USDA reaps IT budget increase

President Bush's fiscal 2003 budget request for the Agriculture Department includes a 13 percent hike in spending on information technology and more than doubles the money for the Common Computing Environment.

Greg Parham, the acting deputy chief information officer at USDA, said the budget increase would be earmarked to continue the flow of money mostly to existing programs as well as expanding CCE. CCE is the Web-based program that is expected to bring the latest technology to farmers and USDA workers in the field.

The budget increase would raise CCE funding from $59.4 million in fiscal 2002 to $133.2 million in fiscal 2003 — the largest single item in USDA's $1.6 billion IT budget request for next year.

Among CCE's goals is to bring the latest technology into the field for digital data collection, using the Global Positioning System to scientifically plant and harvest crops and making the jobs of USDA workers in the field easier.

It would allow a USDA employee to work "directly in a cornfield" collecting data instead of sitting in an office, according to Scott Snover, CCE program manager.

And some of the wireless tools under consideration would enable a government employee to "leave the office or leave a pickup truck and go out on the landscape," he said.

The IT budget also earmarks money for homeland security, including protecting the food supply. A review of USDA facilities determined that "some, including several laboratories that perform research on infectious diseases and food supply contamination, need greater protection," the budget said. The budget calls for $58 million for high-priority initiatives such as biotechnology and counterterrorism. Other big-ticket items for USDA technology:

* $32 million for the Forest Service's radio communications.

* $98 million for the Food and Nutrition Service's electronic benefits transfer.

* $119.5 million to reconfigure Project 615 for workstations, geographic information systems and software.

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