The USDA is working its way through an ambitious iPad deployment that may come to serve as a model for a range of government agencies within the U.S. and around the world. The challenge was to develop a simple, intuitive, and effective field survey and data collection system.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is a division of the USDA that is charged with surveying and reporting agricultural data across the country. NASS operates in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico. With a staff of around 3,000 enumerators NASS conducts thousands of survey each year about agriculture across the country. The service has been operating since the mid-1800s and, until the iPad, it conducted surveys and collected data in pretty much the same way that it had back in the 19th century – with paper forms filled out by hand and mailed to various field offices. Although various technology initiatives have been tried by NASS since the 1980s, none was a successful fit before the iPad.
A federal mandate to make government more efficient and the Obama administration’s push for the government to adopt new mobile technologies convinced NASS to try new approaches.
Pam Hird, a project manager involved with the effort noted that the agency tried a range of tablets beyond the iPad as well as various PCs, none of which fit their needs.
We did test other tablets and PCs. But the iPad was the only one that met all of our requirements. To my knowledge, we were the first federal agency to put iPads into production.
NASS was faced with some unique challenges. One of them is the number remote sites where enumerators need to go to survey farmers and others involved in the agricultural industry. Another was the enumerators themselves, many of whom are retired farmers or retirees who worked in the agricultural industry that work for NASS as a part-time source of income – not the most tech-savvy of employees according Hird. In fact, one of the reasons the iPad has been so successful for NASS is the device’s intuitive nature.
Many are not computer savvy, and they were very apprehensive about collecting survey data on computers. When these people walk in the room, you see the concern. But when they walk out a day and a half later, they have a totally different perspective.
Originally the service planned training for the iPad that lasted three to four days, but NASS discovered the iPad requires a much shorter learning curve. The training is now just 13 hours. One result is that the deployment will most likely be finished by December of this year – nearly two full years ahead of its October 2014 deadline.
The switch, which includes an in-house web-app that is used to deliver surveys and collect data, has had a number of cost-saving and efficiency boosting results. Chief among them is the cost printing and mailing surveys to enumerators (and the postage for returning them). Another is that the results no longer have to be keyed in by hand at the various field offices. That saves time and money and it avoid errors. Of course, it also means that data is ready to be analyzed within two to three days instead of days or weeks.