Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

USDA: Another Federal Agency Seeks Input on Digital Strategy

By Dennis D. McDonald 

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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, and 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 Academy of Engineering, the National Library of Medicine, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at or by phone at 703-402-7382.

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