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Plant Protection Today - Data-Driven Safeguarding

Data-Driven Safeguarding
June 29, 2020

How PPQ is Using Big Data to Protect American Agriculture

By Heather Curlett

Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) leaders within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are asking some pretty heavy, mission-critical questions: Can we predict the next big invasive pest? Can we forecast how it might get here or how we could stop it before it ever reaches our shores? Can we find the optimal solution for managing a domestic outbreak before it happens? PPQ’s advanced quantitative analysts are using big data to find the answers.

Advanced Analytics Help PPQ Gaze into the Future

PPQ's advanced analytics team is currently working with experts across the organization and a university partner to monitor spotted lantern fly’s spread in Pennsylvania and Virginia and develop a targeted treatment strategy.“Our business is managing risk,” said Science and Technology Associate Deputy Administrator Ron Sequeira. “Advanced analytics has the potential to help us anticipate future plant health challenges and explore options for addressing plant health issues as they are emerging, and in some cases, before they ever happen.”

PPQ’s analysts are using statistics, data mining, simulation, and optimization to predict future events or discover patterns that would be otherwise undetectable. These techniques are helping them discover the cause of events, predict the consequences of continuing trends, and anticipate what may happen next.

“Last year we piloted a team of advanced quantitative analysts, and they did a fantastic job of identifying priority projects that promise to strengthen our pest exclusion work,” said Sequeira.

As a result, the analytics team already has a long list of projects to work on. For example, they will analyze trends in pest interception data and examine links between that data and pest epidemiology, transportation networks, and other variables. The team will use the results to better predict risk and other factors, such as the potential for actionable pests to follow key import pathways into our country. They will also make recommendations to the PPQ Management Team on how PPQ can better use analytics to safeguard American agriculture and ensure safe trade.

PPQ Turns Data Into Action

Dashboards, like the one shown here, offer an easy-to-view and informative way to see how a domestic program is performing.PPQ’s analysts have also been working to give decision makers greater access to high-quality, readily available domestic pest program data. This includes creating new reporting tools that will help senior leaders and program managers turn that data into smart and effective action.

“PPQ’s data has a story to tell, and we’re helping to give it a voice,” said Matt Royer, Associate Deputy Administrator for Field Operations. Royer and Samantha Simon, Executive Director for Emergency and Domestic Programs, are championing PPQ’s Domestic Data Improvement Initiative. They’ve formed a working group that includes PPQ employees from across the organization, and representatives from the National Plant Board, a group of plant regulatory officials from all 50 States plus Puerto Rico and Guam.

The group has four goals:

  • Improve domestic pest program data quality;
  • Increase electronic data collection;
  • Improve data accessibility; and
  • Enhance data reporting.

Already, the group has defined a set of core data for more than a dozen domestic programs. They’ve also implemented a data-profiling process to identify and address inconsistencies and anomalies in data. And, they have approved the use of three data collectors to make data collection more efficient.

Now the group is focusing on modernizing PPQ’s systems so that data can be easily drawn from multiple sources and pulled into an integrated, accessible platform. This approach will allow PPQ to use robust reporting tools that can support more data-driven decisions.

“Web-based mapping and dashboards allow us to view multiple data sets at once and see how a pest program is performing,” said Simon. “These tools are helping to make PPQ a more nimble organization and ensure we’re using our resources to their maximum effect.”

This spring, PPQ used electronic reporting tools and GIS mapping software to monitor progress during the emergency response and eradication effort for Ralstonia solanacearum race 3 biovar 2. This serious plant pathogen could threaten high-value nursery and specialty crop production.

“These tools transmitted survey and test result data from the field as our inspectors collected it,” said Simon. “This helped us map survey locations, track eradication progress in near real time, and pinpoint additional locations for inspection based on risk.”

The data-driven emergency response eradicated the pathogen in just 2 months.


The United Nations declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health(IYPH) and then extended the celebration through July1, 2021. This worldwide campaign is promoting the value of our precious plant resources and the need to safeguard them against invasive pests. To celebrate IYPH, each month Plant Protection Today is highlighting how PPQ safeguards America’s agricultural and natural resources against invasive pests, and facilitates the safe trade of agricultural products. Read our article on IYPH to learn more—and how you can join this once-in-a-lifetime event!

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