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Developing Solutions for an Off-line USDA

As the world’s focus on mobile computing intensifies, several USDA agencies are working towards solutions for technology users in an off-line environment. These agencies are developing mobile applications that allow workers to input and collect data in the field, help firefighters share wildland fire information as it happens, and keep employees in the field and out of the office connected – all without a Wi-Fi connection.

With more and more organizations embracing the mobility movement as a way to improve communication and productivity, off-line technology users are in danger of being left behind. Without connectivity, their tablets and smartphones are little more than costly accessories. They cannot share essential information with their colleagues. They waste valuable time travelling to a fixed workstation to submit paperwork – paperwork that they could have otherwise submitted via a mobile tablet. Bottom line: users of USDA applications need the ability to work anywhere, whether they are connected or not.

This leaves many USDA agencies facing an interesting challenge: how do we make the most of new wireless tools designed to make life in the field easier for our workers, in areas that don’t have wireless connectivity?  Here are a few examples:

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has taken advantage of mobile capabilities to improve field time to office time ratio. Before the advent of computers, employees would spend 80% of their time in the field and only 20% in the office. With traditional computer workstations making employees more and more office bound, those numbers have now reversed. Therefore, 80% of the time customers must travel to USDA offices. NRCS is turning the tables on this trend with mobile alternatives to administrative tasks that would have otherwise brought field employees indoors. These tools increase time spent with the customer and help NRCS employees meet their customers where they are, reducing trips to USDA office sites and improving customer satisfaction.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts field surveys and interviews farmers across the country to gather data, usually conducting these interviews in person. But instead of using traditional paper forms, the interviewers now are entering the data into Agency-issued iPads. That data is securely stored and then transmitted when wireless network access is in range.

And USDA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer’s Enterprise Application Services’ mobile Fire Size-Up application leverages crowd-sourcing software to help firefighters on-the-ground collect and share intel. It leverages a mobile device’s camera and GPS capabilities to record the location, size, and magnitude of wildfires, then shares this information with other firefighters. Not only do these kinds of systems allow firefighters to focus on their most important task – fighting fires – but they also increase employee satisfaction. With the ability to securely enter data on a mobile device, firefighters don’t have to return to an office building to enter hours and complete paperwork after a long day in the field. They can do their administrative work from a mobile device and submit it as soon as they are in range of a network.

Developing mobile solutions for offline environments is a key element of USDA’s latest mobility efforts –from allowing workers to create and update records of a daily activity or statistic, to tracking the results of an inspection, to reviewing, updating, and assigning work order tasks.  For many USDA activities, we need to provide apps and functionality that allow us to work offline, yet automatically synch data when the device finds a connection.

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