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Put your spreadsheets to work

Spreadsheets were the topic of the Digging into the Data Pipeline presentation hosted by Purdue University.
Spreadsheets were the topic of the Digging into the Data Pipeline presentation hosted by Purdue University.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Spreadsheets are a tool to help farmers make decisions and wrangle data, according to a professor at Purdue University.

“I’ve found that taking a logical approach towards generating spreadsheets helps novices and those who would say they’re really good at spreadsheets to be more effective,” said Dennis Buckmaster, agricultural and biological engineering professor at Purdue.

Logical spreadsheeting starts at the top of the page. In English, we read from left to right and top to bottom. So, it makes sense that, on spreadsheets, we work from left to right and top to bottom.

Buckmaster encouraged users to resist the urge to hide formulas and cells.

“Let it all be in the open,” he advised. “Let people see how things are being calculated.”

He also encouraged transparency with names inside the spreadsheet.

“When we identify people, places and things, we do it by names,” he said. “In that vein, rather than referring to cell references like E-44 or J-30, let’s call things like P for power, T for torque or N for the amount of nitrogen.

“That will result in your spreadsheets being more readable, easier to audit, and you can learn from it because they’re educational, as well. You’ll also see me echo formulas in the sheet itself so that the user has an improved understanding of what they’re looking at.”

Creating spreadsheets involves algebra, Buckmaster said. Be prepared to do some math.

Buckmaster also reminded farmers that when you enter formulas in spreadsheets, you’re actually coding.

“Codes do exactly what you tell it to do,” he said. “No more, no less. It does it without judgment. So, if you tell it to do the wrong thing, it’s going to do the wrong thing, which leads me to say this: with a spreadsheet, you can now make errors faster than you ever made them before. So, make sure that you don’t have errors.”

Although it’s possible to make mistakes, spreadsheets make it easier for farmers to read and share data.

“I think that, once you get doing this, you’re going to see that it becomes a powerful platform for making tools,” Buckmaster said.

To see the entire presentation and specific spreadsheet examples, visit ag.purdue.edu/digital-ag-resources/fall-webinar-series-digging-into-the-data-pipeline.

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