Farmers get USDA their way

Agriculture Department officials have revamped the agency's Web site, allowing visitors to conduct some business online and create a personalized Web portal.

The latest addition to www.usda.gov is the MyUSDA box, which lets users create a customizable Web portal via a personal account that stores content and alert preferences. The USDA has about 9 million Web pages, said Scott Charbo, the department's chief information officer. "That's a lot of content and a lot of information to try [to] know all the links to," he said.

Rather than surfing multiple USDA sites, farmers and other users with specialized interests in soil conditions and corn production, for example, will be able to select those topics and see related content every time they log on to the department's Web site.

"We will bring information across all [USDA] agencies to you," Charbo said. "That's forms, alerts, news releases, whatever."

Users who do business with the department will gain single-point access to online customer statements and can have loan deficiency payments deposited into a bank account. USDA employees will be able to access their payroll accounts. All of those services were already available, but they lacked a single unifying portal. Electronic customer statements became available in March, and agency officials unveiled the nationwide Electronic Loan Deficiency Payment service in September.

Using the Web for agriculture business requires a higher level of accreditation, however. To sign up, users must visit a USDA office and present photo identification, Charbo said. Officials at any of the approximately 2,700 USDA nationwide county service offices are able to set up the higher-security accounts, he added. A future capability of the site will be to accept accredited user accounts created elsewhere, either in the federal government or the private sector.

Within about six months, the USDA site will accept user credentials that comply with Security Assertion Markup Language "regardless of who they got it from," said Chris Niedermayer, the USDA's associate CIO for electronic government. SAML is a framework that facilitates the secure exchange of information. A SAML credential also allows users to set browsers to automatically fill electronic forms with their data, Niedermayer said.

The lower bandwidth access in rural communities will not hinder access to the new Web site, Charbo said. "We don't stream a lot of video for everything," he said. "You don't build a heavy-bandwidth page." Rather than require online data entry, users will download then upload applications, he added. "There's a variety of ways to work around low bandwidth," Charbo said.

The type of capability offered by

MyUSDA "is as much a part of the 21st-century farmer's complement of tools as would be a harvester or a telephone," said Carol Coren, a community programs specialist at Oregon State University's Food Innovation Center. Coren is one of nine citizen advisers who sit on the USDA Technology and eGovernment Advisory Council.

Forty-three percent of U.S. farmers have Internet access, compared to 29 percent in 1999, according to USDA officials.

SAML knows who you are

Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is an Extensible Markup Language-based framework for secure information exchange being developed by officials at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), a nonprofit consortium that helps develop e-commerce standards.

SAML operates by making nested XML assertions about the identity of subject entities, such as people or computers. Assertions can convey subject attributes, authorization levels and previous authentication acts performed by the subject. "It's a format and a structure that allows talking between disparate credential providers," said Chris Niedermayer, the Agriculture Department's associate chief information officer for electronic government.

"You present your credential at my front door," he said. "I identify who issued your credential [and] go check the data store of that credential provider, and they tell me is that a valid credential or is it not."

The language "defines the syntax and processing semantics of assertions made about a subject by a system entity," according to the OASIS Web site.

Consortium members approved Version 1.1 of the security protocol in September 2003. A draft version of SAML 2.0 was released for public review in August.

— David Perera

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