Global patient records project to track animal data

The organization that tracks data for more than 600 zoos around the world is working towards a new breed of patient records.

The patients in this case are more than 1.65 million animals. The International Species Information System

(ISIS) Tuesday said it will convert its software that tracks different aspects of an animal’s lifespan into a Web service using Microsoft .Net tools.

ISIS has awarded a seven-year contract to Montreal-based CGI Group Inc. to oversee the upgrade to the system that will be called the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). The value of the contract has not been disclosed, but ISIS executive director Nate Flesness said it was worth several million dollars.

Minneapolis, Minn.-based ISIS captures information on breeding, genetics, demographics, health and other aspects of zoo life. The organization uses four main applications — a mixture of DOS and Windows-based software — to record different information about the animals.

“”We’ve been developing software (for) collecting information on animals held by zoos and aquariums for many years,”” said Flesness. “”But it’s been a hodge-podge of desktop applications, some quite old, some partly on the Web, and so on.””

By storing all the information in a database that can be accessed from a single point of presence, ISIS and its member zoos can be assured that the information on any given animal is both up-to-date and correct.

“”You get the whole history of the animal, a holistic approach to the animal,”” said animal registrar at Calgary Zoo, Deanna Snell. “”Currently what it doesn’t do very much of is the behavioural husbandry aspect. It will integrate that part, as well as the regular husbandry maintenance that we do and then the medical information. The plan is for it to really clean up our records and have a more accurate dataset.””

Larger zoos, like San Diego and Toronto, keep their own databases on site. Toronto Zoo has maintained its own electronic data since 1990 and is currently in the early stages of an upgrade. The zoo will continue to plan to maintain its own animal data as well as upload information to ZIMS, said animal registrar Debbie Martin.

She added that a single-record view through ZIMs would be an improvement, since animals are often moved from zoo to zoo as they are matched for breeding. “”Hopefully it will faciliate better access to all the different components of the information,”” she said.

Not every one of ISIS’s member zoos is at the same level of technical sophistication, which presented a challenge for the ZIMS architects at CGI. Flesness said he recently received a memo from a zoo in Zimbabwe saying that they would only be able to connect to the Web service at sub-dial-up speeds.

Steve Wargalla, vice-president of consulting services at CGI, said they are approaching the architecture from three different perspectives: a full version for technically-sophisticated zoos that could host the application themselves; an online version for zoos that can access the application through a browser using a broadband connection; and a third, desktop-based version.

The latter can be loaded onto a notebook or desktop, updated as needed, then synched to the main ZIMS database when it’s convenient for the user. CGI is also making 200 workstations available to zoos that don’t currently have the necessary equipment to use ZIMS properly.

Flesness said that some countries are extremely intrerested in participating closely in the project since a database that tracks animal wellbeing could be used as a model for effective human health care.

Another challenge of working with more than 600 zoos in 70 countries is that they may all have different policies and legislation regarding the availability of animal health records.

“”We have to come up with suitable compromises which maximizes the amount of data that’s available for public research and education,”” said Flesness, who added that it could be two years before ZIMS is ready to go live.

It’s important that this information be made available, since ZIMS could be a resource for academics, researchers and animal preservation groups, said Flesness.

“”Where do you go to get normal blood data on a musk ox? Well, us.””

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