Smart surveillance with smartphones

Private veterinary practitioners carry significant responsibility for disease surveillance and monitoring. Paradoxically, critical decisions about livestock health begin, and often end with, the farmer, who is becoming less inclined to consult veterinarians for livestock deaths and illness.

The traditional biosecurity message to farmers about disease is clear; if an outbreak is suspected or they are unsure whether it’s a notifiable disease, they should report it. However this message won’t be heeded by everyone and if we are serious about surveillance and monitoring for outbreaks we also need to understand the factors influencing the farmers receiving this message. Rather than adopting a purely scientific and technically rational approach, farmers take account of social, cultural and economic contexts and may or may not choose to report their disease observations based on their perceived risk to their enterprise. Specific elements affecting the likelihood of reporting have been identified as perceived susceptibility, selfefficacy, perceived control and trust.1 While it may be reasonable to assume that farmers would report an outbreak out of moral obligation, it is inevitable that the action taken and the urgency adopted in the face of a potentially significant disease problem, hinges upon a farmer’s judgment call made within their personal context. This suggests that to be effective, the biosecurity message aimed at the farm level must empower all farmers to make their best judgement.

Considering the rapid growth in adoption of online networking and also the extensive use and capability of smartphone technology, Animal Health Australia (AHA) is exploring the potential for a smartphone app to help farmers make better decisions when faced with animal disease outbreaks. Users would include anyone with primary animal contact (practitioners, farmers, and the public) and biosecurity officers (government and industry) and the project aims to bring these users together to enable a collective intelligence approach to animal disease through circulation of user-provided alerts.

Functions that have been identified as potentially very useful are listed in AHA’s app proposal, called Animal Disease Alerts, and include the following abilities:

  • for farmers and veterinarians to report suspect notifiable diseases to their government department via a mobile phone
  • for farmers to capture a disease event (species, syndrome and numbers affected) and forward it to a nominated private practitioner or biosecurity officer for a call back
  • for farmers to capture and share significant disease events anonymously with interested subscribers as an alert, or with all users who can browse a history of all alerts from their region of interest
  • for biosecurity officers and private practitioners to share current de-identified case and laboratory data, disease bulletins and news to interested subscribers as alerts
  • to browse brief facts about common or notifiable disease conditions
  • for biosecurity officers to follow trends of alerts in space, time and by species and syndrome, to support early recognition of disease outbreaks.

Based on preliminary discussions, AHA has developed requirements for a smartphone app, web portal and associated database and server infrastructure, and is now seeking expressions of interest in their development.2 AHA is continuing to research the scope and potential collaborators for this project and welcomes any feedback.

For more information or to provide feedback contact Ian Langstaff on 02 6203 3909 or at ilangstaff@animalhealthaustralia.com.au.

Ian Langstaff
Manager Disease Surveillance
Animal Health Australia

  1. Palmer S. Factors affecting livestock disease reporting and biosecurity practices: a study of West Australian sheep and cattle producers. PhD thesis, Murdoch University, 2009.
  2. www.animalhealthaustralia.com.au/about-us/tenders-and-recruitment/. Accessed November 2012.

This story appears in the December 2012 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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