Calif. ag department grows apps to serve citizens, agencies, businesses

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California’s Department of Food and Agriculture is moving heavily into the mobile space with a number of applications in development to improve how the agency works with citizens, other government agencies and the business community.

In an interview with StateScoop, Robert Schmidt, CDFA’s chief information officer, said the apps primarily focus on ways that will help the department’s large number of employees (approximately 70 percent) in the field work more efficiently.

“One of the things we did was interview employees and ask them simply, ‘How do you do your job?’,” Schmidt said. “That gave us insight into the steps they take during their workday, and that helped us to find ways that technology could benefit from them.”

Apps the department is working on or has already created:

Includes information on the 25,000 different brands of cattle and can be used as a replacement or substitute for an annual phone book sized guide the department published and mailed out. The app will also include a local database on cattle that can be synched with a centralized database that law enforcement can use when they find stray cattle.

Currently available on the iPhone, this app allows citizens to photograph and make notations on any mysterious bugs they may find. The photos are accompanied by GPS coordinates and contact information. The submissions are reviewed by experts to see if the bug could cause any problems to the state’s agriculture. Schmidt said the app will help scientists also find the bugs faster to help that part of the department run more efficiently.

This application keeps track of the more than 500,000 bug collection devices that the department deploys each year. Maintained by more than 700 employees, the app will help track the traps and allow the department to come up with more efficient ways to maintain them. The app will be deployed to employees who will be equipped with iPads with the data being stored in a database in Sacramento.

The mobile aspect fits into Schmidt’s push in four key areas: big data, user interface, social communication and working with sensors.

Schmidt said the department has more than a petabyte of data and is looking to work with large datasets more efficiently, mainly using historical data to predict future trends. The state is also using Esri software for geospatial data as well, something Schmidt said will only increase.

The increase in mobile applications fits into the user interface part of the equation, but the state is also looking at other key technologies as well, like voice annotations (think the iPhone’s Siri).

“Developing mobile solutions for a workforce is much different than even a desktop application,” Schmidt said, “because it really forces you to think about development and what is truly needed since you’re working with such a smaller platform.”

In terms of social communication, the agriculture department has a program called “Farm to Fork” that looks to connect citizens and the farming community, which includes everyone from commodity groups to the growers, packers and shippers. The agency’s site includes more than 30 different sign-up channels for people to get information via social media.

And finally, Schmidt said he sees a future in leveraging hyperspectral imaging, something that will become more available in 2017 when a new satellite is launched. The photos, captured in high definition, take images across the entire light spectrum and could show – for example – items like changes in the chemical composition of plants. This would be helpful in finding an anomaly in one of the state’s orange groves and dispatching agents to treat it before a problem gets worse.

“It’s an exciting time for many reasons,” Schmidt said. “We’re seeing a lot areas where we can transform the department.”

Of course, being innovative is nothing new for CFDA. Last year, the department was honored by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers for an emerging threat project as well as a video interaction project where it used Skype its in field offices to connect with headquarters.

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Big Data, California, Data & Analytics, Esri, iPad, iPhone, Mobility, National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Robert Schmidt, Skype, States, Tech News
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