Agriculture division monitors investment portfolio via intranet

A new intranet in the Agriculture Department’s Rural Development Division lets
employees research rural community investments online instead of sifting through boxes of
computer printouts or tracking down information on the phone.


“Prior to the intranet, questions such as ‘What were Rural Development’s
investments in 1997 for the Mississippi Delta region?’ required weeks of data
gathering and analysis, and yielded answers with an 80 percent accuracy rate,” said
Kathleen Jackson, a Rural Development computer specialist. “Now, similar analysis
takes only a few minutes and data accuracy is 98 percent.”


The intranet was designed so Rural Development employees could give Congress and other
agencies fast and accurate data for policy-making, said Victor Vasquez, deputy
administrator in the Rural Business-Cooperative Service.


“We are pleased to see the days of digging through piles of printouts for
information analysis fading into the past,” he said.


Rural Development has an $82 billion portfolio, equal to the fourth largest bank in the
country, said Norman Reid, associate deputy administrator for community development. The
division consists of three departments: the Rural Business-Cooperative, Rural Housing and
Rural Utilities services. The division, which has 7,500 employees in 850 offices
nationwide, administers grants and loans for business development, housing, water and
sewer systems, and telephone and electric services, Reid said.


Agriculture first considered using data warehousing techniques in early 1996. “At
first, we thought we would have to get rid of all existing infrastructure and build a new,
costly system,” Vasquez said. “But we were committed to using what we had and
finding a way to make it all work together with a minimal outlay of money.”


Agriculture chose the WebFocus Suite Managed Reporting Environment from Information
Builders Inc. of New York. “We needed a product that uses standard database
structures, existing security schemes and provides access to legacy data on a wide range
of platforms,” said Michael Grisby, an Agriculture employee working on the new
intranet.


The intranet data mining project began last September. Rural Development had hosted its
data on USDA National Computer Center mainframes in Kansas City, Mo. The division used
WebFocus Enterprise Data Access Enterprise Copy Manager to extract and index the data.


The division migrated the extracted data to a Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 database on a
dual 275-MHz Digital Equipment Corp. AlphaServer 2100 running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.
The Alpha, which has 256M of RAM and four 9G hard drives, is located at the Community
Development Office in Washington, Grisby said.


An X.25 backbone WAN sends information from the field offices to Kansas City and
Washington. More than 60 percent of the field offices are linked via X.25 lines to T1 and
T3 lines in Kansas City, he said. Routers from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.,
connect Kansas City to Washington via T1 and T3 backbones, Grisby said.


Now that the system is up, division employees can call up data on specific Rural
Development Projects using a Web browser and proprietary address. They access the data by
searching the region, district, date of a project’s conception and other key phrases.


For the time being, division employees can access information on business development
and water and sewer system loans. Housing investment data will be online in October,
followed by telephone and electric service loans a few months later.


The project will cost $200,000 when complete, Reid said.  

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