With the year winding up, we thought we’d look back on the stories that struck a chord – or a nerve – in 2014. It was a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the implausible.
The sublime was definitely the Rosetta mission and Philae’s (not quite) perfect landing on the surface of the (not quite) evocatively-named comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Thanks to the wonders of modern communication, never before in the field of exploration have so many people so fervently urged a fridge-sized box on legs half a billion kilometres away to succeed against the odds.
We played a back-up role in the landing. Using the DSS34 antenna, NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex (managed by CSIRO at the Tidbinbilla site) provided ongoing back-up communication coverage between Rosetta/Philae and the anxious science team at ESA’s mission control centre in Germany.
It’s a lot more down to earth, and of more practical use at the moment, but some news about renewable energy was just as exciting. If there was one good thing about the alarmingly warm autumn eastern Australia had in 2014, it was this: a team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle used the sunlight flooding their solar fields to produce ‘supercritical’ steam, at the highest temperature and pressure levels ever recorded using solar power.
That sounds impressive when you just say it, but to realise how impressive it is, you need to know that supercritical steam is the ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines. This is the solar energy equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. Solar thermal power plants have traditionally only operated at ‘subcritical’ levels – the heavy lifting was left to fossil fuels. But now we’ve demonstrated that the power plants of the future could feasibly use the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price. The technology’s not ready for commercialisation yet, but the breakthrough has attracted a lot of interest.
There are other kinds of stories that always attract a lot of interest, and food safety – as we’re discovering yet again with the current raw milk controversy – is one of them. Fortunately, there was a pretty positive reaction to our story on whether it’s safe to cut the mould off food. Unlike supercritical steam, the comments generated more light than heat, which is always both gratifying and a relief. We came down firmly on the side of a conservative approach (and that’s not conservative of the food, more of the health). And in response to the comments, we published a clarification about spoilage in other kinds of food – the beauty of a blog is that you can incorporate the feedback from your readers. We love intelligent, constructive comments. So a big thanks to those who made them.
We got a lot of interest, too, for a story about 3D-printed mouthpieces for people with sleep apnoea. Sadly, a lot of this interest seemed to be tinged with a note of desperation. While we were delighted to be able to tell a story that gave hope to so many stressed snorers and their loved ones, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable to have to let people know they couldn’t be part of trials for the mouthpieces. On the up-side, however, Oventus, the company making the mouthguards, tells us that they’re steadily getting closer to being commercially available. Since we’ve had interest from several countries, we think they might have a hit on their hands. We just hope they’re able to help the man who told us his snoring is so bad that the cat left home. The cat would probably be grateful too. We suggested a cat hammock in the meantime.
And just to continue on the camping theme, we got a lot of love for a story about backpacks. Bees with backpacks. This is just a terrific bit of research. We’ve put tiny 2.5mm sq RFID chips on the backs of 5000 bees. Now, this sounds a bit weird, but there’s an excellent reason for it. Collecting bee movement information at this scale will allow researchers to generate a four-dimensional model (three dimensions plus time) of bee behaviour and the way they move through the landscape. This is vital information: wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing altogether. In some cases this is because of the parasitic Varroa mite. In others it’s Colony Collapse Disorder, believed to be caused by diseases and agricultural pesticides.
Everybody seems to love stories about 3D printing (and who can blame them?). We had a couple of rippers this year. First, there was the 3D-printed bike. More specifically, the bike with 3D-printed titanium parts, specifically engineered to provide ‘infinite flexibility’ and give a far superior riding experience, along with quite a bit of bike envy. It also looks seriously good, and its proud owner/designer seems to be very pleased with it. We don’t know if the man at the centre of our other big 3D printing success this year (there’s one other, but we’ll come to that later) is a bike rider, but thanks to some brilliant work by our titanium printing team, he has the option. He had cancer in his heel bone, and the standard treatment for that is to amputate the leg below the knee. Fortunately, his surgeon had seen a story we did last year, about 3D-printed shoes for horses, and wondered if it was possible to print a new heel bone to replace the cancerous one. It was. One of the strengths of 3D printing is its ability to produce complex structures quickly: within two weeks of his surgeon making the call, the new heel bone was in place. We can now reveal that we sat on that story for months, busting to tell everyone, but couldn’t until after the three-month check-up showed everything was working well. We were very relieved – but not nearly as relieved as the recipient.
Not all health problems have as quick a fix as supplying a new part. It would be good if they did, but sometimes treatment is a long haul. Overweight and obesity fits into that category, but our new Impromy™ diet program helps to make the long haul as pleasant as it can be. Our talented team worked with Probiotec Ltd to develop a holistic program that includes meal replacements. This is a big help for people with busy lifestyles: often a reason that cooking and meal preparation fall down the priority list. It’s a research-based program that builds on our Total Wellbeing Diet research and leverages it to use with smart phone technology in a community pharmacy setting.
But we’d be very grateful if you disposed of the wrappers from the meal replacements carefully. Sometimes the big science stories aren’t good news, and this one certainly wasn’t. We went looking for rubbish, and what we found was sobering. In a survey of the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists, we found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About 75 per cent of it is plastic, and, in a pretty grim indictment of our throwaway culture, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to over 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in our coastal waters. Worse, we can extrapolate from this to predict that by 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut.
If it’s bad news you want, though, our biannual State of the Climate report is – sadly – hard to beat. It’s getting warmer. Seven of the ten warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 1998. When we compare the past 15 years with the period between 1951 and 1980, we find that very warm months are five times as frequent. The frequency of very cool months, conversely, has dropped by about a third. Extreme fire weather risk has increased, and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s. Autumn and winter rainfall is declining, particularly in south-western and south-eastern Australia. Heavy rainfall events with the potential for flooding are projected to increase. Australian average annual rainfall has increased slightly, largely from increases in spring and summer rainfall. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offset the autumn and winter declines in southern parts of Australia: it’s mainly concentrated in north-western Australia.
We don’t want to end on such a depressing note though, so … DRAGONS! This is the implausible bit, and it was absolutely, positively our biggest hit of the year. You might remember it. Seven-year-old Sophie wrote to us, asking if we could make her one. So we, er, did. Not a flying, screeching, fire-breathing one (we haven’t got the lab space), but a 3D-printed (there it is again) titanium (there’s that again too) one. This story captured the imagination of many people (140 000 page views worth), and might even have inspired Sophie, or another child, to become a scientist. We loved the comments we got on this story nearly as much as everyone seemed to love Sophie’s original letter. The erudite discussion on the history and physiology of dragons was a delight. Thank you to all the readers and dreamers who contributed.
Now, how would we go using dragons to generate supercritical steam? Just a thought…
Imagine you’re back at school, and one day the teacher has something for show and tell. Someone, actually. A real live scientist, or mathematician, or ICT specialist. And not just the once.
It’s been happening regularly in Australian schools since 2007. All levels of schools, from kindy to Year 12. In the only program in the world of its size and scope, Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) puts practicing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professionals into school classrooms. We also do the same thing with ICT professionals.
The program was a response to the decline in the numbers of students electing to study STEM subjects. It seemed that a promising strategy for arresting this would be to find a way for students to see the relevance of their science courses, and see that people working in science aren’t the caricature nerds represented in the media. But how to get them into the classroom? One way was to combine two kinds of outreach, and get involved with teachers’ professional development.
So we started a program to mentor teachers – and by doing so, provide students with a positive image of people working in the STEM sector. Seven years later, there have been more than 4000 partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals in schools. At the moment there are more than 1600 active partnerships.
It’s not just CSIRO scientists who are involved. Scientists in Schools volunteers can be research scientists and engineers, science and engineering postgrads, and applied science professionals like doctors, vets, and park rangers. Mathematicians in Schools wants to hear from anyone who did a degree with a maths focus and works in a job that uses maths: economists, accountants, surveyors and mathematical scientists, among others. If you’re an ICT professional working in research; a postgraduate ICT student or you’re involved in ICT in industry, like programmers, ICT security specialists, and systems analysts, you’re suitable for ICT in Schools.
When teachers ask for a mentor to be paired with them, we select appropriate matches very carefully. We’re a bit like the Blood Bank: we have to find suitable partners for the procedure to be a success. And we don’t think any of our volunteers are the equivalent of Type O.
Teachers might be looking for someone with expertise in a particular topic. We also have to consider time constraints – some volunteers might only be available at particular times, and there are logistical considerations such as transport availability to take into account as well.
But this doesn’t mean that areas that aren’t readily accessible miss out. We can arrange long-distance partnerships too – Skype, email and block visits are our friends here. Some of the partnerships can be surprising – at present we have a scientist from the Australian Antarctic Division paired with a teacher in Townsville, based on common expertise and interests. And we cherish the pictures from a previous partnership between a teacher in a Northern Territory school and another Australian Antarctic Division scientist. When she visited the school, she took her polar suit with her, and the photos of her all rugged up in the NT heat just to show the kids are incongruous and charming.
It’s not all feel-good and cute pictures though. It provides a valuable resource for teachers, and gives them far greater confidence in their teaching. It enables the volunteer scientists to brush up on their communication skills – something which is ever more important in science careers. As one of our volunteer scientists from Tasmania says, ‘There is no room for jargon and big words when you talk to kids. I think it helps me understand better what I’m saying when I have to explain it in words an 8-year old can follow’. And our volunteers also say it re-enthuses them about their science – the kids’ enthusiasm reignites their own.
The students also get to practice some real science, and learn about experimental design, as this story shows. And yes, that’s a professor from the University of NSW mentoring a Year 7 teacher. An ACT school gets a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. CSIRO CEO Megan Clark was also a volunteer.
We see this combination of results as a win-win-win. And the three evaluations the program has had so far agreed with us. More importantly, so did parents, teachers and students. A parent from NSW says, ‘It’s fantastic that individuals are willing to offer their time to help facilitate the learning of our children. Please pass on a big thank you for being an inspiration for my son’.
While a teacher from SA tells us that ‘Our mathematician really is terrific in the way he volunteers his time to work with the kids. They love his knowledge, teaching skills and mathematical challenges’.
But this one … This comment, from a student in the NT, brings it all home: ‘The opportunity that we had to work with you was one of the greatest ones in my life. You made science fun for us and getting us involved in the science was a great experience’.
We think this is a pretty special program.
How many times have you been looking for information online, only to find yourself going round and round in circles? Or you’ve spent too long poking around a website trying to find what you need, only to realise you’ve been looking in the wrong place all along?
Whether it is doing your banking, looking up details of a flight or checking out some government services – if a website doesn’t work the way we want it to, it can be very frustrating experience.
It might seem like a first-world problem but the reality is our expectations around service delivery are changing. More than three quarters of Australians prefer to access services electronically and we expect those services to be faster, adaptable and available whenever and wherever we desire.
This is why, more than ever before, service providers need to understand how people use their digital channels and make sure that their design is efficient, user-friendly and fit for the purpose.
Creating digital communities
It’s not only businesses that need to have a savvy online presence. Digital service delivery is increasingly relevant for the public sector. The Australian Public Service ICT strategy 2012 – 2015, states that digital technologies will be used to enable the delivery of better government services for the Australian people, communities and business.
Take the Australian Government’s Department of Human Services, which interacts with millions of Australians through services such as Medicare and Centrelink.
When managing payments worth more than a third of the federal government’s overall budget, small improvements to individual transactions can have a huge benefit. Customers being able to use self-service and online tools for some of their needs frees up valuable resources for cases where human interaction can make the most difference.
For the past five years CSIRO worked with the Department – under the Human Services Delivery Research Alliance which concluded in September – to develop a number of tools that are helping to transform service delivery for the digital era.
Connecting on social media
The Department is using our social media monitoring system, called Vizie, to support their social media management.
Vizie tracks, integrates and visualises information from a range of social media channels including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, into a single, theme-based dashboard.
Vizie can then help the department identify, from social media and in real time, when customers are experiencing problems using online and mobile services. This knowledge provides valuable feedback and supports quicker system responses.
As well as providing immediate insight into the major topics of the day, Vizie can also save organisations a lot of time that would otherwise be spent sifting through huge volumes of social media chatter.
More intuitive website experiences
The department is also using LATTE, a software platform that analyses the patterns in how people interact with websites.
It compares the sequence and duration of page visits to patterns that denote happy customers or user frustration through an inability to find the information they are looking for.
These patterns detect not only when, but where and why people encounter trouble with finding information, as well as the context of the session. It reveals insights into the organisation of pages and links, and the impact of word choice in search terms.
For example, LATTE might identify a pattern where users load four or five pages in succession before “abandoning ship” and jumping to a Google search instead. This indicates that they were not able to find what they were looking for within the website itself, either because it is hidden away or simply doesn’t exist.
The software can also identify problems with language usage, which can play a huge part in a website’s usability. This can often be the case when an organisation’s internal terminology or jargon doesn’t match up with everyday usage.
Internal search engines can also be a source of frustration if they don’t work effectively. LATTE can be used to identify patterns of user behaviour that show where searches are failing.
For example, users might conduct several searches, one after the other, still unable to find what they need. Or it might show that users have followed a link to a search result, only to then go round and round in circles.
LATTE identifies these mismatches between a user’s expectations of a website and the website itself – whether it be language, structure, the location of content or expected search terms.
By arming organisations with this information, they can make adjustments to the content, metadata and layout of their sites, in order to create a more user friendly and satisfying experience.
Protecting privacy and boosting productivity
While all this is happening behind the scenes, a user’s privacy is being protected. The software distills this data from standard log files captured on any web server, meaning there is no intrusive monitoring.
It’s the volume of data, not the identity of the user that’s important. LATTE reports data from aggregates of hundreds or thousands of visitors and identifies trends and patterns in behaviour that can inform decision making.
As the public sector seeks further efficiency dividends and people expect more from their digital services, government agencies are becoming more agile and responsive to change than ever before.
UK research shows that an online transaction costs a mere 1/100th of a face-to-face one so there’s clear savings to be made by agencies improving the online experience.
Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of the digital economy is that today almost anything can be measured – in fact we are drowning in data. So the old management adage “what gets measured gets managed” is turning inside out, to become “how do you measure to manage better?”
The challenge is identifying what data will be useful, and how it can be presented and managed itself to help improve a service to better meet customers’ needs without compromising their rights to privacy and informational security, and without overwhelming decision-makers.
Emerging technologies, such as LATTE and Vizie, are providing this evidence. The potential for these tools to be adopted by other organisations – both public and private – are almost limitless and we believe they are key to enabling services to be delivered faster and better in the digital age.
This will not only improve our productivity as a nation, but hopefully it will also eliminate those frustrating online experiences that leave you pounding the keyboard.
Michael Kearney works for CSIRO. CSIRO received funding from the Australian Government Department of Human Services under the Human Services Delivery Research Alliance. The software tools mentioned in this article were developed with support from the Alliance.
CSIRO received funding from the Department of Human Services under the Human Services Delivery Research Alliance. The Digital Economy Program receives funding from a range of government and industry partners. Sarah is also affiliated with the Australian Communication Consumer Action Network.
Summer starts today – and it’s predicted to be a hot, dry one. Unfortunately, we all know what that means – fires.
Forget fighting fire with fire – although that’s a major part of what the fire services do to control the spread of fires. We’re fighting fire with knowledge.
Not all fires are the same. It depends on many factors – the type of fuel, the moisture in the fuel, the wind speed and direction, to name by no means all. One large fire can also be an amalgam of many small fires, all with their own characteristics, components and behaviour.
This is extremely hard – bordering on impossible – to study in the field. But it’s something we need to know about to be able to predict how fires will spread. It’s knowledge that could save lives.
Getting that knowledge has been fraught with difficulty. For obvious reasons, we could only do live test burns in low fire danger weather conditions. We couldn’t get up close to observe, and we could never be sure our monitoring equipment would be in exactly the right place. Nor could we ever repeat an experiment under exactly the same conditions.
So we built the Pyrotron. It’s a 25 metre wind tunnel, mostly made from aluminium. Its floors are heat-resistant ceramic tiles (with heat sensors embedded), and it has a glass observation wall. A fan pumps 22,000 litres of air a second down the tunnel, replicating the winds that blow through forests.
This allows us to simulate fires with precise knowledge of the conditions – something we could never do in the past – and repeat the experiment as needed.
What we’re looking at is the physics and chemistry that makes up the way a flame spreads across different kinds of fuel under different conditions. This involves turbulence – a chaotic process that isn’t well understood. After a certain point, the flames themselves create turbulence. Understanding how this feeds into the fire is a key to understanding fire behaviour. Using the Pyrotron, we can start to come to grips with it.
It’s the only structure of its kind in the world, and it’s attracted attention from outside Australia. We thought you might like to see this BBC story about it. Not only is it an excellent explanation of how the Pyrotron works, but (let’s be honest) how many Australians can resist telling the world how tough we are for living here?
New technology to tackle biosecurity challenges down the track is one of the five megatrends identified in today’s CSIRO report Australia’s Biosecurity Future: preparing for future biological challenges.
As manpower in the agriculture and biosecurity sectors declines, we must look to technological innovation to protect crops. Monitoring and surveillance, genetics, communication and data analysis have been identified in today’s report as future work priorities, along with developing smaller, smarter, user-friendly devices.
But this is easier said than done. There are a number of potential barriers that need to be addressed to make sure that appropriate technologies are used to maximum effect. It might sound obvious, but making sure farmers can – and want to – use new technology is a crucial step.
With an ageing population and fewer young people entering agriculture, we are seeing the loss of the wealth of knowledge and experience held by long-time farmers.
Many farmers have a deep understanding of the day-to-day activities that can protect properties and reduce the spread of pests and diseases across the country, and this on-farm biosecurity knowledge may be lost.
We are also seeing a decline in specialists in areas crucial to biosecurity management such as taxonomy, plant pathology and entomology. This is prevalent throughout the biosecurity landscape, reducing our overall pest and disease response capability.
With fewer people training in taxonomy, we’ve estimated that 50% of Australia’s diagnostics capability will be lost by 2028.
Without adequate surveillance in place, pests can cripple emerging industries. In recent seasons, we have seen two new diseases devastate local farmers in the Northern Territory:
- the recent invasion of banana freckle, which authorities are working to eradicate
- the cucumber green mottle mosaic virus (CGMMV) infected melon crops near Katherine this year. Lack of CGMMV knowledge meant a delay identifying the disease and starting treatment.
Surveillance is critical to the delivery of effective biosecurity, both for early detection of a disease and for effective response. Yet delivery of effective surveillance faces a growing challenge which becomes greater in the more remote parts of Australia.
Constraints on surveillance include declining investment among jurisdictions, declining expertise or limited availability of personnel, expense and occupational health and safety requirements.
In response to these challenges there is a strong drive to draw on technological innovation to deliver biosecurity previously provided by people.
Research is already underway with new applications of technology for surveillance and detection, sensitive diagnostics, as well as preventative pre-border technologies.
Access to low-cost sensors and development of automated systems are opening up opportunities for rapid identification and response to pests and diseases. Sensors smaller than a pea can, for example, help monitor the health of oysters in real time.
Pestpoint, a mobile device application being developed by staff of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre (PBCRC) provides access to an online community of people working in the agricultural sector who need to identify plant pests in order to make decisions about how to manage those pests.
By using genetic techniques, scientists with the PBCRC are developing rapid tests using molecular sequences for identifying pests and diseases. The next phase is to transfer these tools to biosecurity practitioners, including diagnosticians and port inspectors.
Sounds great … but there are barriers
The adoption of a new technology hinges on how easily it can be incorporated into the existing biosecurity system, which means that the technology needs to be integrated into a human system:
- the connection to institutional arrangements governing biosecurity regulation, response and compliance
- the social acceptability of deploying smart technologies and information systems.
The Queensland Biosecurity Strategy: 2009–14 highlighted that biosecurity risks are inherently social, and that a better understanding of human behaviours, values and attitudes has the ability to improve engagement.
Similarly, the 2007 New Zealand Biosecurity Science Strategy indicated that the application of social research could increase biosecurity compliance and reporting, and support post-border invasion response programs.
Farmers and indigenous communities in remote and regional Australia are currently working together on a project to understand how each group decides to manage plant pests and diseases, and to increase their capacity to engage in biosecurity surveillance activities.
In the face of declining resources and investment, science and technology offer opportunities to create greater efficiencies in biosecurity while at the same time driving competitive advantage in primary industries.
Paul De Barro receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation.
Grant Smith is a co-PI on the PBCRC bacterial diagnostics project described in this article. He is a member of various organisations including Australasian Plant Pathology Society (APPS), the Royal Society of New Zealand (MRSNZ) and the Project Management Institute (PMI).
On Friday 12 December, we’ll be hosting Welcome to Port Celebrations for RV Investigator at the CSIRO Laboratories at Battery Point in Hobart and we’d love all of you to come!
In the morning will be a formal function for invited guests, and then in the afternoon from 3-8pm we’ll be throwing open the doors of CSIRO so you can come and look at RV Investigator, the new Marine National Facility research vessel.
There’s so much happening on the day, we could barely squeeze it into our poster!
If you can’t read all of the detail, you can download the RV Investigator Welcome to Port Celebrations poster.
This post originally appeared on the RV Investigator blog.
By Mikayla Keen and Claire Harris
Have you ever stopped to think about what’s under your feet, under our roads and under the wheat crops that produced the flour in your bread?
Soil features in every continent on the globe; it’s one of the fundamental building blocks of life. It’s pretty important stuff but we don’t often think about it.
But now, we’ve led a team of world experts digging deep, uncovering the secrets of soil and they’ve created the most comprehensive nation-wide digital map of Australia’s soils and landscapes. We worked with TERN (the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network), the University of Sydney and a number of state and federal government agencies.
And now, we present to you the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia.
Using 3-dimensional spatial modelling, and combining rich historical data with new digital information gathered through technology like satellites and sensors in the laboratory, Australia’s best soil and landscape scientists have created new information and a very powerful tool.
The Grid itself is a marvel, representing the whole country as approximately 2 billion data pixels. That means each pixel is the snapshot of an area roughly the size of a football field (90 x 90 metres). Every one of them contains information about the properties of the soil like pH, organic carbon and water capacity, down to a depth of 2 metres, and estimates of uncertainty (we couldn’t go out and sample the entire continent!). The Grid also contains details about the landscape, such as solar radiation and slope.
Not excited about the wonders of dirt? Then what about the science? The Grid uses exciting new infrared spectral methods to derive soil information rapidly and cheaply. It uses advanced spatial modelling that combines earth observation and satellite data to characterise and map the soil across the country. And the technology? The Grid uses powerful computing clusters for computation for the modelling and to produce the maps. It uses smart computing to access the databases from state and territory departments, the University of Sydney and Geoscience Australia. During early user testing one person said, ‘Wow! I can get data in six minutes now instead of six months’. Before the Grid came along he would have had to gather the information from each of the different data systems. It wasn’t quite going door to door, but you get the picture.
Still not excited? How about some nifty data visualisation? The data can be viewed in a few different ways, for example, downloading it into Google Earth.
The best thing of all is that it’s freely available to everybody online.
For those keen beans like farmers, land managers, urban and regional planners and environmental scientists, who want to dig into the data, the files can be accessed through the Grid website in sections or the complete set is available through CSIRO’s Data Access Portal.
The data in the Grid can be sucked into a wide range of other databases and computer modelling programs and is useful to loads of different research projects. It is also part of Australia’s contribution to the GlobalSoilMap project.
For those who don’t want to get bogged down in the detail, check out our animation, which takes you on the journey of the Grid.
It’s been big collaborative effort with a large team bringing together the best minds for the job. The Grid is ready and waiting for new data, some of which will no doubt come from technology that hasn’t even been invented yet (kangaroos with laser scanners on their heads anyone? Or is that TOO weird?)
For now, though, why not marvel at the beauty of the soil and landscape through the digital eyes of the Grid.