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UA Little Rock grad explores use of blockchain for state’s agricultural operations

Karen Watts DiCicco is graduating with a master's degree in information science. Her master's thesis researches how blockchain is used in Arkansas's agricultural operations.

Picking out the best fresh produce can be a difficult task for many shoppers looking for the best food for their families, but a University of Arkansas at Little Rock graduate student is researching ways to make the process much easier for shoppers and local food producers. 

Karen Watts DiCicco of Bryant will graduate Saturday, Dec. 14, with a master’s degree in information science. As part of her graduate work, she’s studying how local food producers can use blockchain technology to safely and securely store and share their data.

“Imagine going to the store or the farmers market and looking at two apples,” Watts DiCicco said. “One apple has a QR code you can scan with your smartphone to learn when it was picked, if it’s organic, if any pesticides were used, etc. Will you go with the apple that you can scan and know the origin of the produce or the apple that you know nothing about? Shoppers, especially those who shop local, want to know where their food comes from.”

For her master’s thesis, Watts DiCicco investigated how blockchain applications are used in agriculture. Originally developed for bitcoin, a blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked using cryptography. Blockchains are resistant to modification and are becoming an increasingly popular way to store, share, and protect data.

In the spring, Watts DiCicco will continue her education and research as a doctoral student in computer and information science at UA Little Rock. In addition to agricultural research, she’ll research strategies to fight disinformation campaigns online using blockchain technology with the Collaboratorium of Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS), where she works as a graduate assistant.

The research group is led by Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and distinguished professor in the Department of Information Science. The two will publish a book chapter in 2020 entitled, “Blockchain Technology-based Solutions to fight Misinformation: A Survey.”

Armed with the knowledge of what works and doesn’t work regarding agricultural-related blockchain programs, Watts DiCicco’s next step is to create a survey for consumers, farmers, restaurant owners, and farmers markets in the Little Rock area through her work at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. This will help her determine what information customers want to see when shopping for food and what information local food producers want to track. The project is being created with financial support from Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office.

“My goal is to create a pilot program using blockchain technology with 6 to 10 local food producers,” she said. “They will enter their agricultural information on a blockchain application that I create. Consumers will be able to know where their food comes from, and producers will receive data analytics from their data.”

Following her pilot study, Watts DiCicco will do a follow-up survey to see how her app can be improved and how it can be used by other agricultural vendors in the area. She also plans to conduct workshops and webinars that will educate the public on the benefits of using blockchain.

“A lot of people still think blockchain is only for bitcoin,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that Walmart and other large corporations already use blockchain. Using blockchain is about trust and authenticity. Blockchain will be a value for them.”

Watts DiCicco first joined UA Little Rock in 2009 as a freshman majoring in information science. As the mother of two sons with special needs, she found it difficult to go to school full time, work, and raise her sons. She left school in 2010, got her cosmetology license, and opened Artistik Salon, which catered to children and adults with special needs.

Karen Watts (left) and Michael DiCicco (right)
Karen Watts DiCicco(left) and Michael DiCicco (right)

“I had people travel from all over the state because they couldn’t go anywhere else to have their children’s haircut,” Watts said. “A lot of the children have sensory issues, so it could easily be too loud or crowded, so I catered to each child that came in. It was really hard to close in 2017, but I really wanted to finish my degree. It was a really hard decision since I helped a lot of kids.” 

After returning to UA Little Rock in 2016, Watts DiCicco graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in information science and a graduate certificate in data science in 2018. In January, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture hired her as the division’s first digital and IT innovation manager. She explores new and emerging technologies and how they can be implemented with Division of Agriculture applications.

While an undergraduate 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. In August, she married her UA Little Rock hackathon partner, Michael DiCicco. The family lives in Bryant.