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How we’re building a community of AI enthusiasts in Defra

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Defra digital, Digital transformation

Blue letters on a black and blue surface that say ‘AI’.

David Lau and Ethan Summers share some insights into their work to develop an AI (Artificial Intelligence) Community of Interest for colleagues in Defra who are interested in building, and sharing, their knowledge of this rapidly expanding technology.

We very recently launched our AI Community of Interest here in Defra, a group created primarily for sharing AI developments with community members who come together from across the Defra group of organisations. Areas of focus include showcasing proof of concepts, discussing potential use cases, assessing lessons learned, and sharing current news. The group has been developed with guidance and support from our Defra Technology Innovation Team

AI is a topic of huge interest to us here in Defra, as Lead Horizon Scanner Jan Murdoch reflected on in his own blog earlier this year in which he set out why AI is our top emerging technology today. Indeed, AI in general has become something of a hot topic over the past year, garnering significant attention across government, industry, research and beyond. It’s the biggest show in town, as we saw just last week when the Prime Minister hosted a live interview with Elon Musk on the subject of AI, as part of the Bletchley Park summit.

Not so much a ‘Eureka’ moment, more a growing understanding

In Defra we’ve increasingly begun to realise in recent months that we all needed a place where we could come together to share, given the huge importance of AI, the pace it’s developing at, and the massive impact it can (and will) have across Defra. And it’s likely that it will indeed, over time, impact pretty much everyone in our organisations.

As an example, this recent news story about the technology now being used to provide an intelligent assistant for people working in the Microsoft 365 applications has generated a lot of discussion. It’s well worth a read, not least because of how it shows the speed which AI is moving, while reinforcing the potential opportunities and the impact on people.

From our own experiences and discussions with many Defra colleagues over the last few months, there are loads of great things being explored already, so our new community represents a massive sharing opportunity.

Our community is open to everyone, whether they’re in a technical or non-technical role. Our first showcase took place this week and explored how Generative AI (GenAI) can help improve customer journeys. We have more of these sessions planned in the months ahead and our intention is to share what we discuss, learn, and act upon, in further blogs, so do watch this space.

How AI is working for real

Personally, we find it fascinating how AI is being used in so many things relevant to Defra already. In the food and agricultural sector, for example, researchers have developed a system that uses drones and artificial intelligence to monitor crops and predict the optimal time to harvest them, which can increase farmers’ income and reduce waste.

The system captures and analyses image data of individual plants and feeds it to a deep learning model that produces visual data for farmers to understand their crops’ growth characteristics. The system overcomes the challenges of image variation due to wind, light, and seasons, and demonstrates a low-cost and automated solution for improving crop yields.

Chatbots and Digital Assistants are another area we are especially interested in. The terms are interchangeably used to refer to conversational computer programmes that can interact with humans. We’ve been looking at high-level examples of potential use cases of these across Defra, the various levels they might be used, and the advantages and disadvantages. We believe these are just one example of how AI can help us to drive business improvements and efficiencies in Defra.

We really hope our AI Community develops into a vibrant and supportive environment, one which is thought-provoking, that enables all manner of AI-related discussions, and which fosters collaboration. Active participation is highly encouraged, though we’re always mindful to ensure all of uso respect each other's thoughts and contributions.

David Lau is a Technology Innovation Consultant in Defra’s Technology Innovation team, and Ethan Summers is a programme manager in the Farming and Countryside Programme.

Are you using AI in your organisation? Why not leave us a comment here to share with us what you’re doing in this space, or drop us an email, and tell us about your own experiences with AI, or share any ideas you have for how we might use AI in Defra. We’d love to hear from you.

Why not join the conversation by following our LinkedIn page to get all the latest blog posts and job openings.

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  1. Comment by David Alexander posted on

    Using AI to map the habitats and land cover of Protected Landscapes UK in very high-resolution

  2. Comment by Terry Jackson posted on

    Great move! To encourage more joined-up thinking and collaborative action in the new cognitive revolution across a shrinking world threatened in particular by global warming, I recommend you read Reid Hoffman's latest podcast at and circulate the link it to Defra subscribers.

    For our part we're working on a prospectus for to accelerate the growth of the caring economy as part of a wetlands social science park programme embracing the Fen-Edge Villages of Cambridgeshire and the 264 Civil Parish articles for Cambridgeshire published on Wikipedia.

    A key thrust is using AI to arrest the paradoxical growth of digitally excluded populations as technology advances.

  3. Comment by Neil Michael Gribbin posted on

    Excellent work. AI truly can be a force multiplier for farmers, however will there be subsidies available, to allow the take-up of this technology?
    With the issue of hiring well trained crop pickers, can this technology be used to mitigate this issue?