ZIFFPAGE TITLEBuilding the System

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

When mad cow disease threatened, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started giving workers tablet PCs to record inspection results, replacing paper and pen.

Building the System

Since 2001, inspectors with APHIS' Veterinary Services had been inspecting high-risk cows at various surveillance points .

For Baca, the positive test results in 2003—he calls it "the cow that stole Christmas"—coupled with the urgency expressed by USDA officials, meant his team had to introduce new processes for data collection, mobile computing and database management.

"We didn't have a system, per se, because at that point in time [mad cow] had not been identified as needing a major system of surveillance or disease control," explains Dr. Steve Weber, head of the Fort Collins-based Center for Animal Disease Information and Analysis, a division of Veterinary Services that develops and supports technological systems for animal disease detection.

Weber, a principal on the mobile computing project, says that before the 2003 case, inspectors took physical samples at a site and made handwritten notes, sending both to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.

There, lab workers recorded the results into the facility's information-management system and the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, but with a low priority, given mad cow's then-perceived threat level.

For the new system, with inspectors moving from point to point, Baca and company knew they had to be mobile.

Luckily for them, some of the work was already done. The National Animal Health Laboratory Network was functional, and they gained expertise from previous mobile-computing experiments: an emergency response system in 2003 that used tablet PCs, and another, begun just after the 2003 infection, that had inspectors use laptops running a Lotus Notes-based system that connected to the animal health network.

For the new system, developers chose tablets, because of their greater memory capacity, over handheld devices for inspectors. They deployed 90 tablet PCs from Motion Computing, a contractor that had supplied the agency during the emergency response in 2003.

Weber favors Motion's tablets because of their backlit screen, which is optimal for working in sunny fields; plus, he says, they're rugged enough to perform in unsanitary or unruly sites, like slaughterhouses.

The tablets run software from Mi-Corporation, or Mi-Co, of Research Triangle Park, N.C. Mi-Co customized its software, called Mi-Forms, to allow inspectors to use a stylus to manually note test-site conditions, results and sample characteristics, Baca says.

The Mi-Forms program automatically converts completed forms into eXtensible Markup Language, a text format commonly used to transmit data over the Web. A Mi-Co client program then sends the text files wirelessly to the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, housed in an Oracle 10g database. Field workers now have the ability to wirelessly transmit inspection notes into the database and access health and testing records back from it, which help them decide on what, if any, action to take, like the quarantine on the Alabama farm.

The new capabilities allowed inspectors to speed up their testing regimen—they sampled 176,468 cattle in 2004, more than eight times the 2003 total of 20,543—and hit their goal of 260,000 in January 2005, months ahead of schedule.

This article was originally published on 2006-04-06
Associate Editor

Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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