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Cloud computing — and trust — needed for global disease research, says researcher

Dr. Deborah Stacey

Headshot of Prof. Deborah Stacey.

“The GBADs project is an opportunity to gauge how close we are to that ideal of having a system you can trust and people you can trust managing it.”

– Dr. Stacey

Personal computer users often run into problems finding enough secure storage space for videos, music and other bits of electronic information…so imagine the challenges facing computer scientists like Dr. Deborah Stacey trying to gather and store millions of data points to address global animal disease.

Stacey is designing a cloud-based platform that would require hundreds of thousands of times more storage than personal users can access, to amass and model animal disease data from sources across the globe. She serves as one of the Informatics Theme Leads of the Global Burden of Animal Diseases (GBADs) project, which aims to model animal disease impact – primarily in livestock, such as foot-and-mouth disease, Influenza, and Campylobacteriosis – on global economic, environmental, and human health.

Stacey calls this a quintessential One Health project, in which the research intersects human, animal, and environmental health.

“One Health brings people together across disciplines,” says Stacey. “One person or one organization can’t embody everything, we all have to figure out how we can work together.”

It’s a huge undertaking. GBADs’ international team includes experts in animal and human health, economics, and agriculture, among others, all of which have the overall goal of improving animal and human welfare. Their work is designed to help decision and policy makers make ethical, evidence-based decisions about animal agriculture.

To model the impact of animal disease, data about disease must be collected across countries and in various communities. That means collecting, organizing and modeling information from each location of study.

Stacey’s expertise in cloud computing and systems design engineering plays a pivotal role in GBADs’ mission. She is a key member of the University of Guelph’s School of Computer Science as well as a network of Ontario universities called Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network (SHARCNET), that combine funding for purchasing shared supercomputer systems.

Stacey relies on her colleagues in other disciplines for the social and cultural dimensions of global research. She understands the importance of sharing information about animal health and disease but, most lately, she has learned that issues of trust have become a major priority. For example, data being collected on animals comes from the animals’ owners, who may be reluctant to disclose sensitive disease information about their livestock, for fear of having authorities destroy rather than treat their sick animals.

Stacey says this is where greater involvement of humanities scholars, social scientists, and members of the local community is needed. Their participation addresses the complexity of the research.

“I’ve always appreciated the strength of multiple perspectives and I see the systems-based approach of One Health to be the most effective way to honour different voices and solve real-world problems,” she says. “We’d like to use technology to get people talking to each other – the people living the experience and the disease experts – so there isn’t one hierarchical, paternalistic point of view dictating a solution.”

The GBADs project is generously funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Learn more about the GBADs project here: https://animalhealthmetrics.org/

By: Anna McMenemy

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