USDA’s APHIS makes way for mobile, big data

The Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has its sights set on using mobile, cloud and other recent technology advances. But before the bureau can use those technologies, APHIS must lay the policy and standards groundwork.

Gary Washington, the chief information officer of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said the goal is to create an environment to improve decision making across the bureau.

“We are trying to mature our governance process and make sure our portfolio is extremely accurate and is formulated in a way that assists the head of the agency and the administrators and deputy administrators in making informed decisions about information technology,” he said. “That’s one area where the Department of Agriculture has become increasingly aggressive in terms of its oversight, and that’s a good thing. We are working hand-in-hand with them on that.”

The increased focus on governance is leading APHIS and other parts of USDA down a path toward shared services. Washington said APHIS is specifically working with others on a department-wide geospatial shared service.

More broadly, APHIS recently took part in an agencywide PortfolioStat session led by USDA CIO Cheryl Cook.

“It opened a lot of eyes in terms of our investments,” Washington said. “We just identified that we could structure our portfolio a little differently in collaboration with USDA. For the most part, we are managing our IT correctly. Our cybersecurity posture is good, and we are doing a lot of the right things. A lot of negatives didn’t come out of the portfolio review. They were helpful in terms of us being on the same page as USDA.”

With APHIS putting a more solid governance process in place, Washington said that will make many of his priorities, including mobility and data analysis, easier to implement.

Washington said mobile computing is important for employees to work in the field and access data.

“With two-factor authentication and digital signatures, we want an employee to go out in the field and conduct business as though they are in the office, meaning with their business applications and any other functionality they need on their devices. But what’s most important is they do that in a secure fashion,” he said. “We are working with the enterprise solutions USDA has offered and we are trying to come up with a business case and a strategy for deploying that APHIS-wide.”

Washington added APHIS will use USDA’s bring-your- own-device strategy and will consider mobile device pilots in the coming months.

“We have plans for a pilot, but they are primarily in a planning stage,” he said. “We want to take a planned and organized approach to piloting anything and implementing anything because, as you know, pilots — if you don’t do them right — can last forever.”

APHIS is also analyzing its investments in tools and applications that analyze data.

Washington said the bureau is using business intelligence tools from IBM Cognos and is considering a possible expansion of it across all of APHIS.

“You want your data to be of great quality and use for your customers,” he said. “The programs, Veterinary Services, Plant Health, Plant Protection and Quarantine, and Animal Care and Wildlife Services are working together on a data strategy to have some kind of structure around the data we use, what it means and the quality of data. We are a part of that.”

Washington added the data strategy still is early in the planning phase.

Along with back-office systems, Washington said APHIS is planning to improve customer-facing apps as well.

“We are looking at having one system where APHIS does its permitting and certifications. We are working on that with our program folks,” he said. “Right now, that’s in the planning phase, but that would be a big win for the agency.”

Washington added APHIS has one system now for permitting and certifications, but it needs updating.

“It’s going to be modified to support cross programs,” he said. “It will be better merged together across the programs.”

APHIS also is examining how it can bring together systems that don’t interact today.

“We are working with the department on their cloud computing implementation strategy,” he said. “APHIS is co-leading that with the National IT Center. All the agencies in USDA are involved in that.”


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