EPA plans to widen public portal to environmental data

EPA officials, from left, Dave Wolf, Dave Catlin, Debra Villari and Julie Kocher hope to take the site nationwide soon.

David S. Spence

Federal and state data will be available on site for all 10 federal regions

The Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to expand its Window to My Environment portal to make more state and federal environmental data easily available to the public. As the project matures, EPA officials are beginning to extend the uses of the map-based tool to regulatory tasks as well.

The site, at www.epa.gov/enviro/wme, provides federal and state environmental information for four of EPA's 10 regions. EPA first rolled it out for Region 3'the Mid-Atlantic States'in January 2001. The site provides data for 25 states, said Dave Catlin, information management specialist, and officials expect to expand it nationwide by the end of the year.

Visitors can enter a ZIP code or city name to pull up a window that includes a digital map of the area showing rivers, political boundaries and roads. On the sides of the map are keys to environmental data that the user can overlay on the map, such as hazardous waste, Superfund locations and air emissions measurements.

Currently, the system provides data from EPA's data warehouse, EnviroFacts, for all states. As officials from the Information Access Division expand the system, it will present additional state data.

'We are using many geographic information systems techniques in the environmental window,' said Dave Wolf, the division's Web geoservices manager.

The federal data presented by Window to My Environment amounts to several dozen layers, officials said. 'We are trying to create different views and overlay the natural land cover,' Wolf said. That feature is available for Region 3 and will roll out nationally by the end of the year.

As the project adds data from state databases and other federal agencies, it relies on Web services technologies such as HTML and Extensible Markup Language.

Those standards allow the EPA system to tap the other agencies' data without managing it in the EPA's own database, officials said.

Access to data

In cases where the outside data does not conform to Web services standards and cannot be integrated directly with the system's GIS, the system presents the outside data as a chart on a statewide basis.

Window to My Environment runs under Unix on an Oracle8i database at EPA's National Computer Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The front end of the system was built in Microsoft's Active Server Pages.

'Our goal is not to manage the world's GIS data in this database, but to have access to it,' Wolf said. System managers rely on some data provided by ESRI of Redlands, Calif., via the Geography Network.

Debra Villari, associate director of the division, added, 'It is important to understand that there is nothing static about the data presented in Window to My Environment.' As a user shifts the site's map window to neighboring locations, the system recalculates demographic and other data presented on the site.

So far, the site has cost less than $2 million to develop, $400,000 of which was for the display. EPA hired Science Applications International Corp.'s System Development Center in Arlington, Va. to create parts of the site.

As the system matures, officials expect to use it to help prepare environmental impact statements required under the National Environmental Policy Act, said Julie Kocher, program analyst with the division. EPA officials could use the technology in 'a whole new approach to environmental decision-making,' Wolf said.

For example, officials could use Window to My Environment to calculate the distance of a proposed industrial facility from wildlife resources, flood plains or residential areas, he said.

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