Big data bull: Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie

Monday, 11 November, 2013

There’s a nice living to be made by conflating Big Data with Big Brother and scaring the life out of ordinary internet users. The likes of Andrew Keen and Evgeny Morozov are typical of the scaring species. “Both end up writing bad books because any interesting arguments they might have in them are overwhelmed by their need to position themselves in the attention economy,” wrote Henry Farrell in The Tech Intellectuals.

Now that that’s been said, let’s turn to Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie, a Holstein bull born in the USA in 2004. After the United States Department of Agriculture examined the 50,000 markers on his genome, it declared him to be the best bull in the land, and his 346 daughters today confirm his excellence. But his superiority was presaged by the data. “When Freddie had no daughter-records our equations predicted from his DNA that he would be the best bull,” Paul VanRaden, a research geneticist with the US Department of Agriculture, told Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, who wrote “The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry.”

“Data-driven predictions are responsible for a massive transformation of America’s dairy cows. While other industries are just catching on to this whole ‘big data’ thing, the animal sciences — and dairy breeding in particular — have been using large amounts of data since long before VanRaden was calculating the outsized genetic impact of the most sought-after bulls with a pencil and paper in the 1980s,” writes Madrigal. Vegans and Big Data cynics inclined to condemn the dairy/data industry and its objectives should hold their fire because, as Madrigal points out, a lot of the statistical techniques and methodology developed by animal breeders connecting phenotype and genotype “could reach outside the medical realm to help us understand human’s evolution as well.” Prediction: Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie will be producing cream long after Evgeny Morozov has been cast into the milk churn of history.

Bull by Picasso

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