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Building Technology that Supports Organic Integrity

Posted by Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program and Doug Bailey, Chief Information Officer and Deputy Administrator of the AMS Information Technology Service in Conservation
Nov 20, 2015
Representatives of the database development team
Representatives of the database development team (from left to right) are: Jennifer Tucker (USDA), Indu Shekhar (Harmonia), Aleksey Gasnikov (Harmonia), Dirk Otto (Intact), Manisha Amdiyala (Harmonia), Stacy Swartwood (USDA), Swathy Mudhagouni (Harmonia), Kristin Tensuan (USDA), and Thomas Lorber (Intact).

If you have accessed the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) list of certified organic operations recently, you may have noticed a new look to the site, and new ways to search for organic operations.  These changes reflect an early release of the Organic INTEGRITY Database, a system funded by the 2014 Farm Bill and built by the AMS National Organic Program and Information Technology Service with support from Intact and Harmonia Holdings Group.  

The changes you see on the site are only a small part of the database development project.  For example, underlying the new site is a brand new classification system (or taxonomy) for categorizing products that carry USDA organic certification. Previously, organic certifiers reporting farm and business information to USDA submitted a single text list of certified products for each operation.  Certifiers reported data differently and there was no method to catch spelling or spacing problems. For example, one listing included the item “grapechickenapples.” An interesting appetizer or, a big data quality problem!

The new classification system built into the Organic INTEGRITY Database provides standard categories and product lists for each of the scopes of organic certification (crops, livestock, wild crops, and handling). This structure is also flexible so existing data can be accepted from many different organic certification systems.

For example, based on their existing systems, certifiers can report “Oranges” within the category of “Fruit – Citrus,” or they can report “Citrus” in the category of “Fruit – Tropical.”  This flexibility was designed to encourage certifiers to adopt the taxonomy, while also providing much needed structure to the data. For certifiers wishing to provide even more detail, there is space allowed for varieties, such as “Romaine” within the category of “Leaf Vegetables” and the item “Lettuce.”

The new organic product taxonomy was developed using both “top down” and “bottom up” approaches.  For example, the development team reviewed 18 taxonomies from different entities, including the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), European Union, global product classification systems, and existing organic certifier systems. This top-down Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), Retailer Standards, GS1 view was supplemented by analyzing data in the existing 2014 certified organic operations list, to assess the frequency of specific items as reported by certifiers last year.

In the next few weeks, certifiers will begin to upload updated data into the new system, and many are already starting to use the new taxonomy in preparing their data.  Once in full use by certifiers, the new organic taxonomy will allow farmers, consumers, researchers, and businesses to search for organic products with greater precision, and benefit from more accurate, complete, and timely results. We are building organic integrity, one data set at a time!

Category/Topic: Conservation