How CDA is Aligning with the Evolving IT Landscape
To understand the importance of technology in agriculture, consider this. Between 1910 and 1940 there were six to seven million farms in the United States, and today that number is just over two million. While farms were steadily disappearing, the U.S. population went from 132 million in 1940 to more than 300 million today! How is it that we are still able to easily put food on our table or milk in our refrigerator? Technology. It’s not the only reason, but it is a big part of how farmers and ranchers are feeding our country and the world.
As the IT Director for the Governor’s Office of Information Technology at the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), it is my job to ensure we are supporting the goals of the agency and the large farming and ranching community in the state. It’s not easy for the public sector to keep up with the great value and benefit that technology from private industry has brought to agriculture. Technology now allows tractors to operate without a driver and plant crops with an incredible amount of precision, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and data gathering sensors enable farmers and ranchers to remotely monitor their herds’ activities better than ever before. The concept of the “connected cow” is here, allowing producers to identify health issues much earlier than ever before and more efficiently manage production and reproduction. Drones are quickly becoming more effective at both crop and cattle management by providing all kinds of data that can be fed into big data systems. These big data systems are facilitating concepts like high-tech farming, smart agriculture, and precision farming, just to name a few.
How does the public sector keep up? In Colorado we’re making solid progress but still have a long row to hoe. We’re faced with keeping legacy systems running while implementing the newest technology - all on a limited budget. To accomplish this, we’ve adhered to a few guiding principles.
Make sure IT strategy represents Department of Agriculture initiatives and priorities.
At the Colorado Department of Agriculture (and all executive branch agencies in Colorado) we have a formalized five-year strategic IT roadmap, and the IT Director is part of CDA’s executive team, which is critical. It is incredibly challenging to achieve organizational maturity in such a rapidly moving landscape where the key players are already over-scheduled, but it’s worth the effort. Most valuable is to have the technology leader partner with the agency executive director to make sure IT is addressing and prioritizing the right initiatives. In Colorado we are managing modernization of legacy environments while also exploring how to implement blockchain technology in Colorado agriculture. The Colorado primary regulatory system for registrations and inspections will soon need replacing and we are working with states around the nation to build a multi-layered, multi-tenant, configurable platform that will help bring us into the future.
Fix the house by focusing on legacy systems, shoring up infrastructure, and never losing sight of the importance of information security.
You’ll never hear an IT professional say they are putting too much effort into keeping data in systems secure. We’ve been successful at not only implementing new tools for CDA, but in training staff in cybersecurity best practices. Employees are often identified as the weakest security link, but through regular and repeated cybersecurity training, our agency employees have become knowledgeable about the ever-changing look of phishing scams, the dangers of ransomware, and the risk of clicking on links from untrusted and unknown senders.
When it comes to infrastructure, we’re getting things fixed in small bites, only taking on as much as we can manage financially and with current resources. We will realize cost savings as well as gains in efficiency and security by transitioning from physical servers to a virtual infrastructure. On the applications side - like many other state departments of agriculture - Colorado has business critical systems that were written decades ago using Microsoft Access. We’re working on cleaning them up by converting MS Access databases to SQL, not only for better security but to put our data in a better position for modernization.
Collaboration. There is incredible power in the wisdom and experiences of others, just ask.
Colorado started the State Agriculture Technology Officers (SATO) group in 2016 and still chairs that organization today. IT leaders from more than 30 state departments of agriculture participate in the SATO group to collaborate and solve problems since each state faces similar challenges. A good example is the need to regulate hemp in several states. Colorado has developed a registration system and is looking at how we can share it with other states. While it may be obvious that building one solution together and sharing it across states is better than each state building a solution in isolation, the challenge is in finding agreement on how that solution should look. It’s just one of the issues I look forward to finding a solution for with this group.
It's a fascinating time with the awesome advances in technology providing opportunities for agriculture producers. I am honored to be in public service, serving the agriculture community and being part of the effort that provides government regulators the best technologies that produce the most accurate data as a base for decision and policy making.