USDA outlines use case for tablets

Tablet PC

Tablet computers are helping Agriculture Department surveyors collect and share data more effectively. (Stock image)

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, surveys more than 12,000 farmers and agriculture experts annually to gather data that impacts the price of food and the futures and commodities markets.

For 150 years, these field workers – often retired farmers in their 60s or 70s, some in their 90s – conducted those interviews with pencil and paper. Sometimes field workers query farmers over the phone or by mail, but the questions are usually asked in person, during visits to farms all across the country.

Over the past two years, NASS transitioned from pencil and paper to digital surveying, deploying iPads to its in-person surveyors in the culmination of an in-house effort that began in 2009 with the creation of the Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) Operational Efficiency Project.

USDA's Pam Hird, who spoke July 9 at the Federal Mobile Computing Summit in Washington, D.C., said CAPI has "worked beautifully," seamlessly integrating security with increased performance, decreased costs and a training program that turns computer-newbie surveyors into iPad-proficient users in just 13 hours.

The end result has been faster, more accurate surveys, leading to better NASS forecasts that ensure, for instance, that American consumers aren't taken by surprise at the increased price of milk the next time they visit the grocery store.

"We're seeing surveys returned in 72 hours, giving us a longer time to analyze the data, which helps us set better estimates," Hird, who manages the iPad-based surveying program, said. "We've eliminated the mail stuff with paper, and we're able to extend the data collection period, allowing response rates to go up significantly."

Response rates have increased up to eight points in some states, meaning more ag-related information comes in to the department in less time -- and for less money.

"Right now, we're saving roughly [$3 million to 5 million] annually, and we're hoping to incorporate [CAPI] into larger surveys – hoping to raise savings to $10 million annually," Hird said. "That's a lot of money in a time when we're supposed to be looking for savings."

How it works

In-person surveyors, also called enumerators, take 12 hours of formal in-house classroom training – a curriculum that has been streamlined by NASS over the past 18 months, Hird said. The formal training typically comes after trainees attend one of many workshops NASS conducts across the country, where they are allowed an hour to handle iPads -- a first-time experience for many of the workers.

Once enumerators finish training, they hit the field, tablet in hand. The agency-issued devices come with four layers of security, designed to keep survey information from being shared with any outside party.

On a field visit, an enumerator must first log into the iPad, then log into the NASS' system, and then enter yet another code to access a producer's information and download questionnaires from the department's cloud into a browser window that operates entirely on the iPad's operational memory. In this way, no information is stored on the iPad itself, providing a fourth layer of security in case an iPad is misplaced, Hird said.

Because rural America does not always have thriving Internet connections, CAPI ensures the iPads come with a variety of tools that assist enumerators, including software to continuously seek an Internet signal and upload information asynchronously upon detecting one. Surveyed data streams to the department's cloud, and built-in tools let supervisors examine questionnaires for editing, organizing and oversight purposes.

"We hired firms to hack our systems, and they could not," Hird said. "We have not had any security breaches."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 Donald Mitchell Brush,Co

I have been an enumerator in N.E. Colorado for over thirty years. From my own experience over 80% of my interviews have been on the telephone. If i did use the I-pad in the field i would not have the reception in my area. If i did get on line it might stop responding, annoying the respondent and taking too much of their time. In the past several months this has happened a large number of times even between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.. Also the system has been down a number of times. I have documented some of this for the first part of July. In the future when the bugs get worked out it should work fine. I have sent a copy of this to Bill Moyer, head of the Colorado office.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above