Field workers in rural southern Africa faced a difficult problem. Sending the data they had collected about animal health to governments was slow because there were no connections to the internet or even the national grid.

“On average it was taking about three months for information collected in the field to get to their national office,” says Phil Fong, a regional data information co-ordinator for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Officials, he says, were “trying to make decisions with old information”. This was particularly problematic when trying to spot early warning signs of an epidemic.

It was not feasible to address the problem by arming field workers with laptops or PDAs: the technology was expensive, relatively hard to use and vulnerable in southern Africa’s hot and dusty conditions. They needed a more sustainable solution.

This turned out to be one that the workers were already familiar with – pen and paper. But there was a twist. The solution, provided by Xcallibre, a subsidiary of the South African company Data World, used digital pen and paper technology from Anoto that could collect the data as the workers wrote it down, and then transmit it over the mobile network to a central server. An 18-month pilot, which received funding from the South African government, was run with 35 field workers in five countries: Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Each technician is given a set of paper forms to record the animal health data, a special pen that contains a digital camera and microprocessor, and a mobile phone. The forms are covered with a tiny pattern of dots. When the user writes on the form, the camera takes 70 snapshots a second, recording the marks made by the pen and saving them as a series of co-ordinates.

On completion, the user ticks a “send” box, prompting the pen to make a Bluetooth connection to the mobile phone, which automatically transmits the co-ordinates over GPRS to the server. If no GPRS connection is available, the phone will keep trying until the connection is made. (In Malawi and Zambia, where there is no GPRS network, data were uploaded to a PC at the district offices and sent over the web.)

The data are received both in a database format and as a PDF of the original form. The clear design of the forms
has simplified the interpretation of the data, says Ebba Asly Fahraeus, vice-president of sales and marketing at Anoto. “With standardised data collection methods, officials can pull out statistics more easily, which makes them much more able to manage the information.”

The swift arrival of data has been a crucial development for countries where veterinary skills at a local level are in short supply. Malawi, says Mr Fong, has no trained veterinarians in the regions, and it requires the single trained veterinarian in the head office to interpret the data and act. If action is needed, officials can send immediate instructions to field workers on their mobile phones.

The pilot brought rapid benefits, says Mr Fong. In one case in Tanzania, an animal health technician noted signs of a disease he had observed in an animal and made a tentative (but incorrect) diagnosis. Once the vet in the national office saw the description of the symptoms, he was able, based on background knowledge of the area, to diagnose a case of Rift Valley fever (a viral disease that can be passed to humans), and take action to stop it spreading.

Although the pilot is over, there are signs the technology will be adopted long term. It is increasingly affordable: the price of processing a form has dropped from $5 two years ago to $1.30 now, says Mr Fong. Compared with the costs of manually transmitting and collating paper forms, he adds, the digital pen and paper is “very cost-beneficial”. The African Development Bank is now funding the use of the technology in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Angola.

Importantly, the adoption of the technology may help build and sustain valuable international trading relationships. Western countries have been reluctant to import meat because of the spread of diseases between species.

According to Mr Fong: “The strengthening of the surveillance system gives the country a much brighter trading light to their trading partners.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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