Lighthouse helps USDA navigate databases

Workers at the Agriculture Department now have a "lighthouse" to guide their soil analysis.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service created the Lighthouse portal as a pilot project with Microsoft Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp.

The pilot demonstrated that Microsoft's .Net framework is able to make data from geographic information system applications available via the Internet. It also showed that the framework is able to build Web services that can compile data from multiple locations and create a cohesive picture, said Tom Barclay, a Microsoft researcher who manages Microsoft TerraServer and worked with the USDA on the Lighthouse project.

In response to users' queries, the portal is designed to automatically retrieve and analyze information from nine databases, said Steve Ekblad, Lighthouse project manager at USDA. One of those databases is TerraServer, a 3 terabyte database of geospatial imagery that the company operates using U.S. Geological Survey aerial photography and topographical maps.

Work on the Lighthouse portal started in January 2000 and it was made available for use by Natural Resources Conservation Service workers in the fall of 2000, Ekblad said. Among other tasks, NRCS workers from Fort Collins, Colo., are using Lighthouse to work with farmers to plan land use based on soil quality.

Typically, a USDA worker would query databases such as TerraServer and other USDA resources individually and piece together a map of soil conditions in a region based on the data. With Lighthouse, a worker can use GIS applications on the Web, Ekblad said.

Lighthouse retrieves data from separate sources and produces an integrated map based on the characteristics the user desires, such as soil conditions in various parts of a region.

Not all of the data comes from Microsoft-based platforms, he said.

Microsoft .Net is intended to help agencies use their legacy systems with Microsoft enterprise servers to get the maximum return on their investments, said Mitra Azizirad, general manager for the federal government in the Microsoft Government Solutions Group.

The .Net structure, which is based on Extensible Markup Language (XML), enables agencies to create Web services that make workers more efficient and gives them access to vast databases that they could not host themselves, Azizirad said.

"The strategy and goal of Microsoft is to be in the enterprise," Azizirad said. XML, which is becoming the industry standard for Web-based data formats, is the foundation of Microsoft .Net, she said.

"Integration should be a forethought rather than an afterthought," Azizirad said.

The USDA is one of a handful of early adopters of Microsoft .Net, and its application is only a small sample of what can be done with the framework, she said.

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