Online tools help USDA preserve, transfer knowledge

Monday - 8/26/2013, 2:39pm EDT

Dr. Terrance Walters, IT Technology Program Coordinator, APHIS

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Agriculture Department managers are concerned about a potential loss of knowledge as large numbers of USDA scientists approach retirement age.

"USDA is facing a significant challenge, and that is many of our researchers as well as other experts are retiring on us," said Dr. Terrance Walters, coordinator of the ID Technology Program at Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Walters told Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Monday that APHIS, in particular, faces a loss of expertise in identifying insect pests. To address this concern, APHIS has launched an online identification tool to help new employees, or anyone for that matter, figure out which bug is which.

"The whole idea behind USDA's ID tools is to try to capture this expert knowledge before these individuals retire on us," he said. "So, my team is actually coding this valuable human knowledge right into our pest identification software."

APHIS is also making this software available in a user-friendly, online format that's accessibe anytime or anywhere.

"That way, anyone can continue to benefit from this knowledge long after our experts retire," Walters said.

Dr. Terrance Walters, ID Technology Program coordinator for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, recently gave a four-hour lecture/lab to Rutgers University students. He was a guest lecturer for the class on using online identification keys. (USDA image)

Part of the problem USDA faces is that few people have this specialized knowledge. Not only will this resource bolster the expertise the department already has, but as new experts come in, it will act as a means of transferring that specialized knowledge to them

"As, hopefully, future experts come into the picture, they'll have the historical expert knowledge to bring into their positions," he said.

APHIS, which not only deals with insects, but also diseases and other non-insect types of pests, uses a software called LUCID developed by the University of Queensland in Australia.

To identify an insect using LUCID, a person begins by comparing characteristics like size and color to the descriptions and photographs displayed by the program.

"The strength of this approach is that you don't always need to know the scientific terms of the specimen to help you make an identification," he said. "You essentially look at the specimen and look at the photographs and the images presented through the LUCID key."

To assemble the information for the LUCID key, APHIS worked with USDA experts as well as experts from around country.

"LUCID is truly remarkable at capturing the process these experts go through to make an identification," Walters said. "And it makes them input that process into the behind-the-scenes software that then the users can use online."

To make it so that users can take this information with them wherever they go, APHIS just released eight LUCID mobile key apps on its website for citrus pests and diseases, palm pests and diseases, and slugs and snails.

"These eight are for Android smartphones and Android tablets, so they're available on the Google play store and they're there at no cost," Walters said. "We do plan on having the iOS version of these same apps for the iPhone and the iPad sometime this fall." Search for the apps using the word "Lucidmobile."

APHIS currently has about 50 tools available for download on IDTools.org.

"These tools can help make the transition as we try to fill that gap with students," Walters said. "Our team within USDA is working with a lot of graduates and undergraduates and to try to encourage them to move into the field along with us."