Mobile network could tie USDA's far-flung agencies together

"USDA Anywhere" is intended to be a single departmentwide mobile network flexible enough to let its 29 disparate agencies modify it to suit their needs.

As the federal government moves to new mobile technologies, one of the challenges facing every agency is how to plan and execute a wireless deployment.

One example of how various parts of the government are approaching this process is the Agriculture Department’s “USDA Anywhere.” The goal of the three-year effort, launched 10 months ago, is to provide all the USDA’s various agencies with a unified mobile service that can be modified to suit individual organization’s needs.

Launching such a large project required careful planning, said Owen Unangst, the USDA’s associate CIO for enterprise network services. Speaking at the Government Mobility Forum in Washington D.C., recently, he said his group profiled mobile users across the department to determine their needs. “We can’t attack the whole elephant at one time,” he said.


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USDA’s strategy for mobile and IT efforts is to create short-term deliverables in a long-term format, Unangst said. With this goal in mind, the department began working out a methodology for mobile deployment and management. He noted that any methodology was possible as long as all the stakeholders agreed to it. The key to successfully launching the initiative was determining the right framework and policies, he said.

As it worked out its approach, the team in the CIO’s office looked at a variety of considerations, such as device management, application life cycle, data management, security, network access and services, said Innocent Lau, group manager for IT services in USDA’s CIO Office.

These considerations are important because the department has very different groups of mobile users with varying requirements, Lau said. For example, Forest Service personnel need applications that can work on a device when it is outside of network connectivity, which they often are when working in remote areas.

One of the challenges of establishing a departmentwide mobile service is that USDA comprises 29 agencies. The CIO’s office reached out to all of these organizations for their advice. It also deployed a variety of collaboration tools, such as Decision Lens, to help with the process, Lau said.

The result is a three-year development road map to achieve the Generalized Mobile Computing Solution. The department now needs to determine a cohesive strategy and phasing for the program, Lau said. Phase 1 of the effort will cover areas such as mobile services, mobile device management, mobile application development and mobile data management.

USDA’s current mobile management capability allows its individual agencies to tweak their capabilities to meet their individual requirements. The department developed a Web-based system that allows agency administrators to manage a range of devices and to approve and disapprove users. For example, the system provides an online help desk function that eliminated the need to call the CIO’s office, Unangst said. It also provides each agency a dedicated user console that complies with USDA policy.

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