EPA's meta(data)-morphosis

2008 GCN Award winner: Geospatial metadata system puts agency's extensive information stores to use<@VM>SIDEBAR: Project team customized the system on the go

ORGANIZATION:
Environmental Protection
Agency, Office of
Environmental
Information.


PROJECT: Standardize
and automate the creation
and management of
geospatial data.


CHALLENGE: Provide
common methods for tagging
data so it can be
shared more easily within
EPA and with other agencies,
including local governments,
while meeting
federal metadata
standards.


SOLUTION: Used ESRI's
ArcCatalog and GIS Portal
Toolkit to develop an EPA
Metadata Editor and
GeoData Gateway that
standardize content creation
and centralize it in an
integrated repository.


IMPACT: Saves $200,000
annually on labor costs of
metadata management
while getting better use of
geospatial assets and
meeting federal and interagency
requirements for
contributing to Geospatial
One-Stop.


DURATION: EPA developed
a federally compliant
metadata standard and the
GDG in 2005, and the
EME was released in April
2007 after a nine-month
beta launch. A major
upgrade is planned for this
month.

GEOSPATIAL INFORMATION, with its
intimate marriage of geographic imagery
and data, has become more than a mainstay
of environmentalists, educators and landuse
planners. It is a homeland security
must-have, the interactive map that directs
first responders to where flooding is worst or
helps terrorism analysts determine which
dams and power plants are most vulnerable.




To be useful, geospatial information must
be accessible to a wide range of users. To accomplish
that, you need metadata, files that
describe the contents of other files. The government
affirmed the need with a 1995 executive
order and again in 2002 with an Office
of Management and Budget circular
that created the Federal Geospatial Data
Committee (FGDC), charging it with implementing
national metadata standards.

But by 2005, even the Environment Protection
Agency, perhaps the premier data
generator and user, didn't have its act together.
'There was not a single access point
for EPA's geospatial resources, which meant
that agency staff members could not obtain
a comprehensive view of EPA's geospatial assets,'
said Molly O'Neill, chief information
officer and assistant administrator of the Office
of Environmental Information (OEI).

EPA lacked the documentation and
policies needed to meet its own ' let
alone FGDC's ' metadata standards.

OEI set out to build a comprehensive
metadata sharing and management framework
that would be equal parts policies and
procedures, user outreach, and technology.
The latter serves to enforce and support the
former, and it centers on a GeoData Gateway
(GDG) and EPA Metadata Editor
(EME). Because ESRI's ArcGIS platform is
widely deployed in EPA, its product line was
the obvious choice for the new applications.

With the new architecture, workers can
easily publish their data to the central
catalog or have it automatically exchanged
and synchronized across repositories, which are complete collections that
have already met EPA requirements.

A favorite tool is the Data Delivery Extension,
a feature of GIS Portal Toolkit that the
team customized to simplify access to external
data sources. Its ability to extract a subset of
the national database in a fraction of the previous
time proved critical to EPA's Chicago office
during the deadly Midwest floods last
spring, said Matthew Leopard, chief of OEI's
information services and support branch.

'When you're dealing with an emergency,
you're going to only want that area,' Leopard
said. 'It reuses our data in a way that's never
been done before. The implications are huge.

'One of the best things we've done recently is
tie into external Web services,' Leopard added,
citing Microsoft Virtual Earth as an example.
'It's very fast, very robust and really presents a
nice interface.'

Model users

O'Neill said GDG and EME have become recognized
as models for comprehensive metadata
management. 'The EME has been downloaded
by over 1,400 users and deployed by
states and other public communities,' she
said.

Foreign countries have sought EPA's metadata
expertise, Leopard said. Internally,
geospatial analysts no longer work with incompatible
data, and they retain control over
assets in the repository.

'The overall reports have been just glowingly
positive,' said Jerry Johnston,
EPA's geospatial information officer and
the user community's representative on
the project as chairman of its GIS Working
Group.

'It takes away the mystery of what you're
supposed to do, not only to meet the federal
requirements but also making data available
to your colleagues.'

Usability and searchability are vastly improved.
'Before, we had static Web pages
filled with links to documents,' Johnston said.
'Now we have a more modern, database-driven
system that's searchable.'Although the Environmental Protection
Agency already used ESRI's ArcGIS,
the agency's metadata project team
faced hurdles in a geospatial project,
especially in customizing software to
meet EPA requirements.




An early adopter of ESRI's GIS Portal
Toolkit, EPA was among the first agencies
to discover some of its shortcomings,
including its metadata editor's noncompliance
with the Federal Geospatial
Data Committee's requirements.

The team's solution was to adapt a
three-tab desktop extension to
ArcCatalog that Idaho's Coeur D'Alene
tribe had developed. A second, completely
rewritten version of the resulting
application, the EPA Metadata
Editor (EME), added a Microsoft
Access database to populate fields in
the user interface, making the database
more easily customized while providing
more instructions about metadata procedures.
It also has a spell-checker and
EPA validation service and was written
on Microsoft's VB.Net development
platform to accommodate a Web-based
user interface.

In addition, the toolkit's map viewer
didn't recognize some services and
sometimes choked on large datasets,
said Michelle Torreano, project manager
at EPA's Office of Environmental
Information. 'We're still trying to work
some of that out,' Torreano said.

The team expressed pride in successfully
tying the GeoData Gateway into
the agency's existing single sign-on
security infrastructure. The capability
is important in managing assets by
securely dividing internal private data
' some of which has national security
implications ' and public data.

To get the geospatial system working,
EPA deactivated the feature in GIS
Portal Toolkit and used Oracle's
COREid federated identity-provisioning
software to establish group policies,
said Jessica Zichichi, vice president of
geospatial sales at Innovate, the company
that consulted on outreach, training
and procedures development. 'They
modified the database to be able to
have an extra flag on records that said
they could be either internal, or internal
and external,' Zichichi said.

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