Symptoms of the disease include short internodes on the stem. Photo by: Georgina Smith / CIAT

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, CIAT lead virologist Wilmer Cuellar stood before Food and Agriculture Organization representatives to confirm the presence and likely spread of cassava mosaic disease (CMD) in the country. The day was February 8, 2016. Cuellar remembered it well because it was his birthday.

The meeting marked the culmination of a two-week sprint across the Southeast Asian country to verify a report from Chinese plant pathologists about some plants in the Cambodian province of Ratanakiri contracting the CMD virus.

CMD has devastated swathes of cassava fields in Africa, with some studies suggesting more than 40 percent of the continent’s cassava is lost each year.

“The CIAT cassava program leader at that time [Clair Hershey] immediately created a task force to see how serious this virus is in Asia, because in Africa, CMD is a big problem,” Cuellar said. “There are many viruses causing CMD in Africa and Asia, and the virus species reported in Cambodia had been found almost a decade ago in the south of India and Sri Lanka — some 3,000 kilometers away. As this case shows, viruses don’t care about borders.”

Cuellar went straight to Hanoi to meet up with his CIAT colleagues there to decide on the best course of action. The next day, he and his team flew to Cambodia to confirm the presence of the disease and the virus, scouring through some 20,000 hectares of cassava fields, an area about 1.5 times the size of Singapore.

Since then, CIAT-Hanoi’s cassava program experts have organized and participated in multiple emergency meetings with authorities in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia to discuss the next steps.

That whole incident reinforced an idea that he’d had for some time: an early warning system for pests and diseases in crops.

“I thought that the process of verifying and communicating the occurrence of the disease would have been faster if we had had a tracker or an app that could pinpoint where it had been seen. If we could combine this with genetic information on the disease, it may provide clues about its origin and how we may fight it,” Cuellar said.

Today, Cuellar’s team and the team led by CIAT Data and Information Manager Leroy Mwanzia are officially launching such a tracker, to help locate existing pest and disease outbreaks. Aptly named PestDisPlace, the open source applicaton consolidates a range of information on pests and diseases of cassava, beans, rice, and forages.

“What we want to do is to build on the shoulders of giants,” said Mwanzia. “There is a huge amount of scientifically rigorous information out there on some of the pests and diseases that affect these key crops, but until now there hasn’t one single place to access it.

PestDisPlace tells where in the world a pest or disease has been reported and uses a color coding system to show if the reported outbreak has been officially confirmed. A green “pin,” for example, on the map of a specific place in Cambodia, means scientists have taken samples and surveyed the fields but found no symptoms of a disease or presence of pest. A yellow pin indicates that samples show symptoms of pests or diseases but that scientists have not yet confirmed their presence. A red pin signifies confirmed cases.

A click on any of the pins offers more information about a pest or disease, including its genetic information. By knowing that, experts and government authorities can determine the right ways to combat them.

As well as being a monitoring tool, PestDisPlace can also function as a mechanism that scientists can use to collaborate. Once they log into the app, they can choose to set the data as private, with the option to open it to the public at a later date.

“It can take some time to get the permission from scientists and governments to open their data,” Mwanzia said. “Hopefully, when they know how this works — they will not only see their data, but also data from everyone — they will realize how this will benefit them as well.”

Right now, anyone can access more than a thousand data points or reports of outbreaks affecting cassava, whether confirmed or unconfirmed, even without logging into the app. Data currently come from observations in Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Cambodia, and Vietnam that have been cleared for public release by researchers from partner institutions.

In the future, those who want to report cases of pest and disease outbreaks will be able to do so by downloading and completing a document and submitting it to the online portal. To ensure the integrity PestDisPlace, a team of scientists will review all uploaded information before it is made publicly available.

Cuellar and Mwanzia are also working to develop a smartphone version of the app. This might feature a news ticker and sends email alerts about possible pest and disease outbreaks.

A complementary initiative that Cuellar and Mwanza envisage is a so-called Plant Diagnostics and Monitoring Network, which comprises laboratories that would upload their results to PestDisPlace in near-real time. The goal would be to improve communication to public agencies and other organizations responsible for responding to pest and disease outbreaks in crops.

“This whole idea relies on teamwork and open data, and could be a groundbreaking opportunity to completely transform the way we diagnose, track, and share pest and disease information,” Cuellar said.

Call to action:

Support efforts to:

  • Refine the current PestDisPlace application, to make it easier to determine where each specific strain of a given pathogen is located.
  • Develop a smartphone app, to crowdsource information from non-scientists, such as farmers, on possible pest and disease outbreaks.
  • Expand the functionality of PestDisPlace, integrating risk maps, to make it predictive and cover a greater range of crops.

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