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Keeping NASS Ahead of the Technology Curve

Posted by Pam Hird, National Agricultural Statistics Service in Research and Science
Jul 30, 2013
Pam Hird, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Photo courtesy of FedTech Magazine
Pam Hird, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Photo courtesy of FedTech Magazine

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Unlike the math and agricultural statisticians with whom I work daily, I took a completely different career path into the world of agricultural statistics. In college, I started out as an accounting major at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV. Based on the recommendation of friends, I took some courses in computer programming and the love affair began when I was introduced to Fortran and Cobol. After college, I stuck to my IT knowledge and went into sales revolving around IT solutions for government contractors and customers including Dulles Airport, Martin Marietta, and Contel. These experiences taught me to think logically, to put myself in the other person’s shoes, and to communicate effectively.

Eventually my IT path took me to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and I joined the agency’s Information Technology Division. While new to the world of statistics, I was inspired by the agency’s commitment to keep improving its processes to ensure highest levels of data accuracy and security. One of my first programming experiences was a summary program for the poultry slaughter system.

I was not in NASS headquarters very long before moving to Colorado to provide IT and program support to field offices in the newly-formed section called Field Services. At Field Services, I worked with our International Programs Office on the Nicaragua project to develop and support the agency intranet.

All of these experiences prepared me for the role that I accepted close to four years ago. Each year, NASS interviews tens of thousands of farmers face-to-face for its agricultural surveys. And so the Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) project, focused on making the personal interviewing process more efficient and secure, was born. As project manager, the team and I developed a creative and innovative solution using iPads as a data collection tool, making NASS the first federal agency to successfully implement this technology.

The CAPI solution saves NASS both time and money. The use of iPads for face-to-face interviewing allowed NASS to greatly cut back on printing, mailing and administrative functions for the survey program. Data entry is not required since the forms are filled out electronically and multiple surveys for a respondent are coordinated electronically. The additional bonus was that the new system was more secure than ever, enhancing safety of an individual’s responses.

Best of all, the solution gave me a chance to directly impact and further enhance NASS’ statistical programs. Of course, as is always the case with anything involving technology, the challenges and rewards keep on coming. But I look forward to what tomorrow brings and the continuing role of this remarkable program in producing accurate agricultural statistics.

2013 is the International Year of Statistics. As part of this global event, every month this year USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will profile careers of individuals who are making significant contributions to improve agricultural statistics in the United States.

Category/Topic: Research and Science