2008 GCN Award winner: Inspection service's online certificate system streamlines plant export process<@VM>SIDEBAR: PCIT built with scalable, reusable parts
- By Trudy Walsh
- Oct 17, 2008
CARL HARPER WAS TIRED OF TYPING.
Harper, a senior nursery inspector at
the University of Kentucky's Office of the
State Entomologist, used to type up phytosanitary
certificates, an official document
issued by an exporting
country that certifies that a
shipment meets the plant
health regulations of the importing
country. Harper had
established his own system to
track the documents and invoices
involved in the process.
'We actually used WordStar
to set up the forms, if you can
remember back that far,' he
Harper's typing days are
over, or at least much reduced.
He's one of the thousands
of workers in government
and the agricultural
industry who use the Phytosanitary
and Tracking (PCIT) system, a secure,
Web-enabled Java application that's
accessible from all Web browsers.
Plants exported from the United States to
other countries have to be certified as pestfree.
The guarantee of pest-free exports for
many years has been the internationally accepted
phytosanitary certificate, an indicator
that a plant shipment has met the importer
country's plant health requirements.
The Agriculture Department's Animal
and Plant Health Inspection Service
(APHIS) issues about 500,000 phytosanitary
certificates each year.
But as recently as three years ago, this
certificate process was all paper-based,
said Christian Dellis, senior export specialist
The process has thousands of different
variables that require tracking. The United
States exports as many as 60,000 different
species of plants, Dellis said. Each
country has different requirements
for inspection and certification,
and tracking shipments
overseas could take as
long as two or three weeks,
Dellis and his team at APHIS
decided to translate the phytosanitary
certificate process to
the Web. The resulting Webbased
system, PCIT, now accommodates
and 6,000 industry users and
about 2,000 government
users, Dellis said. Users can
pay fees online through Treasury's
Pay.gov online payment
One problem Dellis and the PCIT project encountered was user resistance.
A lot of people had developed homegrown
phytosanitary certificate systems, Dellis said.
For example, the citrus industry in California
had its own system.
Some state agriculture departments had
also developed certificate tracking systems,
such as Harper's.
Harper's primary job is licensing nurseries,
whether they're at Wal-Mart, garden centers
or any operation that sells plants to the public. Harper works with USDA to survey exotic
pests, such as gypsy moths, light brown
apple moths and the emerald ash borer,
which can devastate ash tree populations. He
also wrote phytosanitary certificates.
Harper developed his own phytosanitary certificate
database using Microsoft Access. He had
set it up so that all he had to do was print the
certificate on a dot-matrix printer and sign it.
Harper also did the billing and invoices for the
'Then I heard there were these grumblings
about APHIS coming up with their own deal,'
he said. 'I was not thrilled with the idea at first,
but by gum, we were going to have to like it.'
But when Dellis met with him to demonstrate
the PCIT system, Harper changed his
mind. 'I don't want to go back to my system,'
Harper receives applications already typed.
'And it's fairly user-friendly,' he said. 'The
only people who don't like it are those who
fight using the computer for their e-mail.'
The only downside is that sometimes the
server is slow, but Harper attributes that to
'students here on campus bogging down the
server.' PCIT seems faster when he logs on
from home, he said.
Harper said he appreciates APHIS developers'
willingness to listen to user suggestions
and make changes if they can.
PCIT has dramatically quickened the plant
export process, Dellis said.
A recent corn seed shipment to Chile illustrated
the speed of PCIT. 'The shipment was
released in a matter of hours, versus the one
to two weeks it used to take us to deal with
the paperwork issues,' Dellis said.
The process still uses some paper, Dellis
said. 'We still print off the certificates on security
paper,' he said. But APHIS is working
to get PCIT to exchange certificates 100 percent
'We've had 17 releases of PCIT,' Dellis said.
'That's amounted to 307 changes to the system,
and they all came from users. You'll
never get it perfect, but if you listen to everybody,
especially people who use it on a dayto-
day basis, you can build a system that
meets as many user requests as possible.'
Harper agreed that this openness to user
suggestion is critical to PCIT's success.
'Somebody listens, takes suggestions and responds
back with 'Yes, we can do it,' or 'No,
that's not possible.' '
Shortly before the development
of the Phytosanitary
Certificate Issuance and
Tracking system, many of
the qualified Agriculture
Department officials who
certificates were reassigned
to work for the Homeland
Security Department, USDA
The paper-intensive methods
the department had
been using when it had more
employees were no longer
feasible, USDA officials said.
That made PCIT's development
To build the PCIT system,
USDA's Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service
wanted hardware, software
and connections that would be
portable, reusable and scalable,
said Christian Dellis, senior
export specialist at APHIS.
The secure Web-enabled
Java application has an
underlying Oracle database.
The USDA National Information Technology Center (NITC) hosts the application on its servers. The application developer is EDS, a Hewlett-Packard company.
The site consists of a dedicated
Dell PowerEdge 2950
Web server that runs
Windows 2003, a Dell
PowerEdge 6850 applications
server, and an IBM
RS/6000 P630 running AIX
for the shared database and
reports server. Everything
but the Web server operates
behind NITC firewalls.
PCIT also has a disaster
recovery and staging environment.
A storage-area network
links disaster recovery
Export data is available at
the touch of a button, letting
USDA officials respond to
questions from foreign trading
partners in seconds,
APHIS officials said.