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Cheap, Easy Biosurveillance

November 29, 2007 This post from BoingBoing Gadgets has been sitting in my “toblog” pile for more than a month, but it doesn’t make it any less cool. A company called DataDyne has put together an open source software package for collecting epidemiological information in the field.  Yes, I know that there are literally hundreds of similar products out there, but this one has a couple of unique selling points that set it apart from the crowd, and make it something to keep an eye on.  I’ll first give a quick overview of the software, its uses and its benefits, then I’ll talk a little bit about why I find this tool so interesting.

EpiSurveyor differs from other data collection tools in a few key ways.  One, it’s open source.  Anyone can take it apart and put it back together, improve it, re-package it, whatever.  No more depending on consultant’s enterprise “solutions” that seem to cause more trouble than they’re worth.  Two, it’s packaged to work on mobile devices.  Yes, I know, like every other data collection tool – but not exactly.  This one works on cell phones, yes, regular old cell phones like the one in your pocket right now.  Like most of those “solutions,” it does enable you to download your data to a central repository, so you can avoid data entry hassles, but doesn’t require you to come back to the office, plug the device in and begin the download.  Nope, this one send the data over SMS, yes, the same old text messaging that your kid does that’s killing your cell phone bill every month.  I haven’t read enough about security, but I imagine that if all the program sends is answer selections (e.g. 1,1,3,4,2,2,2,4,1, etc.) security is no problem because the data is useless without the key.  And as we know from earlier disasters, text messages get through when normal cell conversations cannot.

Right now the program is being used, and marketed, as a tool to collect epidemiologic and surveillance data in developing nations.  There’s a heartwarming story about malarial drugs and Zaire to illustrate that point.  I, however, think this tool could be used for so much more than that.

Now, you’ll remember that biosurveillance is a pretty big deal in today’s post-9/11 world (which frankly doesn’t make any sense – it’s always been a big deal, it’s just that the federal government finally realized it); if not, just see my posts on NBIS and HSPD-21.  Tools like EpiSurveyor give us the opportunity to collect biosurveillance data.  Right now it’s being marketed to developing nations, but there’s no reason that it couldn’t be used in rural parts of states, small cities and hell, even large cities to collect surveillance data.

Instead of having disease investigators go out with stacks of paper (which still, frighteningly still happens across this country) or specialized equipment, why not send them out with a regular old cell phone, complete the interview and have it directly uploaded to the health departments servers?

And that’s just the easy “other” application.  Why not use it for contact tracing; or TB regimen assurance; or, and this is where the DHS/CDC/HHS funding comes in, panflu quarantine assurance, or contact tracing, or on scene triage of a terrorist attack (think of a health department employee at each emergency department “texting” in victim symptoms so that someone is getting an overall view of the symptoms – in real time – so as to identify any bio-attack as it’s happening)?  It’s an open source program so anyone can reconfigure it for their particular need and release it for other organizations to upload and start working with it.

Intrigued?  Want to give it a whirl?  Head to the Datadyne website and download a fully functional copy of EpiSurveyor.

The BoingBoing article talks about the need for Datadyne to make some money off of this, and I think that long-term homeland security/panflu monies would totally be one way to go.  If some enterprising reader wants to take a stab at this and let the EpiSurveyor folks know that you’re doing a proof of concept, I’m sure they’d be excited and happy to help.

Promotional photo courtesy of

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