Foot and mouth scare prompts $12m build

Cabinet approves fresh development over an upgrade to AsureQuality's AgriBase

A 2005 Waiheke Island foot and mouth disease scare has prompted the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to develop a new $12 million computer-based system to hold detailed farm information.

Ground-up development of the system, called Farmsonline, will cost an estimated $3 million, with a further $9 million in operational costs over the next five years.

The decision to build the system was approved by Cabinet last month after considering an alternative upgrade to existing systems such as AsureQuality’s AgriBase.

“Analysis showed that enhancing AgriBase would be more expensive and no faster than building a new application,” says a brief on the MAF website.

“In addition, there were no unique business benefits with this option that could not be achieved through a contestable procurement process.”

The decision was made in consultation with AsureQuality “and they understand our reasons”, says Clifton King, systems design manager for the project.

It is now envisaged that AsureQuality, a government-owned company that provides food safety and biosecurity services to the primary sector, will link to Farmsonline and use the data there to continue to provide its farm information services.

An spokeswoman says AsureQuality is “comfortable with MAF’s decision” but declined any further comment.

The aim of the Farmsonline system is to speed up and improve MAF Biosecurity’s ability to locate properties, identify the stock and crops held on them and manage response programmes for an emergency or disease outbreak, such as the 2005 Waiheke scare.

“It will improve emergency responses and reduce losses to farmers and the New Zealand economy,” says MAF.

Much of the information to be included in the Farmsonline database is already available, but has been scattered over a number of silos.

Some, however, will need to be newly gathered and some will be in the hands of the farm businesses themselves or other private organisations, raising again the delicate question of government repackaging of private data.

MAF doesn’t anticipate having to pay for any of the data sourced from outside, says King.

“Our business model is to exchange data with other parties at the cost of transfer. A bigger issue will be mutual assurance of appropriate data privacy and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) will be developed for this,” he says.

Farmers will be able to update information on their properties through a web interface and certain events, such as change in ownership of a property, will be reported by other agencies to MAF Biosecurity and will trigger a request for an update.

Farmers will not be compelled to supply information for the Farmsonline database, MAF says. Any future compliance requirement will need new law and will be preceded by consultation, MAF says.

However farmers may be required in future to supply certain data for other schemes, such as a contemplated National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) Scheme, which, if it is approved, will link with Farmsonline.

Farmsonline will include a website through which any member of the public will be able to browse information on farms. The tender specification for the system draws a firm line around “restricted” data items, such as personal information on the owner or manager of the farm and exact details of the land area used for various animals and crops.

This will not be publicly available. However, some possibly sensitive data such as the presence of a crop on the property is currently on the unrestricted side of the boundary in the data model.

Although the priority is to centralise information on rural properties, limited data will also be held on the country’s 1.7 million urban properties, since they may also be affected by a biosecurity emergency. This will be collected from territorial local authorities, King says.

Farmsonline is scheduled to be in operation by March 2011. MAF plans to run the system on the hardware it already has, provided by Unisys and Revera.

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