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Extracted from the Bangkok Post: Bangkok Post


Officials in Suphan Buri are confident of containing any future bird flu outbreaks thanks to an ingenious computer programme


Since bird flu was first confirmed in Suphan Buri three years ago, measures to combat the deadly virus have included culling about 60 million fowls and stockpiling millions of doses of influenza vaccine.


But Suphan Buri livestock officials are now concentrating their efforts on the use of a Geographic Information System (GIS), which gives them instant access to geographically collated data.


And with the country now in the peak season for bird flu, they are confident they can handle a fresh outbreak far more effectively than before, and with just a few clicks on their computers.


"If this system had been in use here before the first outbreak, we would have been able to contain the disease much faster and better," said Wannee Santanmanas, chief of the provincial livestock office.


Suphan Buri was one of the first provinces where bird flu was found in November 2003, making the province a "culprit" in the subsequent spread of the virus.


"I believe Suphan Buri's bird flu surveillance and response system is one of the best in the country now," said Dr Wannee.


"The GIS helps us assess the scale of damage and come up with the best plan to combat the virus."


The GIS is a computer programme capable of integrating, storing, analysing, sharing, and displaying geographically-referenced information in a map format.


The same technology can be used in various fields of work, such as resource and asset management, and urban and healthcare planning.


It enables officials to pinpoint disaster-hit areas and respond appropriately.


The core part of the system is the database, which is stored in "layers". By combining layers, users get differing displays of data to assist their decision making.


Livestock officials Kwanchai Netnoi and Chatchai Wongsa are in charge of updating the bird flu-related data.


This includes details of bird flu-hit farms, changes in the fowl population, the location of poultry farms and the owner's name, and details of each outbreak in each district.


Although they have had to work harder since the GIS was installed, when the province was struck by the third round of bird flu in July 2005 they had reason to be proud of their work.


"We have to update the information every day and learn how to use this complicated programme," said Mr Chatchai. "It's a tough job, but we are glad that our work helps strengthen bird flu surveillance and control operations."


When the livestock office is alerted to unusual deaths of fowls, the "GIS guys" immediately create a GIS map with details of farm locations and history of past outbreaks in the area.


The provincial livestock chief will evaluate the situation based on the GIS information and dispatch a bird flu surveillance unit to investigate and disinfect the farms and nearby areas.


If the infection is confirmed, the GIS system can display the position of all farms in the five-kilometre radius where all poultry will be culled and a 10-kilometre zone where poultry movements will be banned.


"We are no longer clumsily plotting out the working area on a 1:4,000 topographic map," said Dr Wannee. "With the GIS high-resolution map and the integrated data we can identify the infected area and set up a surveillance zone rapidly and precisely."


The system also helps with the planning of a bird flu prevention scheme, focusing on high-risk areas.


"Instead of blanketing the entire province, we now know where to focus our work. This helps us save money and manpower," said Dr Wannee.


Suphan Buri livestock office's GIS system is more advanced than in other provinces mainly because of the strong support it has received from provincial governor Somsak Pureesrisak.


And the use of the GIS system in the province is not limited to bird flu.


Suphan Buri's education statistics and health records, details of natural disaster-prone areas, land use and forest cover are also in the database.


"A picture is worth a thousand words, but a map is worth a thousand reports," said Ueamduang Uthaikul, chief of Suphan Buri's GIS Operation Unit. "That's why we invest so much of our budget and manpower on the system."


Last year the province spent almost 70 million baht on information technology, including the establishment of the GIS Centre at the provincial hall.


"Considering the budget saving resulting from proper policy making and implementation, it's worth the investment," Ms Ueamduang said.


Sombat Yumuang, chief of the Geo-Informatics Centre for Thailand, providing data and training for government agencies and private clients, said what really makes the GIS so useful is not the advanced computer software and hardware, but the reliable and updated information.


A good GIS database, however, is not enough to guarantee that users will come up with a sound policy.


"Smart policy makers who can make the right decision using the GIS material are the most important factor," said Mr Sombat.


The agency has held several GIS training courses for officials from various agencies, including livestock officials from 10 pilot provinces, where the bird flu GIS systems were installed.


It produced samples of GIS material to show how this "little helper" can help state officials tackle national problems, such as the southern violence, education planning, disaster warning and emergency response.


But the technology has proven unpopular with state agencies and Mr Sombat is still searching to find out why.


Maybe it was because most state agencies had poor information management and collection system, he said. It was almost impossible to set up a GIS system from a poor database.


"Or maybe it's simply because state officials prefer not to see things too clearly because then they will have to work harder. That's why they always come up with vague policies," he said.

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