Into the Wild: How the U.S. Forestry Service Went Agile

To give state-of-the-art digital tools to the visitors who explore America’s forests, the Forestry Service embraced agile.

For the land’s owners, a treasure trove of natural beauty and recreational opportunities await right in their backyards: more than 193 million acres of pristine forests and grasslands offering plentiful camping, hiking, fishing, boating, skiing and more.

The owners are the American taxpayers, and it’s the job of the U.S. Forestry Service (USFS) to manage the public land and guide them in how best to enjoy its bounty. In 2014, to help the system’s 148 million annual visitors navigate these vast wildlands, the USFS created its very first Interactive Visitor Map (IVM).

But, like most government agencies that are finally—and slowly—emerging from the digital dark ages, the USFS struggled to master the development challenges involved with the map’s development, for which it used a rigid waterfall process. The final product was flawed, unwieldy and painfully slow, according to Aaron Stanford, Senior Application Coordinator at the USFS.

“It was a start, but its performance made it almost unusable,” Stanford admits. To fix the map’s bad UX, the agency decided it needed to take an agile approach to building the next version.


Looking for “Epic” Functionality

The USFS’s shift to agile began with the IT contractors that the agency relies on to support its internal development team. For years, the USFS narrowly defined the specifications of each project, leaving private-sector bidders little room to innovate. Recognizing the limitations of this tack, the USFS decided it was time to give contractors more creative latitude.

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In 2015, the USFS hired a project manager from Quantum Spatial—the winning bidder for the IVM 2.0 project—as well as developers from a few other companies. They joined forces with a 20-person crew of internal USFS stakeholders, comprised of data scientists and IT engineers, as well as road, trail and recreational site managers.

Quantum Spatial proposed an agile approach to the project. The USFS, which had already begun dabbling in agile in pockets of the organization, readily agreed.

Once the team defined high-level goals for the project, they turned them into “epics,” functionality targets that they further broke down into specific “user stories.” (An “epic,” for example, might represent the identification of all cabin rentals, while a “user story” might represent a Colorado family renting a cabin within a day’s drive of Denver.)

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Working in two-week sprints, the team delivered a minimum viable product at the end of each cycle. A stream of new versions kept business managers in the loop, ensuring that they were happy with the map’s functionality and performance along the way. This also gave the team more flexibility to fold new ideas into the product quickly during the dev process.

“Simplicity and speed were more important than adding bells and whistles,” says Stanford. “We had to constantly remind ourselves of that as we wanted to add more stuff.”

Even so, the team was able to build in new functionality on an ad hoc basis, whenever it made sense. Case in point: The USFS had always wanted to give visitors the ability to download maps for use offline, but found the tech involved daunting. Then, one day during a scrum, someone suggested using geospatial PDFs, which extend the base PDF format to include geospatial coordinates. That lets users see their locations on the map while offline, in remote forest areas with no internet service.


Next Steps Toward an Agile Forestry Service

The radically improved IVM 2.0 won the 2016 Forestry Service Chief’s Honor Award and it is now one of the agency’s most visited sites. The success of its agile process has since led the agency to consider adopting it more extensively.

“Since this project, we have been involved in new efforts to explore how to make agile processes more available across the Forest Service," Stanford says. He envisions a mixture of agile development both in-house, within USFS departments, and in collaborations with outside contractors.

My hope is that a more agile approach can leverage innovation that happens during the lifecycle of the project and deliver more benefit to the taxpayers.

— Aaron Stanford, Senior Application Coordinator, USFS

“My hope is that a more agile approach can leverage innovation that happens during the lifecycle of the project and deliver more benefit to the taxpayers,” says Stanford.

As the team weighs even more innovations for the next version of the IVM (such as a smoother interface and more functionality in its offline use), it plans to build on the success of its agile experience. The big takeaway for the USFS from its deep dive into agile? While the desired destination may be clear, you need the right strategy—and a good map—to reach it.

Danny Bradbury
By Danny Bradbury | May 30, 2018