargent said.

The team went from identifying the problem to creating the solution in 12 weeks, including coding the proof of concept in just three weeks using IBM Watson Studio and the IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite – despite only Ms Sutander having any prior coding experience.

“It didn’t happen overnight, but this shows through teamwork and passion, we have the skills and knowledge to tackle a real-world problem,” Mr Zhao said. 

“It’s exciting to win the university grand prize and be recognised at COP28, but we really hope Phyto will actually be used to make a difference.”

Dr Sandra Alday

Dr Sandra Alday

It’s not the first time the University of Sydney has performed well in the IBM Call for Code, with students competing since 2020 under the guidance of Dr Sandra Alday, Deputy Head of the Discipline of International Business. 

Business Buddy placed second overall in 2020, Honestly and Plenti were two of the top five in 2021, and the University of Sydney also received the 2021 Call for Code University Engagement Award. 

Dr Alday explained that she is passionate about the challenge as part of her commitment to transformational learning. 

“The university experience should change the way you view and understand the world, and how you live in it and make a difference – and the most transformational learning experiences happen outside the classroom,” Dr Alday said. 

Our students are so talented and capable of big things. It’s our responsibility as educators to develop those capabilities and give them opportunities to make the world a better place.
Dr Sandra Alday

“I always tell my students they don’t need to wait until they graduate, they can start making a difference right now.” 

The win also comes with a corresponding US$30,000 grant for the University of Sydney – read more about all the winners on the IBM website

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