Everyday, citizens read about pollutants in the environment that impact their health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been monitoring pollutants, setting environmental standards and enforcing environmental laws since 1970; however, interpreting and providing environmental data that the public can easily understand has always been a challenge for the Agency.
On Earth Day 2009, EPA launched a Web-based application called MyEnvironment ( www.epa.gov/myenvironment ). This application allows the public to select a specific geographic location and retrieve a cross section of environmental data pertaining to the location – releases and emissions by regulated facilities, Superfund hazardous waste sites, brownfields and ozone forecasts.
MyEnvironment provides a community-based picture of environmental information and allows a concerned citizen to identify whether mercury, or some other chemical in the news, may be present (stored, handled or emitted) in the facilities around them. Links to factsheets and Web sites with information about how this chemical may impact human health and the environment are provided and offer details about what individuals can do to protect themselves from exposure to the chemical.
A search query executed in MyEnvironment delivers structured and unstructured data from EPA and other Agencies that are related and assist in interpreting the locational search results. While the map identifies where chemicals are present, a refined search taps into EPA’s database of frequent questions and our Substance Registry System that holds a broad set of scientific information about chemicals and offers public access-oriented chemical factsheets.
MyEnvironment brings together information from nearly a dozen EPA databases that contain facility compliance and violation histories and identifies the amounts of chemicals that are released. With a simple mouse click, basic demographic statistics are generated around each facility and can be saved in a variety of formats depending on the users’ need.
The underlying technical solution is a combination of streamlining and indexing the source Oracle database and applying a single search term (pollutant name) to a variety of EPA and other search engines and databases to get back a rich result set. The search term is applied against the structured spatial data (EPA regulated facilities) and also against the unstructured library, FAQ, chemical factsheet, and other resources. This simple and elegant search solution delivers results from dozens of web sites and saves clicks. This is one way of demonstrating the Agency’s embrace of the new level of transparency desired by the new administration and by the public.
Even before launch, EPA program offices supplying the underlying data expressed an interest in relying on MyEnvironment to satisfy their data’s public access requirements. It is expected that the application will address data requests that typically come to the Agency via Freedom of Information Act inqueries. As for supplying the public with information they can use, this tool reduces the number of clicks to information and does this via an intuitive and up-to-date user interface.
Kim Balassiano is an Information Management Specialist with EPA’s Office of Environmental Information (OEI). Kim has been with OEI since 2007, and she spent the prior 14 years in the private sector as a GIS and spatial analysis specialist, primarily supporting EPA. Her work has always been in spatial analysis and in developing IT solutions that leverage spatial technologies. Kim also worked for two years with a remote sensing company (3001, Inc.). She received her Master’s degree in Geography from UNC-Chapel Hill and has an undergraduate degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Kim directed the development of the Watershed Wiki component of Watershed Central and has been a leader in bringing Web 2.0 infrastructure to EPA. EPA now has over 90 blogs and wikis to support both internal operations as well as public collaboration.
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