Info Share now is a ghost of its grandiose self

For all intents and purposes, the Agriculture Department has
done away with the Info Share program.

Info Share still exists as a smaller project within the department's broad Field
Service Centers Implementation Plan. But it no longer is the ambitious scheme USDA
officials laid out more than five years ago to integrate the department's administrative
and program systems from the top down.

For now, on a shoestring budget, Info Share will build test beds for new business
processes and applications for USDA field offices. The revised vision of Info Share is to
test new apps without making big investments in technology.

For now, this will involve programs in two states:

Under pressure from oversight organizations, USDA officials have disavowed the notion
that Info Share will support the department's reorganization by providing a new computing

"The implementation team is concentrating on changing business processes because
we were faulted for deploying technology before that," said Linda Nolton, a USDA
computer specialist in Fort Collins, Colo., who is working with the Field Services
Implementation Plan.

Info Share today is under the stewardship of the agencies that, since its inception,
have provided the personnel and paid the bills for the project to the tune of $100

The project is overseen by the National Food and Agriculture Committee, a group of
agency administrators who felt they were getting little return on their Info Share
investments. They are trying to make the most of the $7.5 million in Info Share funding
this year.

"The missing link here was that we hadn't really re-engineered a common
application that needed to be shared," said Gregory Carnill, executive officer of the

The Kentucky project brought together the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources
Conservation Service and Rural Economic and Commercial Development offices into shared
offices in 12 counties. The agencies operated with a variety of computers and operating

"To be candid, what they ended up with there was not any kind of a system that we
would look to for a system of the future," NFAC chairman Grant Buntrock said.

So USDA gave workers in the offices Windows PCs and linked them via Novell NetWare LANs
and Sun Microsystems Sparcstation 10 servers. The 14 offices were linked via a WAN running
across the government's FTS 2000 network.

"What it did was allow us to put a network in, and the business re-engineering
people will have a highway to work off of," said Gordon Davis, FSA IRM manager for
Kentucky. "Instead of a sterile environment, we are a real-life setting. It creates a
good test bed."

The network will be used first to create a common customer information profile for the
co-located agencies, said Robert Finch, acting project manager in Lexington. "This
will be a front-load process that will only have to be entered once," he said.

The Kentucky network also will be used to test other re-engineered processes developed
by USDA, although these new processes have been delayed by the budget impasse and passage
of the new farm bill, Finch said.

"The big BPR changes will probably be coming this fall," he said.
"Nothing has jelled to the point yet that it has been signed off on."

The future is a little clearer in Osage County, Kan., where the Farm Service Agency and
NRCS did away with paper maps 16 months ago.

"Eighty-five percent of what we do with the producers starts at the counter with
maps," said Idonna Corwinne, an FSA program assistant there. Since January 1995 the
maps have been digital, housed on a Sun Sparcstation 10 server and called up on X
terminals from Hewlett-Packard Co.

The maps start as digital orthographic photos, on which information is overlaid with
Geographic Resources Analysis Support System software developed by the Army Corps of

"There are a lot of off-the-shelf programs out there," Corwinne said.
"But GIS software tends to be expensive," and GRASS, which is in the public
domain, is being used to determine USDA agency needs.

The Osage County USDA offices recently joined a Kansas initiative to develop and share
their geographic information system resources with state and local agencies. They have
formed a partnership with the local conservation district, the county appraiser's office,
the state Property Evaluation Department and the Kansas Historical Society.

The appraiser will develop and maintain a land ownership layer for shared digital maps,
FSA will maintain a crop and land use layer, and NRCS will develop a soil type layer.
"We've demonstrated significant labor savings in the core functions of the farm
services and conservation agencies," Carnill said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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