Web system sharpens USDA's analytical skills

Web system sharpens USDA's analytical skills

Tool integrates grant and loan files with data on implementation, repayment, flood plains, poverty levels and project sites

The Agriculture Department's Rural Development office is enhancing its policy analysis and program management tool to give 6,000 users at 800 offices nationwide the ability to find project details in a few clicks.

A big benefit of the Mapping Analysis Program Web system is that information can be accessed in minutes on a PC, said Karen Savoie Murray, deputy director of empowerment programs at Rural Development.

Previously, workers had to go through as many as 10 people to find one report.

'It was hair-raising when someone was out and we had to answer an inquiry that same day,' Murray said.

Users of MAP can check the number and location of projects the agency has funded through its various programs. The system also creates a table that lets users see the number of grants and loans made, the amount and the recipient's name, said J. Norman Reid, associate administrator of the Office of Community Development.

Tables also contain census data for a quick comparison by users to check if the investments are being made in high-poverty areas, he said.

Users can filter data based on several criteria to generate a map of the United States with details such as the value of loans and grants for a particular program.

By clicking on a state, users can drill down to details for that state. From the state map, they can go to the county level.

'I use it to pull program data to answer congressional inquiries such as how much funding a particular county is getting,' Murray said. 'It's a great tool, especially since USDA has been criticized for years for having stovepipe systems that do not talk to each other.'

X marks the spot

At the county level, the maps show the exact latitude and longitude of where a loan has been granted.

Maps also display roads for users to see where projects are in relation to other landmarks, Reid said.

The system runs on a map server and a data server housed in USDA's Washington headquarters.

The map server is a Compaq ProLiant ML 530 with two 850-MHz Xeon processors, 1G of RAM and 80G of RAID disk storage.

The data server, a Dell PowerEdge 4300 with two 800-MHz processors, 1G of RAM and 80G of RAID disk storage, uses a Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database.

MAP runs under Microsoft Windows NT 4.0. It uses ETL Manager from iWay Software, a subsidiary of Information Builders Inc. of New York, to transfer data daily from Rural Development's accounting and management information systems.

The software schedules data transfers to the map server using ArcSDE from Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif.

Intranet access

Maps are generated by ESRI's ArcIMS and posted to HTML pages developed with Microsoft's Visual Basic using Active Server Pages and Extensible Markup Language.

Users access MAP with a standard Web browser through an intranet.

MAP includes details about business and infrastructure programs.

With the upgrade of the system, expected to be completed this spring, USDA will include information on all Rural Development programs, Reid said.

Maps in the system will include data such as grant and loan applications, status updates on project implementation and loan repayment, he said.

ArcIMS also will let users overlay maps such as those that show high-poverty areas with maps that depict areas of high unemployment or flood plains, Reid said. Rural Development often targets its programs to areas with high and persistent poverty levels.

To determine whether guaranteed loans to businesses are focused on these areas, the outlines of impoverished counties can be superimposed on a map showing the dollar value of those loans for a given fiscal year.

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