CRC boss says Ask Bill predictive tool was a sheep highlight

Big data project with ordinary resources a highlight of professor's CRC career


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Delivering useful products to wool producers has been a hallmark of the now dissolved Sheep Co-operative Research Centre. Just Ask Bill!

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This cold snap risk warning offered by predictive program Ask Bill is just one of its many amazing features. the program's development proved to be a highlight for the retiring Sheep Co-operative Research Centre.

This cold snap risk warning offered by predictive program Ask Bill is just one of its many amazing features. the program's development proved to be a highlight for the retiring Sheep Co-operative Research Centre.

The retiring head of Sheep CRC, Professor James Rowe, says the highlight of his 19 year career with the levy-funded collaboration was the development of a pocket-rocket agronomy application called Ask Bill.

The unassuming name, referencing the foundation dean of rural science at the University of New England, Dr Bill McClymont, himself a fan of system-based agriculture, belies its power of analysis in predicting weather, fly-strike, heat stress and much more, depending on the skill of the user.

"Managing things like flies without mulesing is complicated," Prof Rowe said. "You have to understand soil moisture and pasture growth, worm growth. While we understand these individual aspects quite well this program is about putting it all together."

Central to its platform is the ability to link Ask Bill with genomic information, growth rates, climate and pasture conditions to predict a future turn off of fat lambs, for instance. By sharing that information with processors savvy producers will find themselves worth a premium, as this technology gains traction.

To predict local weather Ask Bill takes data from surrounding Bureau-operated weather stations and interpolates the prediction in a process known as "down-scaling" to provide forecasts on a 5km by 5km grid to 275,000 grid points, each of which have 32 years worth of stored weather data.

"It's powerful stuff," Prof Rowe said.

"We couldn't have done this five years ago. Today we have greater computer speed and the cost of storing data in the cloud has come down exponentially."

Sally Rowe and her husband, Professor James Rowe, retiring head of the Sheep CRC at Armidale, seen during last week's Australian Superfine Woolgrowers Association annual awards dinner.

Sally Rowe and her husband, Professor James Rowe, retiring head of the Sheep CRC at Armidale, seen during last week's Australian Superfine Woolgrowers Association annual awards dinner.

Prof Rowe said the real challenge for programmers was to get an answer from Bill "within the attention span of the user."

In the early days so much data was coming down the "pipe" - 1.4 billion records every day with models run 30 times before settling on an outcome - that the effort required to resolve an issue inevitably created such a blockage new data would jump the queue and worm its way into old predictions.

Working closely with another collaborative research centre focusing on big data, the team behind Ask Bill were able to find the right people for the job.

Prof Rowe said people involved with similar US-based project were gobsmacked that Australia could create such a complex tool with limited resources.

Ask Bill is never going to be 100 per cent accurate and architects like Lewis Kahn and Johan Boshoff said users needed to think in terms of 25th to 75th percentiles.

With those parameters in mind Mr Boshoff told wool producers this year Ask Bill predicted the drought as it currently stands - although not to the full intensity.

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