Molly O'Neill | EPA the Web 2.0 way

GCN Interview

PEOPLE DEMAND good data, especially when it comes to matters of human health and the environment.

They get frustrated when it isn't easily available or if they feel it's incomplete or not organized in a way that's useful. So, not surprisingly, Environmental Protection Agency Chief Information Officer Molly O'Neill is intrigued by the new crop of Web 2.0 technologies that could help better deliver information and establish forums for the resulting discussions.


O'Neill spoke with GCN about a successful wiki-based pilot involving the Puget Sound Leadership Council in addition to the challenges agencies face handling large amounts of data.



GCN: What is unique about the type of data EPA works with?

MOLLY O'NEILL: We have a lot of scientific data, so for us, data standards are really important. We also have a lot of regulatory data ' that is, the data that industry gives to government. But we delegate much of the implementation of our regulations to the states. So the data goes from industry to the states to EPA. We have to ensure the data quality from the time the samples were pulled.

This is a role that the National Environmental Information Exchange Network plays. One of the most important things about the network is that it facilitates the exchange of the data among all the parties. The idea is that we don't touch it. It is all done in [Extensible Markup Language] and Web services. So we're not trying to reformat. We don't break interfaces or do double data entries, which may compromise the data quality or our decisions when we use this data for analysis.

GCN: So the exchange network is a bit like the DHS/DOJ National Information Exchange Model for environmental data?

O'NEILL: That's right. We were already starting to implement the Exchange Network when NIEM came along, so we were excited to see a very similar model. It is a little bit easier on the environmental side because a lot of our data is not sensitive.

EPA's point on the Exchange Network is the Central Data Exchange (CDX). We can leverage that infrastructure to communicate with other agencies now that we are doing Web services.

For example, for the new Import Safety program (www.importsafety.gov), we'll be using CDX to help move the data in and out of the new, federal Import Safety database.

GCN: What is EPA doing in terms of Web 2.0?

O'NEILL: We definitely have our toes dangling in the pond.

We are trying to figure out the policies and procedures for using Web 2.0 externally.

Let me tell you about the Puget Sound Information Challenge.

EPA's Office of Environmental Information hosts an annual symposium, which was held last November in St. Louis.

We invited staff as well as people from state governments, local governments, Indian tribes and industry to learn about new applications and to share what is going on in the agency.

I wanted to do something at this symposium where we could really understand the opportunities of Web 2.0. I put out some feelers ' I told people I was interested in trying some new collaborative tools on a real environmental issue.

A knock on the door came from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which was created to revitalize the ecosystem out there. They were trying to gather a lot of information for a strategic plan. ... We didn't have much time to do this. We set up a wiki right before the symposium started. We also had the head of the council do a video about the six key things the council was looking for. At the beginning of our meeting, I talked about information access and why it was important for EPA to do things a little bit differently, then I announced the challenge. We sent out e-mails that explained how people could contribute to the wiki.

This mass-collaboration effort spanned a 36-hour period.

In the exhibit hall, we had already planned to host a mashup camp, where every hour we would show people how to do mashups on different datasets.

So we decided to use the mashup camp as our staging area for the wiki. We had a form on the wiki site that you could download, fill out and send in. We also sent up an e-mail address and a phone number.

It was a little scary because we hadn't told anyone about this beforehand. What if no one contributed? That wasn't a problem ' we had so many people interested and providing useful information.

We had people building applications. National librarians were culling data for library resources. We had people help organize it. The interesting thing was to watch how many hits we were getting through social networking. People took my e-mail and sent it to other people, who sent it off to even more people. We had a blog from Germany weigh in. We had over 17,000 page views and 175 good contributions.

We learned a lot, and we delivered something as well ' in fact, several of us are going to Seattle to meet with the council to talk about these tools. They have to write a strategic plan, so maybe they could write a strategic plan with the wiki online. Instead of spending months trying to gather data, they could do it a lot faster using social networking.

GCN: What are the next steps?

O'NEILL: Internally, we're creating a sandbox for Web 2.0 tools, which we'll launch in February so we can learn a little bit more about how to work with Web 2.0 in the public realm. It is different from managing static Web pages. How do we moderate content? How do we craft jobs for this? If people can contribute, you need to moderate it.

We gave EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock a briefing on the Puget Sound Information Challenge, and they got very excited about the possibilities of what we could be doing. Who knows, maybe one day these collaborative mass communications could be used for regulations that are coming out. There's a whole process we have to do when we promulgate rules, but these new tools could allow us to get other people involved earlier in the process.

They won't replace the rulemaking process, but they could provide opportunities for more people to contribute.

GCN: Why do you think federal agencies have such a hard time disseminating information on the Web?

O'NEILL: For us, there are three reasons. One is that there is such a huge demand. We have so many stakeholders who want information in different ways.

People can't get enough environmental information. And if they can't find it, they get upset.

Sometimes the taxonomy is confusing.

Another issue is some of the data is stored in older databases.

It is harder to disseminate to people. As we update our old data systems, we are architecting in a way to more easily get the data in and out.

But the third reason is that we tend to organize data in a way that it makes sense to us. Although this is changing a little bit now, at EPA we still primarily organize our data by how we are organized as an agency. People outside the agency don't think of things that way. They get frustrated because they want all the information about a subject, like climate change or environmental indicators. So where do they go? We're doing a lot to improve search on our site. When you do a search on the main page, it will give you folder options. When you type in 'waste water,' it will organize by folder topics like stormwater or industrial effluent.

Also, because we're science-based, we get spelling issues or problems with chemical names.

Someone might search for 'trichloroetheline' instead of 'trichloroethelyne' and get totally different results. Therefore, we're doing the 'Did you mean?' feature, similar to what Google provides.

But we also need to think about how we organize, present and disseminate data. One of the things we are doing here in my office is to start a national dialogue where we'll go out and ask people how they want us to disseminate our information.

We know we're going to get different ideas from different focus groups, but we need to hear them. And this will help us write a plan for addressing the issue of better information access. It's not just how the Web site is designed but how we service or disseminate the data. Do we want more e-mail lists? RSS feeds? We need to ask about those kinds of questions. The hope is that we'll make some helpful changes along the way.

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