April 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 2 // Ideas at Work // 2IAW1

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Maintaining the Relevance of an Extension Data Center

The proliferation of desktop computers and powerful analytical software has not eliminated the need for an extension data center (EDC). Instead, it is the evolution of those technologies that have served as a driving force for EDC to justify its existence by taking on diversified, new, proactive roles in supporting customers on several fronts. From pure data processing and statistical analysis, EDC's role has expanded to encompass software and Web technology training, graphics and text scanning, diskette duplication, network monitoring, and Web-content management. This article discusses how a small data center managed not only to avoid obsolescence but also to grow and cope with the increasing demand for support in various areas of computer technology.

Jose Reynaldo A. Santos
Extension Information Technology
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Internet Address: j-santos@tamu.edu

Diann M. Mitchell
Extension Information Technology
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Internet Address: d-mitchell@tamu.edu

Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas

Data Center (EDC) of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service has evolved from the old State Management Information System planning unit of the late 1970s that supported a national and state information database system, to a center that supports statewide Extension computing in Texas today. By present standard, EDC is small, consisting of one programmer/computer specialist, one microcomputer specialist, and three data entry operators.

Initially, EDC's role was confined to data entry and statistical analysis, which catered to the needs of the county agents, extension associates, and specialists. Years ago, one could just imagine the flurry of activities generated by numerous individuals handling numerous projects with varied and sometimes competing deadlines and with all the data going to one place, the EDC. It must have kept those massive mainframe computers busy at Texas A&M University campus.

Today--with the advent of fast, low-cost computers; powerful statistical software; affordable scanners; and smart optical character recognition technology--who would need the services of EDC? It seemed certain at first glance that EDC was headed to obsolescence. This article discusses how a small data center managed not only to avoid obsolescence but also grow and cope with the increasing demand for support in various areas of computer technology.

Primary Mission EDC was originally conceived to support the State Extension Management Information System (SEMIS). Major projects included:

  • monthly reports,
  • affirmative action,
  • specialist scheduling,
  • salary analysis,
  • soil and forage testing, and
  • 4-H youth and leader enrollment.

While Web-based reporting and the use of customized software have practically replaced most of the traditional project summarization system, EDC still handles major program surveys, including:

  • health and nutrition,
  • food safety,
  • wildlife management,
  • wildlife education,
  • water quality,
  • driver and passenger safety,
  • credit use and management,
  • delivery of health education programs,
  • parks and tourism, and
  • 4-H enrichment programs.

Interest + Informal Training: Keys to Learning

Activities at EDC come in spurts characterized by periods of high demand (peaks), when project deadlines are getting close, followed by lulls of inactivity (off-peaks), usually occurring after the deadline dates or just after the end of fiscal year. It is the off-peak periods that present opportunity for EDC staff not only to break from the tedious routine of data processing but also to learn new skills through self-study and attendance at seminars and demonstrations.

EDC staff can also receive on-site training by working with faculty mentors who are well experienced and recognized experts in their own fields. Areas to choose from include:

  • HTML coding,
  • Web design and Web-content management,
  • digital photography,
  • graphics design and scanning,
  • WordPerfect® training,
  • PowerPoint® training,
  • Perl® and other script language programming,
  • database programming, and
  • network administration.

If resources are available, an EDC staff member can even put up his/her own server to test any newly learned skill that requires one.

This type of "informal professional development" has been highly encouraged in the department and is one of the reasons why faculty and staff members are kept highly motivated and professionally challenged. Consequently and as expected, each EDC staff member pursues different area(s) of interest resulting in a highly diversified team.

A Helping Hand

Currently, the Extension Information Technology (EIT) unit has the mandate to support the computing services requirements of the entire Texas Agricultural Extension Service, covering 254 counties under 12 geographic Extension districts. With 10 campus-based and 6 field specialists to cover the entire state of Texas, our resources are usually stretched to the limit and are thinly spread. Obviously, EIT has to be resourceful to provide the most efficient service to those who ask for it.

The field specialists are the front end of our presence in the counties, and, with increasing number of networked computers and installed software in the county and district offices, they receive a proportionate increase in computer service calls and skills training requests. While the field specialists easily handle most of the service calls, a request for skills training is sometimes too much for a specialist to provide alone due to time constraint.

Oftentimes, it is the campus-based specialist and a volunteer EDC staff member who come in to assist the field specialist in conducting the training. As volunteers, some EDC staff have the capability to do WordPerfect®, PowerPoint®, HTML, text/graphics scanning, and PhotoShop® training, all because they have shown the initiative to develop themselves professionally. Others help out in other ways, such as network installation, monitoring, administration, and maintaining/updating the user database for our GroupWise e-mail system.

Room to Grow

As computer technologies mature, disappear, or are replaced by better ones, the survival of support entities like EDC depends upon their ability to capitalize on those constantly changing technologies to create new sets of opportunities for their members. Equally essential is continued support from management to provide "horizontal leeway" for staff members so that they have that extra "legroom" in which to grow. There is always a need for opportunities to try and experiment how easily and effectively staff members can learn and adopt computer-related skills for themselves and for sharing with others.

To encourage participation in such "self-education," an incentive system must be in place such that those who have shown the extraordinary resolve to master and share those new skills are duly recognized and rewarded as resources permit. Indeed, that is a small price to pay for people who dare to take on added responsibility on top of what they are expected to do.

Looking Ahead

As the needs of Extension clientele change, so do the needs of Extension Service faculty and staff for whom EDC provides direct support. While it is not expected that the need for data entry and data analysis will disappear altogether in the immediate future, a dynamic organization, even one as small as EDC, should have a blueprint showing how it would like to evolve or where it wants to go.

For example, the growing interest in using geographic information systems (GIS) in Extension programming will provide an opportunity for EDC to take on a new function. As the repository of many Extension-related survey data, EDC could train on adding spatial dimension to current data sets and eventually offer essential GIS services. Because EDC has been doing data processing for years, such a new function would be a natural progression from and a beneficial extension of its core responsibilities.


The Extension Data Center of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service would have ceased to exist had it remained stagnant and adhered to its original mission. While developments in computer technology have resulted in some of EDC's original projects being removed from its mandate, the same developments have also provided excellent opportunities for its members to continue to grow professionally by acquiring new skills.

Such informal training has brought about a highly diversified group of individuals who have enriched EDC's talent pool, from which various kinds of expertise can be drawn from as the needs arise. This enhances EIT's ability to respond to training requests without requiring additional personnel and increases the relevance of EDC as a support section of EIT.

There will come a time when current EDC services will be overtaken by developments in technology and/or affected by changes in customer needs. When and if that time comes, EDC should be able to respond appropriately and swiftly by taking on new function(s) as a way of infusing new life in itself.


WordPerfect®, PowerPoint®, Perl®, and PhotoShop® are registered trademarks of their respective owners.