Todd E. Schroeder: Supplying USDA with data to help vanquish agricultural pests


( Todd E. Schroeder )
December 31, 2013

Armed with data, Todd Schroeder helps the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) take aim at enemies of the United States—pests and diseases that enter the country in shipments of agricultural products and those that crop up at home.

With so many products crisscrossing the globe, the USDA is moving toward a risk-based approach so it can protect as much agriculture as possible with limited resources.

“You can’t do everything,” Schroeder said. “But what you can do needs to be grounded in data and information and what provides the most value to the American public.”

The U.S. imports more than a billion plant products each year and inspectors can’t possibly comb through them all in their quest to prevent pests from getting a foothold here. Schroeder and his staff help the USDA manage and access critical historical information and new data collected daily by agricultural inspectors.

“If it’s the right setting, a pest hitching on a commodity from another country could establish itself here and become very harmful and cause a loss to farmers’ productivity,” said Schroeder, director of Business Systems Management at USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS).

Non-native pests such as the Asian Longhorned beetle, for example, cause about $136 billion in lost agricultural revenue annually, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The data Schroeder maintains support an ever-changing constellation of information about pest biology, climate around the world, distributors’ names and more, allowing inspectors to target shipping containers most likely to contain destructive pests and keeping inspectors current on what the risks are at any given time.

For example, guavas only grow certain times of the year in Mexico so the risk of pests or disease associated with containers of Mexican guavas vary by season.

“That data and information can be powerful if we can pull the most insight from it and turn that data into information so decisions can be made,” said Schroeder.

New technologies also are enhancing the agency’s ability to mine data across disparate systems, allowing data analysts to glean better insights into ever-changing trouble spots.

On the export side, the discovery of a new pest can affect the U.S.’s ability to sell its agricultural commodities. By providing pest program staff easy access to the best data, Schroeder helps them learn how extensive the infestation is, establish quarantines and develop a management plan for eradication and control.

“If a farmer in Idaho wants to ship a potato to Japan, we have to ensure that commodity is pest-free and meets their requirements,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder is good at helping the inspection service’s business side make better decisions, figure out what pests pose a risk and what they don’t have to worry about, according to Ginger Murphy, assistant deputy administrator for Plant Protection and Quarantine within APHIS.

“He’ll take an IT challenge and boil it down to its essence so people who are not IT-inclined understand the issue and how to resolve it, or what the options are to resolve it,” she said.

Schroeder has led efforts to standardize the extensive data and make it more user-friendly by allowing inspectors to link it more easily by commodity, geography and the type of pest. He also is playing a critical role ensuring that data analysis is part of the way the inspection services does business and embedded into the organization’s culture.

This requires changing long-term practices, getting employees to adopt more efficient processes and a commitment from leaders to help the organization use technology well.

Schroeder started consulting for the inspection service while in the private sector. He discovered the people there were doing interesting work that provided a lot of value and he wanted to join them.

“It was the culture of how they worked and did what they were doing that made me want to work for the government,” he said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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