The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has undertaken several widely-scoped efforts to ensure its data is accessible and shareable across the department to help make informed decisions, according to a leading data expert at the agency.

Christopher Alvarez, the chief data officer at USDA, said that data-driven tools have improved service delivery and advanced mission goals across the agency, ensuring positive customer experiences for USDA’s many constituents.

Alverez explained, however, that USDA historically has dealt with lots of challenges concerning data accessibility.

“The amount of data we have is much broader than the public typically understands. And there are a lot of challenges when we try to access that data. It’s in a lot of different formats, in a lot of different applications, and [it’s] a burden and a barrier to getting access to that data,” Alverez said during a NextGov/FCW virtual event on August 23.

To address this data accessibility challenge, the agency began to implement several initiatives, including deploying data-driven tools, he said.

Most recently USDA has begun to set up an Enterprise Data Platform “to support improved decision-making while reducing manual data collection, as well as a common data and analytics platform that aggregates more than three billion records and 150 data sources from USDA agencies and other external sources,” which was part of the agency’s 2021-2023 Data Strategy.

“This is serving all our agencies at USDA. They are now contributing data to that platform to help us get the bigger picture and understand important questions that might be crossing business lines or program areas and helping to put access to that data in the hands of our organization and in some cases even out publicly,” Alverez said.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency had to rely heavily on outside data to make important workforce decisions. By utilizing an enterprise platform, USDA was able to bring that data into its environment and distribute it to its workforce to help make unilateral informed decisions.

“Being able to put that in the hands of managers and giving them a common decision-making tool was really instrumental in helping us manage the early stages of the pandemic,” he said. “That’s just one example. We’ve been able to, because of some of these enterprise solutions do analytics at scales that were hard to do before.”

James Barham, the acting CDO and Director for the Data Analytics Division Innovation Center at USDA, agreed with Alverez, adding that incorporating a platform where data was sharable across USDA agencies has been fundamental to delivering services to the wide scope of customers the agency represents.

“When I first came in, there was no enterprise data platform for us to use. We were basically working off archaic tabular data warehouses, siloed data by each agency,” Barham said, adding that it was a little concerning the agency lacked a way to bring all its data together.

“We were able to create an environment where we can bring data together and share it across the organization and do it in a way that’s a common environment for folks,” Alverez said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.