The Identification Technology Program [ITP] supports USDA APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) in its mission “to safeguard U.S. agriculture and natural resources against the entry, establishment, and spread of economically and environmentally significant pests and facilitate the safe trade of agricultural products”. It strives to keep PPQ’s digital identification resources current through the delivery of a variety of innovative, scientifically valid, digital diagnostic resources to individuals responsible for screening and identifying taxa that pose a risk to U.S. agriculture and natural resources, and to U.S. trading partners.
ITP develops these diagnostic resources by collaborating with taxonomic experts from around the country and the world and providing training and technical support for the development of quality products. At of the end of 2022, the number of DIT resources developed by the ITP team are summarised in the table below.
Summary table: numbers of keys, diagnostic aids, fact sheets, images, and more, developed through ITP.
Screening aids for state surveys (pdf
Identification tool (ID tool) websites
During 15 years’ experience developing DITs, ITP staff have developed a 5-step checklist, described below. It aims to ensure the DIT product is relevant to biosecurity decision makers and is achieved cost-effectively.
The ITP DIT development process
Stage 1 – Identify the problem and audience
- Several decisions should be made early in the process, having determined the pest group for which a DIT appears appropriate. First, is the taxonomy of the group in question resolved, or does it need work? If the taxonomy of the group is well-defined, the project may only require a literature search, and may be achievable with relatively few resources. However, if the taxonomy of the group in question requires extensive study, consideration needs to be given to breaking down the project into stages to allow the time required to resolve these taxonomic issues.
- Project staff should identify potential funding sources early in the planning process. Government funding sources may be limited, or may be based, on prioritized pest lists, recent detections, or the type of product delivery. An awareness of funding sources early in the process is important; it may significantly impact the project’s scope or coverage.
- Clearly defining the biosecurity problem and identifying the intended audience is critical. Is a screening tool or a verification tool required? Is it for seasonal technicians, or highly educated professionals? Is the tool for use offshore, at point of entry, for industry, or domestic use? Each user group will have different requirements for content and delivery. Clearly defining the goal of the tool, or the problem the tool is trying to solve (and for whom), will help to focus on what will be needed to deliver a resource that will help solve the problem. Defining the scope of the tool involves not only the taxonomic coverage, but also the target audience.
Stage 2 – Determine the delivery format and features required.
- Digital tools can be delivered in several ways, including interactive websites, downloadable pdfs, and mobile applications, depending on the needs of the targeted user(s). Field-focused resources might require a more portable format, while lab-focused tools may not.
- Content will also be dictated by the need being addressed. Screening tools make different content or support available compared with verification tools. For example, tools that that require compound microscopes or molecular methods to help identify specific pests are probably best delivered as a website.
- Resources for use in field surveys might be best deployed as mobile phone applications that can be used on handheld devices in areas where internet access is unavailable.
- The taxonomic needs of the audience may also require different features, such as an interactive gallery, a true identification key, or video tutorials.
Stage 3 – Scope relevant experience required.
- With the taxonomic coverage, target audience, and tool delivery defined, the next task is to scope the relevant experience required to complete the tool. Specialists in the target group may be needed to help create the content, and potential users should be recruited for testing, since tool users will generally not be specialists in the group covered by the tool. Technical web or app development support may also be necessary. Consideration of how to keep the resource up-to-date will be needed as technical support needs are identified.
- Setting boundaries for resource coverage and scope (and sticking to them), is essential for timely delivery of a useful identification resource. When feasible, ITP tries to limit the entity list to 100 to be achievable in an annual funding cycle. Mitigating circumstances include the amount of taxonomic work, imaging, and molecular work that a tool will require. For instance, many of the ITP web-based or mobile app products include an interactive key, fact sheets, images, and additional supporting content.
- Including all these elements for a numerically large pest group often requires more work than realized, much of which is tedious and time-consuming. It is crucial to find a way to break large projects into manageable parts to be developed and completed over several years.
Stage 4 – Form a development team, create a work plan and timetable, and confirm funding.
- An effective project must have staff specifically dedicated to each task in the project. Project staff must create a detailed work plan with goals and due dates, and then follow that plan.
Stage 5 – Manage process, product testing, release, monitor and update as needed.
- A project manager, or a precise schedule, helps ensure all the tasks and objectives of the project are completed in a timely manner.
- Beta testing is important to verify the accuracy of the content and the usefulness of the tool for its intended audience.
- Many staff and interested individuals have an expectation for websites to be up-to-date compared with paper-based resources. Thus, it is also important to incorporate a schedule for updating in the project plan.
- The 5-stage process described above has helped ITP successfully develop many individual digital identification products, aimed to address specific needs over the last 15 years. With this process in place, ITP has more recently shifted focus toward improving the systems behind the products.
- For instance, as mentioned earlier, ITP developed Fact Sheet Manager, an online content management system, based largely on Fact Sheet Fusion, to provide ITP’s digital tool authors with an easy way to upload their fact sheet data to an online relational database. That database is connected directly to the front-end website for the identification tool users, which allows for real-time updates. Fact Sheet Manager not only allows authors to collaborate over long distances; it also enables them to update their fact sheets more easily, without needing to understand how to edit a web page. Having all the fact sheet data in one place also offers flexibility for the future; with greater access to trusted data, future identification tool builders can easily grab that data to repurpose it for their own identification products.
- A fully integrated online system that supports the development of high-quality identification resources, from start to finish, helps to streamline some of the most time-consuming and challenging parts of digital identification tool development. ITP continues to focus on products that allow users to upload new data or reuse existing data to create identification aids to meet a wide variety of needs and then post them for linking and sharing with specific audiences.
- As some of the stumbling blocks for developing online identification tools are addressed, resources become more available to focus on supporting integration of existing DITs with those produced by other organizations. This includes increased standardization of image quality and techniques, identification of key features and states, and fact sheet topic content fields.