Dec 31 2009

Data on Demand

Learn how EPA's new response center tackles environmental emergencies.

The fall of 2001 hit the Environmental Protection Agency with a one-two
punch. Just as EPA was immersing itself in the cleanup of the September 11 terrorist
attacks, a series of anthrax poisonings was spreading along the East Coast. As first
responders sounded alarms and sought information about how to handle these new
threats, the old tools for responding to environmental emergencies showed their age.
"One thing that really became clear was that we needed to build a better data
management capability," a senior EPA official concedes.

This realization set in motion an
effort that came to fruition last fall
when the EPA opened its expanded
Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
A high-tech environmental war room in
EPA's Washington, D.C., headquarters,
the EOC is a central gathering point for
environmental data from more than a
dozen EPA databases.

In the event of a terrorist act, oil
spill, chemical plant fire or some other
emergency, a custom application called
the Emergency Response Analyzer
(ERA) gives EOC personnel the
information they need to make decisions
without overwhelming them with
an incomprehensible dump of data.
Instead, EPA officials see the most
important facts and figures organized
in easy-to-comprehend maps with layers
of essential information.

"Environmental problems, which are
inherently geographic in nature, require
analysis in map formats to portray
the complex spatial relationships between
the dangerous condition and the affected
populations and resources," says EPA
CIO Kimberly Nelson. "The ERA enables
us to quickly visualize impacts from
environmental emergency situations."

Providing Policy and Direction

In the two-plus years since the terrorist
attacks, EPA hasn't been asked to help in
emergencies as catastrophic as those in
2001, but it still receives a steady stream
of alerts—as many as 3,000 a year. About
a tenth of these reports require an
emergency response from headquarters.
The EOC helps officials in Washington
provide policy and program direction to
regional EPA offices, as well as to state and
local officials.

Previously, data came from unconnected
databases, and communications relied
on phones and fax machines. Today,
however, a central control room at
the EOC manages both audio- and
videoconferencing equipment and acts
as a communications hub linking an
executive conference room and a dozen
PCs. The control room can send
information displayed on any of the
PCs to any other workstation, the
conference room or a 10-panel video
wall in the main operations room.

The ERA often appears on those
screens. A custom version of a commercial
Web mapping tool, it displays detailed
topographical, aerial or street-grid maps of
any location in the country. EPA tailored
this application with the help of its
Systems Development Center contractor,
Science Applications International.

Through a series of mouse clicks, users
can integrate and visualize data layers,
including population densities, schools,
hospitals, waterways, flood plains, major
transportation routes, hazardous-waste
storehouses and Superfund sites. The
information comes from EPA databases
and commercial services.

"Using the maps, you can go directly to
the site of an event," explains Debra
Villari, the associate director for the
Information Access Division of EPA's
Office of Environmental Information. "You
can assess the situation by asking which
people may be affected and what sensitive
environmental conditions are in the area."

Although integrating data from
disparate sources can be a challenge,
ERA developers accomplish this task
by using the unifying capabilities of
the EPA's integrated geospatial data
environment. Within the ERA, each of
the individual EPA databases—which
physically exist at an EPA facility in
Research Triangle Park, N.C.—provide
separate information layers.

"The ERA reaches out to access all of
our databases, as well as data services
both inside and outside the agency that
are relevant to an incident response,"
says Dave Wolf, EPA's Web geoservices
team leader.

Adding Layers of Security

For now, ERA information is confined to
an EPA intranet blocked from outside
connections by firewalls. But the agency is
working to implement Secure Socket Layers
technology to extend the application to
an extranet that will link other agencies,
such as the Federal Emergency
Management Agency and the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.

When security is attained, there will be
no technical limitations on who could be
networked into ERA and the EOC, says
Joe Anderson, team leader for the ERA
project. "It might go all the way down to
individual firehouses," he says.

When combined with wireless Internet
connections—another goal waiting for a
more solid security solution—first
responders will have the same
information that is available to officials in
the EOC war room.

"They'll be able to figure out what
could go wrong and keep it from turning
into a bigger event," says Kathleen
Jones, assistant director of the Office of
Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and

Disclaimer: The information provided in this
article does not constitute an endorsement by
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of
any nonfederal entity, its products or its

Crisis Data

EPA officials can
click on Emergency
Response Analyzer
icons to get key
data that's essential
in an environmental

Protection Agency


EPA's e-gov guru discusses the initiative's problems and potential.

Richard Otis, deputy assistant administrator in the Environmental Protection
Agency's Office of Environmental Information, manages the agency's
e-government activities under the President's Management Agenda.

A federal government professional for more than two decades, Otis began
his first stint at EPA in 1980, later logging time at the Office of Management
and Budget and as a legislative fellow for Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). Today,
Otis helps EPA spearhead the governmentwide E-Rulemaking project, an
initiative designed to increase citizen involvement in the regulatory process.

Otis spoke with Fed Tech about the cultural and resource challenges
facing e-government initiatives, and how to overcome them.

Q: In June 2002, you said there are
people who get e-government
and people who don't because they're
stuck in a paper-based world. Two
years later, has anything changed?

Otis: Broadly speaking, probably not,
but in specific areas, light bulbs have
been going off. One of the challenges
is that technology folks are not
familiar with business processes,
and most regulatory people don't
understand techno-jargon. But they're
beginning to see some of the things
technology can do that they never
thought were possible.

Last year, for example, the Office
of Environmental Information made a
presentation to the agency's senior
management. We demonstrated how
certain IT proposals will help the
agency better achieve its mission. It
was interesting to see long-standing
senior managers recognize that new
IT and e-gov services can help us
manage information in ways we never
could before.

Q: A number of federal
mandates are
pushing e-government. In
addition to the incentives
you've mentioned, is there
an obvious business case
to do this?

Otis: In theory, it seems
obvious that if you
eliminate redundant
investments by a number
of agencies for upgrading
systems such as payroll,
you'll ultimately save
money. Governmentwide,
you'll find savings. But
some agencies may end up spending
more to add a new service or switch
to a new system. How do we address
the concerns of an agency that, in the
name of the greater good, may spend
more than it would have over one or
two years? I think there's a growing
recognition at the OMB and with all of
us involved in interagency projects
that some citizen-centric e-gov efforts
are indeed new services, and they
don't necessarily come with an
equivalent reduction in cost—at least
not in the short run.

Q: How would you grade federal
agencies on their willingness
to collaborate on governmentwide

Otis: Is it working perfectly all the
time? No. Have we made progress?
Yes. I think there's a growing
recognition at all levels that we must
work together and that there are
valuable, practical benefits to that.
It's a change management issue.

We are successfully developing a
culture of working together, where
people find they share more than they
thought. When we get people from
federal agencies together as part of the
E-Rulemaking project, we hear things
like, "I didn't know you're doing that,"
or "I've wanted to do that for years."

We've unleashed some pent-up
creativity. Rule writers in their own
agencies stew over problems they
know won't get resolved because the
problem isn't big enough for their
institution to deal with. All of a sudden,
they see a light at the end of the
tunnel, because four other agencies
have a similar interest, and together
they can find the resources to solve it.

Q: Now that the E-Rulemaking site
is up, are people going there to
make comments on regulations?

Otis: Only the first part of the project
is up at Initially,
the number of comments wasn't that
high, but we've seen some important
growth lately.

Disclaimer: The information provided
in this article does not constitute
an endorsement by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency of
any nonfederal entity, its products or
its services.