USDA seeks common computing funds

Agriculture Department's fiscal 2006 budget

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The Bush administration would add about $116 million to the Agriculture Department's information technology budget for fiscal 2006. That figure includes money for continued modernization of aging business and technology systems.

The department's proposed IT budget would be $1.93 billion, a 6.4 percent hike from the current year.

The Common Computing Environment (CCE), the USDA's initiative to establish a common computer and network infrastructure to serve its consolidated service centers nationwide, would get about $142 million in 2006, up from this year's $125 million spending level.

The money would be used to replace outdated technology and provide adequate telecommunications capabilities. It would also be used to integrate geographic information systems data into the department's digital mapping effort.

Enhancing food security is another top priority for the department. For example, it is expanding the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) with participating laboratories including the implementation of the electronic Laboratory Exchange Network. About $19 million has been slated for FERN, but it's unclear how much of that is IT spending or whether other funding sources play a role.

The USDA is also requesting $30 million to enhance a unified network of public agricultural institutions to identify and respond to high-risk biological pathogens in the food and agriculture system. The network will be supported with secure, two-way communications and a comprehensive database on test procedures, experts, and past pest and disease problems, according to the budget document.

Several agencies also have IT spending requests for various projects.

Within the Risk Management Agency, the budget proposes $5.8 million for the emerging IT architecture (EITA), which will provide Web-based access to companies participating in the federal crop insurance program. EITA, which would replace a decade-old IT system, would help detect fraud, waste and abuse by improving data sharing with the Farm Service Agency. In the meantime, the agency is requesting $6.4 million to maintain and upgrade the legacy systems while the EITA is developed.

The National Agricultural Library, which provides scientific agricultural data electronically, is requesting a $1.9 increase to expand efforts to catalog, manage and disseminate data via the Internet.

The Office of the Chief Information Officer, which is responsible for the CCE, would receive $16.7 million under the proposed spending plan.

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