Watts lands new position as first digital and innovation manager at University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture

Karen Watts. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock graduate student will pair innovative ideas with the latest technology in her new role as the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s first digital and innovation manager. 

Karen Watts, a graduate student in information science, was hired for the full-time position after interning with the Information Technology unit for the past 18 months.

“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 graduated from UA Little Rock with a Bachelor of Science degree in information science as well as a graduate certificate in data science in December 2018. In her new role, she will look at new and emerging technologies and how they can be implemented with Division of Agriculture applications.

“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.”

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 (artificial intelligence), 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.

“Artificial intelligence isn’t the future,” she said. “It’s the present.”

Watts presented a litany of potential avenues to put agriculture and technology 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.”

After completing her master’s degree in December, Watts plans to pursue a Ph.D. in computer and information science at UA Little Rock, where she will 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 research assistant. The research group is led by Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and distinguished professor in the Department of Information Science.

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. This is another concept she’s bringing to the Division of Agriculture. She helped develop RockCity Hacks, the first hackathon designed for grades 9-12, where all the case uses will be ag-based.

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