The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is the branch of the US Department of Agriculture that generates statistical gems such as: farmers this year have planted nearly 100 million acres of corn this year - the most in the last 75 years.
Such forecasts make more than fascinating cocktail party conversation, they also move commodities and futures markets, and affect the price of food you buy at the supermarket and your favorite restaurant.
To make those forecasts, NASS must survey more than 12,000 farmers a year. While some are done by telephone or mail, many are done in person by a small army of retired farmers who personally visit these farms.
These in-person surveyors, what NASS calls 'enumerators', are on average between 70-75 years old, according to Pam Hird, manager of NASS' iPad-based surveying program.
"Some of them are as old as 89 years old," Hird said in a webinar hosted by FedTech magazine last month. "A lot of them have never seen a cellphone or a computer before."
Most of them had been been doing the surveys using the same paper and pencil method that NASS has used for the last 150 years.
Not that NASS hadn't tried to move to computer-based surveying before. According to Hird, the agency began experimenting with laptops in the 1980s, before moving onto successive technologies such as PDAs, tablet PCs, netbooks, convertible laptops and more. None of them caught on, though, for various reasons.
None, that is, until iPads appeared 2 years ago. NASS officials liked its power and tidy form factor. So it wrote a app that turned its paper surveys into electronic forms that, for security reasons, are hosted in the cloud.
That was the easy part. Training octogenerian first-time computer users to use a cutting-edge mobile device - surely that took weeks or even months of effort?
Actually, it took just 13 hours.
Here's how NASS did it. It organized multi-day seminars where NASS instructors would first bring the iPad out for a one-hour demo, where enumerators could touch and feel the iPads. Hird says that was crucial to helping overcome the fear factor and resistance.
That is followed by 12 hours of formal classroom training. By the end of those two days, these retired farmers would be all trained up on the iPad and the app, said Hird.
(Check out NASS's Flickr photos showing attendees of its iPad workshops.)
The results have been very positive. NASS is saving money on printing and mailing the documents back and forth to the surveyors. The electronic surveys are also more complete and more accurate than the paper ones, which require the separate, expensive step of hiring professional typists to enter the data from paper into the computer system. That makes NASS' forecasts more accurate, meaning you're less likely to encounter a price shock next time you are at the supermarket.
The iPads are also faster and more convenient for the enumerators. According to Barbara Turtelot, an enumerator interviewed in this video, the iPad means "we don't have to fumble around with papers anymore."
According to Hird, NASS was able to cut 1.5 years off the its predicted schedule for training enumerators in 33 states.
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