Cowtastrophy Tested in the Field

Stephen Catterall, BioSS


In a previous blog article we described the development of the Cowtastrophy web app, which was funded by the SEFARI Gateway Responsive Opportunity Fund. The main aim of the app is to communicate some of the key concepts which drive livestock disease control policies to a non-scientific audience. In particular, we see the app as a tool to support knowledge exchange at public events.

The Cowtastrophy web app was developed with helpful input from EPIC, and we were delighted to be able to present Cowtastrophy as part of EPIC activities at the Royal Highland Show in June. We were able to talk to plenty of visitors and use the app as part of an informal but structured process to support learning.

The basic scenario of the Cowtastrophy app is that the participant is the Chief Veterinary Officer on an imaginary island. A fast spreading disease is affecting cattle on the island. It is their job to control the disease using a combination of the available options which are livestock movement restrictions, vaccination and culling.

At the Royal Highland Show we knew we could expect a highly varied audience - school-age children, farmers, policy makers and members of the general public. Our challenge was to help visitors to understand the impact of their decisions on the spread of disease, and we decided to do this by developing an app guide (what we call narratives) that would appeal to, and effectively support learning through demonstration of the app, in a diverse array of people.

We believe the app is most effective if it's demonstrated in person at an event, with the narratives encouraging and supporting users to navigate through the app's virtual world depicted in ways which lead to specific learning outcomes. Essentially the narratives are the basis for an informative conversation between the demonstrator and the audience. The narratives we developed were fairly simple and accessible, but with plenty scope for extension depending on the interests and enthusiasm of the audience.

Initially the participant is encouraged to look at what happens without any control measures. Typically all farms on the island become infected, leading to an expensive outbreak. Most participants understood that a fundamental control approach will be to cull animals on farms with confirmed cases, rather than leaving them alive to spread disease and incur high on-going costs. This policy typically leads to some reduction in infection levels, but a very large number of farms do still become infected. Not a very good outcome!

Participants are introduced to the concepts of movement restrictions and vaccination, and depending on preference, they can choose to try and implement one of these control measures in addition to culling. If they seek to stop livestock movements between farms, they can apply restrictions either across the whole island or just close to confirmed cases. Whole island restrictions are the most effective, but even local restrictions can help to appreciably reduce further disease spread. If they implement vaccination, this will be applied in circular zones around confirmed, and optionally suspected, farms. The latter will be found to be much more effective.

In general, the more quickly controls are implemented, the better the outcome. The findings can then be the basis of some discussion as to the relative practicality of the rapid introduction of movement restrictions versus the rapid implementation of a vaccination strategy.

We interacted with people from both rural and urban backgrounds. The former probably were better able to gain a clear understanding of the issues involved, but the discussions suggested that most participants acquired a better perspective on the practicalities of disease control policy. A number of policymakers also expressed enthusiasm for the app, including Jesus Gallego, Deputy CVO Scotland (pictured).

We would like to thank EPIC for providing us with such an excellent platform to present Cowtastrophy to the general public, and SAOS for hosting us at the Royal Highland Show.

Views expressed are those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of the EPIC project or funders.

Article originally published on the SEFARI website, 30th August 2019.

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