USDA boosts Common Computing Environment

USDA Service Center Modernization

The Bush administration is requesting $178 million for the Agriculture Department's Common Computing Environment (CCE) in the fiscal 2004 budget — a $45 million increase from the year before.

The CCE is a Web-based program that is expected to bring the latest technology to farmers and USDA workers in the field. Most of the $45 million increase would be devoted to funding geographic information systems (GIS), which enable users to analyze land and soil data electronically.

USDA's Service Center Modernization initiative has been consolidating field offices and integrating systems with the CCE. Under the Service Center concept, USDA intends to offer one-stop service for greater customer convenience in accessing the department's programs.

Service Center agencies — including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development — will use GIS to enable customers to view USDA information about land and soil data online, rather than have them visit an office. GIS also will enable USDA to map soil analysis in minutes, rather than days or weeks.

Also, USDA will be able to replace its printing, storing and distribution of maps with the electronic delivery of such information.

The funding also would support hardware and software upgrades to the more than 2,600 offices. As the amount of electronic applications increase, bandwidth must be increased, said USDA chief information officer Scott Charbo.

"It's a lot of data moving through those pipes," he said. "We need to update them."

Another big-ticket item in IT spending is support for nutrition services. About a quarter of the $2.2 billion in USDA's IT spending plan would be dedicated to supporting state-administered programs such as food stamps and child nutrition programs. Charbo said with an increase in these programs comes an increase in the need for continued infrastructure support.

One aspect of food nutrition services, the electronic benefits transfer program, which delivers food stamps electronically, has seen a $70 million increase since fiscal 2002, and the new funds would substantially complete the implementation of the program nationwide.

Charbo said the agency also wants to spend $36 million in fiscal 2004 to increase the infrastructure of food safety inspections, which ensure the safety of meat, poultry and egg products.

An additional $4 million is requested to fund ongoing projects to implement e-government initiatives. The fiscal 2004 budget also includes a $3 million increase for information technology cybersecurity for agricultural systems.

Charbo said that during the past couple years, IT spending has roughly remained steady and as the agency focuses on developing a more managed infrastructure, the cost benefits will show.

"We're getting better data in terms of what's happening across the department.... We're starting to bring [the various systems] together into common networks, so we can leverage those costs," he said. "If there's an increase, let's make it in the program delivery, not the infrastructure side."

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