waterways

GCN Awards

EPA site taps a deep well of water data

The Environmental Protection Agency has maintained public databases on the condition of rivers, lakes and streams for decades. But until about a year ago, anyone who wanted to get at that data faced a labyrinthine process, either devising search queries to try to navigate the databases or resorting to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Project at a glance

Name of project: How’s My Waterway?

Office: EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds/Office of Water

Technology: jQuery, jQuery Mobile, JavaScript, JavaScript Object Notation, AJAX, Cascading Style Sheets, HTML5, Esri ArcGIS and ArcGIS Server, Google Analytics, Microsoft Bing Maps Location API, Oracle, Oracle Spatial

Time to implementation: Less than a year

Before: Hard-to-read technical reports on the condition of the nation’s waterways, buried inside hard-to-navigate databases, sometimes only retrievable via FOIA requests.

After: Plain-language reports available in seconds via PC and mobile platforms, searchable by ZIP code, place name and, in the case of mobile devices, geolocation.

Even if people got to the reports they were looking for, they might have trouble deciphering them, since the reports were highly technical, written by scientists for scientists. 

EPA changed the equation in October 2012 with the launch of How’s My Waterway?, a platform-independent website and mobile application that works with PCs, tablets and smartphones, offering plain-English reports on whether a body of water has been assessed, if it’s polluted, and if it is, what’s causing the pollution and what’s being done to clean it up.

Concerned about a local stream where the dog likes to swim? Enter the ZIP code into the site’s Choose a Location search window and it will return a list of rivers, streams and lakes in the area. Click on the stream’s name for the report. Want to know about a lake that’s right in front of you? Type the lake’s name into the app on a smartphone, or use the site’s Use My Location option, and, if the phone’s HTML 5 geolocation feature is authorized, the site will find the device, identify the lake and return the results. 

For those who want to take a deeper dive into the scientific breakdown, each result also includes links to the technical reports, as well as links to related sites concerning topics such as beaches, drinking water and fishing. 

Project leader Doug Norton, a watershed scientist in EPA’s national Office of Water, noted in a blog post that he regularly uses the agency’s technical databases, but that, “even I had trouble answering the simple question: ‘How’s My Waterway?’,” because the data in those systems wasn’t intended to provide quick answers. “Chances are, most people would be baffled by EPA’s complex databases and scientific information,” he wrote.

Norton and a multidisciplinary team created the site in less than a year as part of the agency’s Water Data Project public outreach effort. Among the tasks they faced were making sure of the regulatory accuracy of their information, translating it into plain language and building a single site that would work across PC and mobile platforms and browsers.

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They used a variety of software tools, from the jQuery Mobile framework and ArcGIS Server to JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets to build the site. And because they wanted to avoid new hosting costs, they repurposed EPA Web servers to host and deliver the interface, a GIS mapping server to support the geolocation widget and relational database software to host the data and Web services.

The site launched officially on Oct. 18, 2012, as part of EPA’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Within a month, it was often getting 1,000 users a day, EPA said, among them public safety crews, travel agencies, educators and environmental groups, along with everyday people.

The team includes Margarete Heber and Patty Scott of EPA’s Police Communications and Resource Management Staff, Alice Mayio of the agency’s Monitoring Branch, Laura Johnson of the Coastal Regulatory Branch, Tracy Kerchkof of the Project Management Office, Julie Reichert and Tatyana DiMascio working with the Watershed Branch, and Brad Cooper and Steve Andrews, contractors with software development company INDUS.   

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