Defra’s big data project must have surveillance input

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Robin Hargreaves

Liz Truss speaking at the event: open data, food and farming
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Last week I was in a very mixed audience to listen to a speech delivered by Liz Truss, Secretary of State at Defra, where she set out a vision for moving urban digital technologies more into the rural economy to close the reported 17% productivity gap between the rural and urban economy.

One of the main strands of the strategy is to make huge amounts of data held by Defra freely available. She stated that Defra holds the largest, richest and most varied data of any government department and that 8,000 data sets will be made publicly available.

Much was made of the ability of this data, when put in the hands of entrepreneurs, to generate billions of pounds for the economy.

The Secretary of State made several references to the importance of animal health to the rural - and indeed the national - economy and said she hoped we would become more successful than New Zealand or Ireland at growing food exports. Confidence in the produce of UK farmers is founded on the high welfare and health status of our livestock. She stated that we are equal first, as rated by World Animal Protection with New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland.

Listen to the speech on Audioboom
See photos of the event on Flickr

Can data be effectively collected to extinguish disease outbreak?

My mind immediately turned to disease surveillance. These proposed gains are all about potential and there were many questions about the uncertainty surrounding the actual realisation of these gains. I have no doubt about the value of big, clean accessible data but, with the recent huge contraction of the government surveillance network involving the closure of investigation centres, data gathering is being put at risk. Release and utilisation of data is great but if the data is dirty or not collected or collated at all the horse has bolted.

I was frustrated not to be able to attract the eye of the chair to ask a specific question in front of an interested audience but I was able to put the question to Liz Truss personally at the end of the event. How confident was she that data could be effectively collected through a network of private providers in order to be confident we will be ahead of the next disease incursion?

The answer was more an expression of optimism than a specific explanation of a robust mechanism.

We were given an optimistic view of the economic future of the rural economy but it was all rather jam tomorrow. If we miss the chance to extinguish a disease outbreak early through patchy surveillance or poor collation of data, the costs will be immediate and may dwarf some of these potential gains.

At BVA we are keeping a close eye on what’s happening on the ground through surveying members of the Voice of the Veterinary Profession panel, and discussions at Veterinary Policy Group and Council. I’d urge members to keep us informed of what’s happening in their local areas through the BVA community


Robin Hargreaves

Written by Robin Hargreaves

BVA President from September 2013 to September 2014

Robin is a past president of BVA. He is a director and small animal practitioner at Stanley House Veterinary Surgery in Lancashire. He chaired the BVA vet-led team working group and was previously the BVA representative on the Mind Matters Initiative.