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.


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