USDA: Another Federal Agency Seeks Input on Digital Strategy

By Dennis D. McDonald

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has joined other Federal agencies in seeking input on how to proceed with development of its “digital strategy.”

In Seeking Your Input for USDA’s Digital Strategy the USDA’s Amanda Eamich lists for comment 5 “first-move candidates” to make available as web Application Programming Interfaces (APIs):

  1. World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates
  2. National Farmers Market Directory
  3. List of Disaster Counties
  4. Office Information Profile System
  5. SNAP Retailer Locator information

These 5 are described as candidates to be optimized for mobile use:

  1. Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory
  2. USDA Newsroom
  3. USDA Blog
  4. AmberWaves eZine
  5. Office Information Profile System
It’s an interesting mix of candidates. The first category, API candidates, is a mix of frequently updated listings and data sets that have the potential for many uses among the diverse USDA constituent groups. It also appears that much standardization and quality control is already applied to the source data for these candidate services. This will be essential for the API toolsets and data to be found reliable and usable by outside groups. The second group of candidates, those targeting mobile access, is a bit more of a “mixed bag.” They span USDA related news and specialized data sets with potentially broad usability via mobile platforms.
As I noted in Has “Transparency” Concerning Federal Stimulus Funding Been a Success? Part 1 realizing the need for planning in advance is nothing new. Any information system developer knows you need to understand the “use cases” you’re trying to support with the new system. I call these the “who, what, where, when, why, how, and how much?” of system development. (Another list of factors to consider in planning is here.)

The same is true when considering which government programs to “expose” digitally via an API that others can use to develop services, or a mobile web interface. You need to do some planning around anticipated uses if you expect to succeed in promoting digital access to government programs, services, and content.

Just as it doesn’t make sense to attempt to completely replicate all of a web site’s functionality on a mobile device, it’s also wise not to restrict the ability to experiment with improving transparency of government programs. The USDA’s pursuit of developing flexible API’s that others can experiment with is definitely a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how any forthcoming RFP’s reflect this.

Each of these two lists provides food for thought to any Federal agency considering how to adopt the digital strategy policies issued in May by the Federal CIO, Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People. Making Federal digital resources more accessible for use and re-use involves much more than “mobile-enabling” an existing web site, as the USDA makes clear by its singling out API development as a priority. As noted by IBM Center for the Business of Government’s report Recovery Act Transparency: Learning from the Experience of States, “transparency” works best when the goals, objectives, and target user groups for a transparency strategy are clear.

In many cases we may be sailing into uncharted waters here. For example, we may not have a 100% understanding of all the “use cases” we’re trying to support, at least partly because the technology being used to deliver content access and process support is undergoing significant shifts.

Still, citizens today expect to have web access to programs, software and data. Government programs, as evidenced by what the USDA, EPA, ED, USAID, and others are doing, are “getting mobile” via the “cloud” and are moving away from 100% reliance on legacy and in-house systems. This is real progress — as long as the resulting systems do some real good.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in collaborative project management and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Library of Medicine, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at [email protected] or by phone at 703-402-7382. This article was originally published on Dennis D. McDonald’s Web Site on August 28, 2012.

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Chris Cairns

If you look through the feedback comments on the USDA blog quite a few people rank National Farmers Market Directory as a priority.

Cat Robinson

I agree Chris. The Farmers’ Market Directory can have an immediate and consistent impact on citizens’ lives. People want to buy local food and support their local economy, that’s a no brainer. They just don’t know where to go to buy local food exactly when they need it…

Dennis McDonald

Chris and Cat – I can’t argue with the value of that type of service, but what are the costs of pulling together and curating that type of data that needs to be updated on a local basis? Wouldn’t a commercial service already managing and curating local data be better qualified to do something like that?

Chris Cairns

It’s difficult to run this through a standard business case analysis. Part of the rationale behind open data strategy is that the private sector will find innovative ways to leverage the data to create new public services. It’s nearly impossible to quantify these type of benefits, and thus justify the costs, unless you can predict the future. Over time, there’ll be enough anecdotal evidence to justify further investment.

Dennis McDonald

I remember back in the 1970’s there were controversies surrounding the fact that “information industry” companies were taking government generated data and using it as the basis for high-priced “added value” subscription publications. Even today we have arguments around federally subsidized R&D being used as the basis for expensive commercially published peer reviewed journal. Assuming budget cuts will restrict the government’s ability to provide full service access to government content, I hope reliance on the private sector for access to government funded data via official API’s doesn’t run into similar problems.

Dennis McDonald

Chris, I agree with what you say about “standard business case analysis” but the difficulty of doing that should not prevent anyone from estimating what resources will be needed in order to carry out and maintain a “digital strategy” initiative. If you look through the many different websites that some agencies support directly or indirectly, for example, you’ll see that in many cases making site contents and functionality “mobile accessible” involves a lot more than slapping on a new interface. I am concerned that some efforts might become bogged down if sufficient planning is not done at the front end.